Saturday, July 02, 2011

This year Linda and I took a detour through Poland before I flew into Dnepropetrovsk. Touring the former Mennonite settlements in Poland with noted genealogist Alan Peters helped us put Mennonite history in context. We certainly saw similarities in architecture and noted that the significant economic contributions by the early Mennonites in the Vistula Delta were repeated by those who migrated to Southern Russia. In both areas many Mennonites felt compelled to leave to continue practising their beliefs and those that remained behind were forced to accept the new political realities.

Now after spending nearly a week in Ukraine - without Linda who is back in Victoria - and having been in Poland for almost two weeks, I notice a striking contrast between these two former Soviet states. The standard of living in Poland is noticeably higher, and there does not appear to be the grinding poverty one can find in Ukrainian village life. Cars are newer, pollution is not as obvious, and buildings appear to be in far better condition. While roads are passable in Poland, in Ukraine they are impassable. The problem is that most Ukrainians are unaware of this.

Is this because Ukraine is closer to the West and a member of the EU? Partially, but I feel there are more significant factors. Poland had forty-six years of communism, Ukraine seventy-four. More significantly, Poland did not experience the same upheaval of collectivization and the purges that precipitated collectivization in the 1930s. Not only did this destroy the family based system of agriculture in Ukraine, it also took away the people, particularly men, who had the ability to manage, to innovate - in short leaders at the local and national level. Riding the train from Warsaw to Krakow, one could see the well-ordered farms with diverse crops running in long, narrow, straight lines. While Ukraine is anticipating a very good crop this year - good rains have blessed this week - the organization and ownership of land holdings continues to be in dispute twenty years after Independence. In addition while both countries suffered in ways that cannot be imagined during WWII, Poland had a stronger history of being a unique country compared to Ukraine, which at times seems to be the younger sibling, still somewaht attached to Russia.

When you consider that all older Ukrainians can quickly list a handful of lost siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, you are amazed at their resilience, their faith and their committment particularly to their grandchildren. I have yet to meet a Ukrainian babuska who wouldn't give up her pension so her grandchildren can continue in school. We have much to learn from these bent over, head covered women.

Ben Stobbe in Molochansk

School in Nikolaifeld Ukraine

Early Mennonite House of Worship in Elbing Poland


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