Russlaender 100 Tour

Ukraine’s past, present come together

Nataliya Venger is participating in “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100.” (Photo by John Longhurst)

For Nataliya Venger, a participant in the “Memories of Migration: Russaender Tour 100,” the hardship and suffering faced by Mennonites a century ago at the hands of the Soviet Union is unfortunately part of her own life today.

Venger is a refugee from Ukraine, having fled the fighting in June 2022.

Back home in Ukraine, she researches Mennonite history in that country as a professor at Dnipropetrovsk National University.

Now she is continuing that research as a visiting scholar at the University of Winnipeg. Her time in Winnipeg is made possible by funding from the D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation.

Venger’s daughter is safe in the U.S., but her husband is in the Ukrainian military fighting the Russians.

Her interest in Mennonites began in the early 1990s when secret archives containing files about Mennonites in Ukraine were opened to researchers.

That’s when she was sent by a professor to one of the regional archives to learn more. It was then she first learned about Mennonite life in Ukraine.

“After two weeks, I understood that it would become the subject of my life,” she told Canadian Mennonite in 2022.

“Mennonites were a small group, but they were involved in everything. Their [path] indicated all the changes in the Russian empire. I see so many connections with the history of the Ukrainian people,” she said.

Her research into Mennonites in Ukraine led her to conclude, “I can’t understand the history of Ukraine without the Mennonites’ presence . . . their history and the history of Ukraine is entangled. Whatever happened to the Mennonites happened to Ukrainians.”

Now, as part of the tour, Venger is looking forward to meeting some of the descendants of the 21,000 Mennonites who left Ukraine between 1923 and 1930.

“I want to hear their stories,” she said, noting the Mennonites she has met are “always ready to tell their stories.”

Based on her experience with Mennonite tour groups in Ukraine, Venger expects participants in this tour will end up being a “very close community” by the time it is over.

And while she is enjoying the tour so far—meeting people, seeing the sights in Quebec City—it is tinged with a bit of sadness when she thinks about what is happening in Ukraine today.

“I am always checking the news,” she said. Her house is “still standing,” but that could change any moment due to Russian bombing.

She is also thinking about her husband, Oleg.

“I don’t know where he is or how he is doing,” she said quietly, noting that, due to military secrecy and his role in the fighting, he is unable to stay in regular touch with her.

“I hear from him occasionally,” she said.

Tour participants and others will get a chance to hear Venger speak about her research at “The Russlaender Mennonites: War, Dislocation, and New Beginnings,”(link is external) a July 14-15 conference sponsored by the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Venger will speak on the topic, “The Mennonite Verband and Soviet Power in the 1920s: A Game on a Razor’s Edge.”

John Longhurst is a freelance writer from Winnipeg who is blogging about the tour.

How the CPR helped Mennonites

The Canadian Pacific Railway (now known as Canadian Pacific Kansas City) played an important role in the creation of Canada. It also played a key role in the coming of Mennonites from the Soviet Union to this country 100 years ago.

That’s why participants in “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100” are taking the train from Quebec to B.C. as part of the July 6-25 tour to commemorate the arrival of more than 21,000 Mennonites from 1923 to 1930.

The journey that brought Mennonites to trains in Canada started in 1917 when the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia. Their harsh rule brought hardship, starvation and persecution to Mennonites (and others) in that country. They turned to their coreligionists in North America for help.

In Canada, the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization was organized to provide assistance. In the early 1920s, it approached the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) with a proposal to transport Mennonites from Russia to Canada on credit, using the CPR’s ships and trains.

The CPR approved the request and, over the next seven years, more than 21,000 Mennonites came to Canada with help from the railway. The total cost was more than $1.5 million (more than $26 million today).

Extending that credit was a gamble for the CPR and for the Board of Colonization. Each Mennonite family who travelled to Canada on credit under this agreement promised to pay back their Reiseschuld (travel debt).

The documents in the photo are for the travel debt incurred by Peter P. Klassen and his family (wife, Helene, and son, Dietrich) when they came to Canada in 1926. (Photo courtesy of Mennonite Heritage Village)

The railway felt confident about repayment, knowing Mennonites were hardworking and trustworthy. But the Great Depression made things hard for many, especially for farmers, and some found the travel debt to be a burden. 

By the 1930s, the debt had increased to $1.7 million due to interest. The CPR and the Board of Colonization renegotiated the debt, with the CPR agreeing to cease charging further interest. The last of the debt was paid in 1946.

The CPR no longer operates passenger trains in Canada; that service is now operated by VIA Rail.

But over the next few weeks, descendants of those immigrants will commemorate their journey by taking a symbolic train trip across Canada to commemorate that great migration.

First published at

John Longhurst is a freelance writer from Winnipeg who is blogging about the tour.


Cross-country train trip to mark 100th anniversary of Mennonites coming to Canada from Soviet Union

For Immediate Release

Cross-country train trip to mark 100th anniversary of Mennonites coming to Canada from Soviet Union

July 6-25 Memories of Migration tour to go from Quebec City to B.C.; in Manitoba July 13-16

WINNIPEG, Man. — One hundred years ago, the first of 21,000 Mennonites who left the Soviet Union boarded a train in Quebec City for new lives across the country.

On July 6 some of their descendants and others will replicate that journey when they board a train for a trip that will go all the way from Quebec City to Abbotsford, B.C. as part of Memories of Migration: Russlaender (Russian Mennonites) Tour 100.

Through the tour, which is in Manitoba July 13-16, participants will re-enact the historic migration of the thousands of Mennonites who left communities decimated by violence and tragedy in the Soviet Union to come to Canada between 1923 and 1930.

For Conrad Stoesz, archivist at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg, the tour is important for people whose Mennonite ancestors came to Canada in the 1920s.

“These anniversary events will help explain why they are here,” he said. “It will help explain who they are. For people on the tour itself, this event combines places, narrative, and expertise for an unparalleled experience.”

At the same time, the influx of some 21,000 immigrants to Canada from the Soviet Union “cannot be understood without recognizing the out migration of Mennonites from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Mexico and Paraguay due to government pressures to assimilate,” he added. “These two migrations, in and out, significantly changed the Canadian Mennonite community for ever.”

In addition to the train trip, which will find participants enjoying lectures, presentations and music along the way, the tour will include a gala sponsored by the Canadian Pacific Kansas City Railway in Montreal.

In Manitoba, there will be an academic conference featuring award-winning authors in Winnipeg, along with a visit to the Steinbach Mennonite Heritage Village and a July 15 public Sängerfest, or hymn festival, at the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall.

They will also have opportunities to learn about interactions between the Mennonite immigrants and Indigenous people, including the impact of their migration on Indigenous communities in western Canada.

Altogether, about 123 people have signed up for one or all three segments of the tour (Quebec City to Kitchener, Toronto to Saskatoon and Saskatoon to Abbotsford).

Organized under the auspices of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, together with Canadian Mennonite scholars and heritage enthusiasts, the tour will celebrate the faith of those newcomers 100 years ago, memorialize the challenges they faced as new settlers in Canada, and acknowledge their impact on Indigenous people. For more information about the tour, or for an interview, contact Conrad Stoesz at 204-560-1998.