Wednesday, 27 April 2011


Every country is good at celebrating something.  Ukraine is good at celebrating Easter.  We decided to participate in their Easter celebration to the fullest and enjoyed every minute.


I grew up eating paska because that is just what my mother made at Easter.  I knew it had a Ukrainian origin but never understood the proper ritual and practices surrounding it.  Every store and street vendor was selling paska in Molochansk on the Saturday before Easter.  If we bought one, we would get a wag of the finger from the vendor admonishing us about something or other.  We started asking questions.

The Orthodox Church encourages its members to observe the rules of the Lenten fast.  That is, they are supposed to abstain from meat or animal products during the six weeks preceding Easter.  Easter morning is a joyous occasion when they celebrate the risen Lord by breaking the fast and eating the prohibited foods.  The Saturday before Easter is a busy day when people bake and decorate the paska and colour the eggs. Paska contains a lot of eggs and milk and even the traditional icing for the paska contains egg white.

Easter Eggs

We celebrated Easter with Art and Marlyce Friesen from the Friends of the Mennonite Centre Board in Canada.  Saturday evening at mid-night we were at the Orthodox Church in Molochansk.  It wasn’t really a dark and stormy night, but it was so dark it felt that way.  Marlyce had a small flashlight we used to navigate our way from the car, over the ditch, through the gate and up the steps of the church.  Once inside, there was light and we could observe the service.  People were arriving in a steady stream.  The women were all carrying baskets covered with a specially decorated towel.  The baskets contained their decorated eggs and paska.  These were brought to the church to be blessed and were placed on a special table.  Mary and Marlyce looked like “mumtches” with their required head coverings.  There are no seats in an Orthodox Church and we stood there listening to the chanting and the harmonic singing of the choir in the background.  My sense was that the people around us were worshipping in ways I do not understand.  The service goes till sun rise.  We left at to get some sleep before our regular church service at at the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church.  The finger wagging we had from the vendors was telling us not to eat the paska before it had been blessed.

“Christ is risen”, was the happy greeting from everyone Sunday morning.  It is amazing how quickly you can learn to understand that expression in Russian.  This continued to be the greeting for several days.  At the senior’s lunch on Tuesday at the Mennonite Centre, one elderly gentleman came up to me, shook my hand, and said in Russian, “Christ is risen”.  I understood him without an interpreter and was happy to give the official response in English and say “Christ is risen indeed”.  We both felt good about the verbal exchange as well as the knowledge that we were both celebrating the risen Christ.  I suspect that the gentleman may have seen me at the Orthodox service and came over to connect.

Vincent Klassen Family

Another week and another embassy visit.  Vincent Klassen and his family stopped in for a brief tour.  Vincent works for the Canadian embassy in Berlin and decided to come to Ukraine to explore his roots.  His real interest was in the Chortiza area but the Canadian Ambassador in Kiev, a friend of his, insisted that he had to visit the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk as well.  It is good to have friends in high places.

Friday produced a visit of a different sort.  Two burly policemen stopped by for a visit.  They did not smile but asked who we were and somewhat surprisingly asked how they could help us.  Mary told me that the police looked uncomfortable when I started taking notes – as I have been doing for all meetings.  One of them kept looking around the room as if he was checking for cameras.  We were very uncomfortable.   Felt like we had a visit from two goons trying to practice their public relations skills.

Saturday was another one those days I will never forget.  We went to a local orphanage to hear a program put on by the young people from the Kutuzovka church.  There are over 500,000 children in orphanages in Ukraine.  These could be children whose parents have died or they were abandoned.  At the age of 18, they are required to leave the place and fend for themselves.  They have no life skills and no connections outside the orphanage.  It is estimated that approximately 10% of them commit suicide in the first year.  The others frequently lead a life of crime or prostitution. 

Orphan with Pet Bug

With that information as background, it is easy to understand the reaction of children at the orphanage to a car load of foreigners arriving at their place.  We were soon surrounded by clambering friendly faces – each trying to get as close to us as possible.  They would look right into our eyes with their big eyes and smile as if to say, “Please take me”.  No translations were required.  Many of them have fetal alcohol or developmental problems.  Others look like the kind you would just love to have as grand children.  You end up asking yourself, does anyone in the system care?  The Mennonite Centre has helped out the orphanage on a number of projects to improve their facilities.  A lot more needs to be done for the long term welfare of the children.


Sunday afternoon, the Kutuzovka Church had a picnic at the Mennonite Centre.  Dema Bratchenko, the centre manager was asked to cook a large pot of “plov” – a food originating in Uzbekistan.  It contains pork, rice, oil, and lots of garlic.  It took 3 hours to cook over an open fire.  We enjoyed the meal.

Have spent several days looking at local medical services with our guests, Art and Marlyce Friesen. They are both doctors in Canada.  We toured a number of hospitals and nursing stations in villages looking at how the Mennonite Centre could assist them.  There is a major challenge in trying to understand their system.  I have been assured that I will never understand it and that we need to help anyway.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:

For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer:

Thursday, 21 April 2011


I have worked for 38 years for the Manitoba Government and thought I understood something about bureaucracy.  It has been taken to a whole new level in Ukraine and I still have a lot to learn.  There is a real scarcity of government resources in Ukraine when it comes to doing something positive for its citizens such as repairing a poor road. However there is no shortage of those same resources when it comes to controlling its citizens.  Some examples may be of interest.

The Mennonite Centre has provided a school bus for Svyetlodolinskoye, one of the former Mennonite villages in the Molotschna area.  The bus was due for its technical inspection.  As the bus is still legally owned by the centre, we were involved in the process.  On Saturday morning, the assembled crew was on hand to see if this could be accomplished.  The essential crew consisted of the mayor of Svyetlodolinskoye, the bus driver, another essential person from the village as well as Dema Bratchenko and myself.  I will acknowledge that I was not really essential but rather curious about the process.  All possible documents were assembled and we were off to the appropriate police department in Tokmak with the bus and the Mennonite Centre’s car.  Dema figured we had a less than 10% chance of completing our mission without coming back to find some other required document and that it would be faster to do this in a car. The police department was quiet – the door was locked and there were a few clients waiting.  After an hour’s wait, we were told that no one from the police would show up that day.  The previous day had been National Road Police Day and the police were still “recovering” from their celebrations.  The entire crew will have to be assembled for another attempt.  The second attempt still has only a 10% chance of being successful.

Another frustrating bureaucratic experience of the last week was dealing with the changing ownership of the Mennonite Centre’s car.  There has been a lengthy dispute regarding a fee that should be paid when the centre had to change the registered ownership from one individual to another.  (Why the centre has to register its car in an individual’s name is another bureaucratic story.)  After numerous phone calls and several trips to Tokmak, we felt the dispute was settled when we paid the requested fee of $2.50.  It may not be settled and may even require a trip on our part to Zaporozhe to get more documents.  Always more documents.

The frustrating part of these experiences is the terrible drive to Tokmak over a road that has more pot holes than actual pavement.  The cars weave and bounce and frequently hit bottom as they navigate this treacherous road.  One day we had 2 flat tires on that stretch of road as a result of bending the rims in a sharp pot hole.  Just using the salaries of a few useless bureaucrats would have been enough to finance the reconstruction of the road. That is not the way a former civil servant should be speaking but ….

There were also many positive moments in the week.  The Kutuzovka Mennonite church is starting the construction of a new building in Molochansk. Most of their attendees live in Molochansk and have to be transported by bus to Kutuzovka.  The church had purchased a lot and we were present as a group of volunteers gathered, had a prayer of blessing on their construction project, and started the cleaning operation to prepare the site.  A lot of old concrete was being smashed and no one had any safety protection for their eyes.  The part of our job description that says, “Show up and see what needs to be done” came into play.  Went to the local hardware store and inquired as to the price of safety goggles.  They were under $1.00 a pair.  We bought the six pairs that they had in stock and distributed them at the construction site.  They were well used and no eyes were injured.

Had a short visit from two Canadian families exploring their Mennonite roots in the area. Both families were from the Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman) congregation.  The women were more conservatively dressed and the men both had beards, as is the custom in that church.  One of the families is working in the Ukraine city of Kharkov as missionaries and the other family was visiting from Canada.  It was amazing that they knew which villages their ancestors had lived in as they are descended from Mennonites who immigrated to Canada in the 1870’s.  Their story has obviously been passed on for many generations.  We had a very pleasant visit with them and Dema stated that he is considering converting to their faith as it will save him the effort of shaving every day.

On Sunday afternoon Mary and I went for a pleasant drive in the countryside.  Spring is here and the grass has turned green.  We were looking for storks and found a large nest.  As we approached the nest, the storks became concerned and flew away.  We got some great pictures and then left the area to minimize the disruption of their lives.

Tuesday morning we were back in Tokmak for a meeting of the Advisory Council on Community and Social Services; on which the Mennonite Centre has a seat.  It was a major meeting involving the regional councilors (deputies they call them) voting on several important issues.  For Dema, the high light was seeing a motion pass that would create a 30 bed seniors care home in the Molochansk hospital.  The space is sitting unused at present.  He has been fighting for this for awhile. 

The meeting was memorable for Mary and I also for a very different reason. One of the councilors got up to read a motion and as she went past the head table, she casually borrowed the eye glasses that the chairperson was wearing.  He relinquished them without any fuss.  No one thought anything of it.  In Canada, it would be the equivalent of the Governor General having difficulty reading the Speech from the Throne and walking over to the Prime Minister to borrow his glasses.  It would make the national news.  I am glad I wasn’t asked for my glasses as I know I would have hesitated and caused an embarrassment.  I am still learning.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:

For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer:

Friday, 15 April 2011


Every week has been filled with new experiences.  This past week was no exception.  We left last Wednesday evening for an overnight train ride into Kiev.  There were a number of meetings and errands to attend to.  We travelled with Dema, his wife Oksana and their 3 children.  Our accommodation in Kiev was arranged in a traditional Mennonite fashion.  We were going to stay with Oksana’s parents and her sister in their apartment for five nights. For a group of ten people, we got along very well.  Oksana’s parents went out of their way to make us feel comfortable – even giving up their bedroom.

Friday was an important day.  We had received a formal invitation to attend the opening of a Mennonite display in the Great Patriotic War Museum (World War II for the rest of us).  The irony alone made it worth the trip.  The display was called “Passing on the Comfort”.  It told the story of a Mennonite lady in Holland during and after World War II who used quilts made by Mennonite ladies in the United States and Canada to assist the many victims of that war.  A few of the original quilts have survived and were the basis for the display.  The lady was An Keunig-Tichelaar and is currently 89 years old and still living in Holland.  It is worth reading the story at

Dutch Representative

US Ambassador

The exhibition was officially opened by the US Ambassador as his embassy had provided the funding.  There was also representation from the Dutch, German, and British embassies.  It was a very formal occasion.  Mary, Dema Bratchenko, and I were formally recognized in the crowd as representing the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine.  We had our picture taken many times.  We had a chance to meet the US Ambassador as well as the Dutch representative.  We presented them with some gifts (books and music CD’s) that had been sponsored by the Mennonite Centre and invited them to visit us in Molochansk.  Took advantage of the opportunity to tell the US Ambassador that we were going to Kansas in June to meet some of my American cousins.  It turns out that he and his wife had roots in Kansas and wanted to know where my cousins lived.  I have his permission to pass on greetings to my American Mennonite cousins. 

On Sunday afternoon we were invited to the home of Robert Koop and Natalia Zavarzina.  They both work in the Canadian Embassy.  We had gotten to know them when they stopped in the Mennonite Centre on the previous week to explore their Mennonite roots.  We determined that Robert and I both have a great-grandfather by the name of Johann Sudermann and that they lived diagonally across the street from each other in 1917 in the village of Alexanderthal in the Molotschna settlement.  We cannot confirm that we are related. 

The invitation from Robert and Natalia was for lunch, but they served us a full meal.  We felt royally entertained.  The conversation at some point turned to working in Molochansk and Robert expressed an interest.  Dema jokingly told him there was an opening for a night watchman.  Robert turned to Natalia and asked, “Would you move there with me”?  Her answer was very touching when she said, “I would move anywhere with you”.  Mary and I were both reminded of the verse, in the Book of Ruth, where Ruth tells her mother-in-law, “Where you go, there I will go….”   It was beautiful to see such devotion, especially in a position such as Foreign Affairs where people are forced to move all over the world and couples frequently have to make a choice between being with their partner or looking after their career.  Maybe the Canadian Government will open a Consulate in Molochansk someday.

My fame as a chef in Ukraine is spreading.  On Sunday evening, Oksana’s family requested that I cook my famous stir fry that they had heard about at our banquet in Molochansk – this time with the chicken.  We ate in shifts in their kitchen.  What else could they say – they enjoyed the meal.

Canadian Ambassador

At on Monday we had a private meeting with the Canadian Ambassador.  This had been arranged by Robert and Natalia.  I was amazed how informed he was on Mennonite issues.  He has been a guest at the Mennonite Centre and Dema had a good opportunity to explain the role we play in our area.  He was also familiar with the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) and their work in the Melitopol area.  He has even attended a MEDA conference in Calgary.  It turned out that he had also worked at the Mexican Embassy at one point in his career and knew about the issues that Mennonites faced in that country.  He was somewhat uncomfortable in trying to diplomatically describe the difference between his perception of Canadian Mennonites and Mexican Mennonites.  Being a diplomat, he was successful in choosing his words carefully.

For our last dinner in Kiev, Mary and I decided to thank Oksana’s parents for their hospitality by taking everyone out for a night of fine dining that all ages would enjoy.  We ordered two taxis for the 10 of us and were off to McDonald’s.  If you think that there is a contradiction in this, then you do not understand something about Ukraine.  McDonald’s is relatively expensive for the local population and to go there is a treat.  It was a unique experience for them  It was also a unique experience for us as Mary and I have never before gone to McDonald’s in a taxi.

The trip home to Molochansk was relatively uneventful.  We left Kiev at on Tuesday and were in Melitopol by .  Our pre-arranged van was there to pick us up.  We were stopped by the police as we entered Molochansk.  A van full of Mennonites at in the morning does look suspicious.  The police were unable to find a problem and had to let us go.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:

For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer:

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Gala Concert

All our energies for the past week have gone into preparing for Saturday evening.  This was planned as a special evening for the leaders and shakers in Molochansk.  They would be served a fabulous meal, listen to a professional music concert, and be presented with a special challenge from the Mennonite Centre.  This was a new concept for Molochansk. 

The idea for the evening was first proposed by our manager, Dema Bratchenko to the Board of the Mennonite Centre in Canada.  The objective was to introduce the concept of taking ownership for supporting your own community to the leaders in Molochansk.  The Mennonite Centre has taken on this role, but it needs broader support in the community.  The concept of volunteerism and charity are foreign ideas in Ukraine.  The Board supported Dema’s proposal and agreed to provide matching funds to any charitable initiative coming from the community leaders.

The banquet was held three weeks after we received Board approval.  It was an ambitious project.  Dema arranged for the Director of the School of Music in Tokmak to bring some of his best students and provide the concert.  They have a tight schedule and once they were booked, the evening was set.  We identified all movers and shakers in Molochansk.  Together with their spouses this numbered just over 20 people.  This included the mayor as well as a number of directors of public institutions and some business people.  A problem arose when we tried to establish the menu.  It turned out that we had committed ourselves to a banquet during the period of Lent when some members of the Orthodox faith would be observing the fast – that is, they would be abstaining from all meat and animal products.  Apparently there have been tensions in the past when those observing the fast publicly refused any food with meat and were judged by others as appearing to be more pious.  We did not wish to have this tension distract from the objective of the evening.  It was decided to have a uniform meal for everyone that was consistent with the rules of the fast.  Essentially we were going to have a vegan banquet.

Dema was determined that we were going to have a beautiful and tasty meal.  His choice for dessert was brownies.  Mary and Oksana (Dema’s wife) spent an evening trying to experiment with brownie recipes that did not require eggs or dairy products.  There were a number of failures but one recipe seemed to work.  Mary brought it to work the next day and the entire staff at the Mennonite Centre assembled at the morning break to test its suitability.  There was no reluctance to criticize.  Our test product had nuts on top.  When I suggested that this may be a problem for those suffering from allergies, I was jokingly informed that all people in Ukraine with that problem had already died and therefore we need not worry about it.  Ira, our cook, was very concerned with presentation.  She started detailed planning on how to cut the brownies in circles and to decorate them in an attractive way.

The main course was a bigger challenge.  While Mary and I might have tried a tofu dish, this was not understood by the staff.  As it might have looked like a meat, it was decided that the main course had to appear to be vegan as well as actually meeting that criteria.  After a sleepless night for our cook and a fruitless evening for myself of searching the web, I proposed that we serve a vegetable stir fry in a thickened soy sauce.  I had made this at home many times and knew the recipe from memory.  We could make some substitutions for the usual meat products.  I was invited to test my idea.  After some quick purchases in Molochansk, Mary cooked some rice and I prepared a stir fry in a large pot.  Again all the staff assembled to pass judgment on our creation.  Instead of eating it right away, the group spent 15 minutes analyzing its presentation and deciding exactly how the vegetables should be arranged on the bed of rice.  It was fascinating to watch.  Finally we were ready to eat.  Mary had put some dried parsley in her rice to give it flavour.  It was decided that the rice had to be pure white.  It was also unanimously decided that the carrots in my stir fry were too hard and should be pre-boiled.  Otherwise the suggestion was accepted.  With two days to go, we finally had a main dish for the menu.

The evening itself went very well.  We had 12 distinguished guests including the mayor.  People even came on time.  A decision on whether or not to open with God’s blessing was resolved when Dema suggested that I say grace.  If anyone was offended, they could always blame the foreigner who obviously did not know any better.  I was strictly forbidden to take any pictures, as this would have been intimidating for our guests.  Fears from the Soviet time are still present.  The staff was decked out in their finest serving uniforms.  Even a night watchman was outside to ensure that cars were not vandalized.  This is all part of a special evening in Molochansk.

After the dinner and an excellent music concert, Dema gave a short presentation based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It starts with the basic needs to live and reaches the top through self actualization where social interaction and helping others end up providing their own reward.  I finished the evening with a challenge from the Board.  The Mennonite Centre would provide matching funds to any charitable project that the group identified and supported themselves.  The message was well received.  A director of one of the schools commented that they needed to learn about charity.  There were also some expressions of regret from those who missed the evening.  Everyone wanted to see the Mennonite Centre sponsor an evening like this again.

Other things happened in the last week also.  We had an unofficial visit from two members of the Canadian Embassy, there were the usual number of petitioners asking for assistance, the seniors in the area got fed at their weekly luncheon, and Dema taught the computer club how to create cartoons.  We also enjoyed the two hour worship service on Sunday morning at the Kutuzovka church.  Even if we cannot understand the language, we sense God’s presence in the congregation.

On Wednesday evening we leave for Kiev.  We have a number of significant meetings lined up and I will report on the trip in my next blog.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to:

For information on the work of the Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) in Ukraine, you can see an excellent Ukraine Youtube video produced last fall by a Winnipeg Mennonite film producer:

You can click on any picture in the blog to enlarge it.

Alvin and Mary