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I feel connected to the unfolding drama in Crimea and Ukraine. In part, it’s because I have an acquaintence who is Ukrainian-Canadian and recently flew to Kiev to be closer to the political action. She’s in the government in Canada, and I hope that even though she is not a member of the party in government that her linguistic skills and political knowledge will be of help.

Ukraine is also a region closely connected with the Byzantine Empire. In the medieval period the Kievian Rus who controlled the region north of the Black Sea modeled many aspects of their religious life and political structure on what they observed in Constantinople.

But, the most personal connection I have with the Crimea is that this is where my grandparents lived before they came to Canada as refugees after the Bolsheviks overthrew the government in 1917. I don’t know when my grandparents were born, but they were old enough to have been formed, in part, by their experiences there. They were part of the Russian Mennonite community who had been living in Ukraine from the time of Catherine the Great. They brought many of their cultural customs and their low German language with them when they were relocate to Ukraine and again to Canada.

I am sure that the experience of making a new home in Saskatchewan was challenging for them, and part of that experience involved severing ties with Ukraine because that place held so much grief and was of the past. The story I heard growing up about that part of our family history was the same general story shared among all Russian Mennonite families who now live in Canada or the US. When I asked my aunts and uncles if they remembered the name of the town where either their mom or dad was born, they didn’t know. One uncle explained that my grandfather’s family moved around a lot; they were trying to avoid being noticed by the communists who considered my family “too rich.” And so there is this strong connection to a region and its culture, but not to a specific place.

This same uncle shared another story about my great grandfather Neufeld’s life in the Crimea. Apparently his three sisters married 3 brothers from the Willems family. This would have been in the 1910s in the Crimea. We don’t know if these couples emigrated to Canada or stayed behind.

I’m not sure where to get more information about the events around my grandparents story. The book by Sylvia Dyck, Add One Cossack and Stir, has been recommended to me by several people. Also, a fellow Byzantinist knows about a museum with Russian Mennonite artifacts in Tokmark, which used to be called Halbstadt, in the Crimea. He has done some archaeological work at a burial site. There are genealogical websites and recent publications of documents from these individuals, of course. But there is so little to start with. I hope this current conflict doesn’t result in another generation of refugees.

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