Friday, 17 May 2013

Week 7 & 8 A Mennonite Cossack

In Ukraine, jokes about Cossacks are as common as jokes about Mennonites in Manitoba.  Have you heard the one about the Cossack guide who was taking a Mennonite visitor from Canada on a tour?  As they left Zaporozhye by car, the traffic lights turned red and the Cossack driver sped up and went charging through the intersection.  The Mennonite passenger was totally shaken and yelled at the driver asking why he did such a dangerous thing.  The Cossack calmly shrugged his shoulder and replied, “Because I am a Cossack”.  The next intersection the light was also red and the driver just charged through at full speed.  By the third intersection, the Mennonite passenger was already bracing himself for a crash, when the light suddenly turned green and he could relax.  The Cossack driver also saw the light turn green and slammed on his brakes.  The Mennonite inquired as to the reason why he would stop for a green light.  The Cossack again shrugged his shoulder and said cautiously, “There might be a Cossack coming”.

“Cossack” is a Turkish word meaning “freeman”.  They were generally runaway serfs who banded together for their own protection.  They developed their own customs, clothing, and reputations.  They lived in the Khortitsa area before the Mennonites arrived and had a fort on an island in the Dnieper River.  They were generally loyal to the Russian crown and fought many battles with the Turks who had controlled their land at one time.  There is a famous painting of the Zaporozhyzian Cossacks drafting a response to a demand of surrender from a Turkish sultan.  This historic response has survived in the archives.  It is not a document you would read in polite company.  The painting is very well done and you can imagine the response just by studying the characters in the painting.  (Click on the picture to enlarge)

I had the opportunity to meet a direct descendant of the last leader or “hetman” of the Cossacks.  His name is Boris Polubotko.  His mother’s maiden name was “Froese”, so we really have a Mennonite Cossack.  I presume that he is inclined to aggressively pursue the peace position.  Boris has relatives in Winnipeg and they asked me to deliver a gift to him and that was my reason for the meeting.  If you are wondering what a modern day descendant of the Cossacks does for a living - he is an orthopedic surgeon.  It was a pleasure to meet him.

We celebrated Easter on May 5.  Sometimes Easter falls on the same day as we celebrate it in the West.  This year it did not.  We spent Saturday before Easter shopping for paska.  Every store and vendor was selling it.  Saturday night at midnight we went to the local Orthodox Church for their service.  We enjoyed listening to the choir and just watching the people worshipping.  Their service continued all night till sunrise.  Mary and I did not last that long.  We wanted to join the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church for their 8:00 AM breakfast.  The greeting on Easter morning from everyone is “Christ is risen” and the proper response is “Christ is risen indeed”.  Someday I will learn to say this in Russian.  Easter Monday was paska baking day at the Mennonite Centre.  Mary loved spending the day in the kitchen with Ira, our cook.  The process is fascinating and the final product is beautiful.  Each senior coming for lunch on Tuesday got a paska.

There have been the usual number of petitions - everything from medicines for a man suffering from hepatitis to a lady with a badly scalded hand asking for groceries.  Our lives were disrupted by water problems in our apartment for a few days.  Thankfully we are now back to showering on a regular basis each morning. (no picture available)

A few days ago we were informed that there were a number of “German” tourists at the Mennonite Centre.  They just showed up one evening.  Mary and I went to find out what they wanted.  They were 8 Mennonite men from Germany.  They were working as volunteers in the Melitopol area doing renovations at an orphanage.  They were taking the evening off to come and find the villages from which their parents had been forcibly removed in 1941.  It turned out that a number of them had roots in my father’s village of Alexandertal.  One of them, a Doerksen, lived across the street from where the Suderman’s used to live. They needed maps of the village and directions on how to get there.  I was happy to do this but felt a bit guilty as I photocopied a few pages from Helmut Huebert’s atlas (my neighbour in Winnipeg).  Mary had a chance to practise her low-German as she communicated with them.  They were a delightful, enthusiastic group and we counted it a privilege to meet them.  They had moved to Germany from Kazakhstan in the 1990’s and were now back making a contribution to the area from which their ancestors had come.

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