In 1536, Menno Simons, a Catholic priest in Friesland, concluded that Rome’s doctrines were wrong and that he could not continue in that life in good faith. Like others in the growing Protestant movement, he had studied the Bible in search of the truth and found in its pages no support for the Catholic doctrines of infant baptism or transubstantiation. He joined the radical Anabaptist movement even as it was being violently suppressed by the authorities, and soon had his own following, who called themselves the Mennonites. True to their belief that Jesus taught pacifism and forgiveness, Anabaptists, including Mennonites, did not attempt to defend themselves. Deaths soon numbered in the thousands. Burnings, stonings and live burials are all commemorated in Martyrs Mirror of 1660, which is for many Mennonites still the most important text after the Bible. People moved great distances to find safety. Over the centuries, Mennonite communities migrated from the Netherlands to West Prussia, to the south-west Russian Empire, now Ukraine, to Canada and the United States, to South America. Russian Mennonites were persecuted under the Soviet authorities as kulaks, then as presumed collaborators with the invading Nazi forces during the Second World War. There were mass deportations to Siberia and Kazakhstan, and many perished in the Gulag. After the fall of the USSR, most of the survivors of these shattered communities left for Germany.
Adam Foulds is a poet and novelist. He was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013 and the Poetry Society’s Next Generation Poets in 2014.
He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2010. His most recent novel, Dream Sequence, was published in 2019.
Photograph © Charla Jones
‘Very often, family memories from Soviet citizens who lived through the first half of the twentieth century are limited to a couple of letters, and perhaps one or two photographs or documents, hidden in a biscuit tin or tucked away in an old briefcase up in the attic.’