Willi Peters (1940-2016), Siberian Mennonite Minister

William Yoder ( Gvardeysk/Moscow) and Dr. Lawrence Klippenstein (Winnipeg)

Introduction

The Chortitza and Molotschna Mennonite settlements in New Russia became the so-called ”mother colonies” of all the subsequent settlements in New Russia (later Ukraine). Their total population by the end of WWI is said to have reached about 110,000. They spread out widely in Central and southern Russia and began to look elsewhere in the search for more land.

They did not begin to settle in western Siberia until 1897. The first to do so, as far as we know, was the J. J. Hildebrand family who moved to Omsk in that year. They founded an agricultural machinery business there. Families seeking land for farming then followed and to make a long story short, began to establish settlements westward from Omsk along both sides, north and south, of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and to the southeast somewhat in another cluster of villages that were at first oriented toward the old city of Barnaul, and then, settling east and south shifted their attention more to the much closer and newer city of Slavgorod located on a southward stretching spur of the Trans-Siberian Railway. A later expansion of these village settlements took some thousands of persons to an area on the north bank of the Amur River, around Blagoveschensk. A settlement at Pavlodar west of Slavgorod sprang up also.

Eventually, all these areas came under Soviet control also, but the villages of these larger communities remained relatively free of physical damage resulting from World War II. Hundreds of persons were forcibly resettled to northern prison and work camps during the war, with many dying there, and others managing to return to warmer southern communities. Some were reunited with their families on their return, with others were deprived of reunions.

In this process of resettling, many found themselves in Siberian and Central Asian new and former urban areas to attempt more permanent resettlement and community reorganization. One of the sites which acquired a large new congregation of Mennonites, with membership ultimately over four hundred was the city of Novosibirsk. Bernhard Sawatzky was an early pastor of this congregation in the 1970s. It belonged to the so-called kirchliche (lit. church) branch of the larger Soviet Mennonite body in the USSR.

Minister Willi Peters (1940-2016) Novosibirsk, Siberia

Right: Minister Willi Peters and his son Andrei with Ben Falk, MCC volunteer at Neudachino, Siberia (1993). Photo : Lawrence Klippenstein

Willi Peters was born in the Ukrainian Mennonite colony of Chortitza on April 30, 1940. Times were highly volatile, so Willi had little chance of growing up in Ukraine. After the massive German attack of June 22, 1941, an edict of the Supreme Soviet issued on August 28 that year decreed that all ethnic Germans in western USSR would be deported eastward away from the approaching Wehrmacht.

By 1942, the year after the German attack, Willi’s family found itself in Tayshet in Central Siberia. This city is a critical junction of the Trans-Siberian Railway 245 miles east of Krasnoyarsk. Willi’s father, Jakob, had been forced into the Trudarmee (forced labor camp) and consequently spent years as a logger in the forests of Tayshet region. However, the family was exceptionally fortunate in one respect: Jakob’s wife Maria, nee Toews, with their children, were allowed to live with him in Tayshet.

The family remained subject to the Soviet military regime ((kommandatura) until its dissolution in 1956. At that time the family was permitted to move southeast-ward to the industrial city of Angarsk, founded in 1948 near Irkutsk. It was there that young Willi received his education as an electrician. He remained an electrician for the rest of his life.

Willi’s future wife, Maria Gunther was also born in Chortitza in 1941. Her family was among the 313,000 Germans overtaken by the German army moving into the Soviet Union before they were evacuated eastward. Maria, along with her brothers and sisters then fled westward along with the Wehrmacht now retreating, in 1943-44. Maria’s father disappeared during WWII and was never found.

According to the agreements at Yalta signed early in 1945, the USSR was permitted after the war to repatriate former citizens of the USSR from refugee camps in Western Europe. The 200,000 ethnic Germans forced to return eastward included Maria’s and siblings who had been waiting in a refugee camp in Yugoslavia. Maria’s mother was then forced to eke out a subsistence living for herself and her children working as a maid for military officers in Berdsk, south of Novosibirsk.

By the late 1950s, the Mennonites of Central Siberia knew the whereabouts of many members of their faith in the region. In the early 1960s, Willi Peters began a search for a spouse and ended up making repeated treks to Berdsk. Willi and Maria married in October of 1967; the couple immediately moved back east to Angarsk. Their three children were born there: Anna in 1967, Andrei (Heinrich) in 1970 and Katarina in 1974.

For Mennonites Angarsk had only house gatherings where they could worship, so the family chose to move to Berdsk in 1976. Almost immediately the Peters joined the large Mennonite congregation meeting in a renovated private house at Ulitsa Proyektnaya 13 on the western fringe of Novosibirsk. Here the minister at the time was Bernhard Sawatzky (savadskii). The congregation registered since 1967, had nearly four hundred members meeting in its chapel. The group was connected to forty smaller gatherings in Tomsk, Berdsk, Barnaul, and other sites throughout the region.

Church services in Novosibirsk took place on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Mennonite Brethren congregations were strong to the west of Omsk, but Novosibirsk was by far the largest gathering of kirchliche (lit. church) Mennonites in the area.

Willi first became involved in the congregation by singing bass in the Novosibirsk choir, with his son Andrei joining in 1983. After the choir director’s emigration westward in 1988, Jakob Dirksen succeeded him as leading minister, in Novosibirsk. However, the emigration to Germany had been in high gear since 1986, and Dirksen who already perched on packed suitcases accepted his new calling with reluctance. However, after Dirksen’s departure in early 1990, fifty-year-old Willi Peters was ordained and commissioned as the new leading minister in May. Since Willi had only begun preaching in 1986 and had not previously served as a minister, his appointment was not entirely without dissent.

Why did Willi and Maria not join the trek westward? “We saw staying as God’s calling,” Andrei explained briefly. “My parents were convinced that we had been called to remain here and serve others who had not left. We were not called to be where life was most comfortable, but where God wishes to use us.” Andrei believed that his father was called because of his wide acceptance as a convinced Christian. He thought it was easy for his father to get close to his people. He was a gifted counselor and knew how to converse with people. People felt the love of God in presence, Andrei pointed out.

Retired seminary professor Walter Sawatsky has noted that ninety percent of Russia’s Mennonites, roughly one hundred thousand persons, moved to Germany during the last great exodus. The movement was a nearly fatal blow for an ongoing Mennonite presence in Russia. Sawatsky added at the same time that immigrants to Germany formed numerous relief/mission agencies and church associations for Russia, which became the primary Mennonite support lasting until present times.

Sawatsky noted further that Mennonite church bodies in Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and MCC had long tried to walk alongside those who could not leave Russia. The Peters family had also served as a lightning rod drawing Mennonites who were seeking contact with brothers and sisters in Siberia.

Willi stopped working when his firm collapsed in 1990. After 1990, his family received support from family and church members who had left and settled in Bielefeld, Germany. He visited Germany several times after 1990. In January 1997, Willi made a most memorable trip when he and Nikolas Dueckman from the Evangelical /Mennonite Brethren congregation in Marianovka near Omsk, attended the Mennonite World Conference sessions in Calcutta, India.

When the Novosibirsk house caretaker moved to Germany in 2005, Willi, Maria, and Andrei had moved into the former church quarters. As of 2018 only daughter Katarina, who is single, remains in the family apartment in Berdsk. Anna and her two children have also moved from Berdsk to the Novosibirsk church home.

The end began to arrive for Willi when he suffered his first stroke. His son, Andrei, had been assisting him pastorally since 1997 and was consequently ordained as a second minister on September 29, 2000. Two additional strokes and a heart attack followed. Willi became less and less able to fulfill his ministerial duties. He continued to meet people in a friendly manner as he was able but passed away quite unexpectedly on April 20, 2016. After his funeral in Novosibirsk two days later, he was buried in Berdsk where his parents were also interred.

Through deaths and emigration, kirchliche Mennonite ministries have shrunk considerably in Siberia since 1990. Andrei continues to serve as leading pastor in the local congregation at Novosibirsk, also attempting at the same time to maintain with other smaller groups in Artyemsk, Barnaul, Grishevka, and Orsnyak.

The even smaller group in Neudachino lost its leading pastor, Gerhard Neufeld, when that entire family of two dozen or more persons moved to Germany also. This group remains independent, having virtually no contact with the Novosibirsk congregation, officially, and also does not relate significantly to the local Evangelical/Mennonite Brethren congregation. The sermons of the kirchliche remaining small group are read from a book by a member of the congregation.

That the entire Peters family should remain in Russia to carry on its life together and maintain their mission as found possible, is a very rare phenomenon. Willi’s sister (a second Maria Peters) and Maria’s sister, Anna Gunther, now reside in Bielefeld. A kirchliche Mennonite mission outreach ministry, directed from Bielefeld, remains active in the Orenburg area of the Urals region. Willi Peters’ devotion to his church, his Christian integrity, and sense of duty in good times and bad, and periods of illness and adversity, his refusal to abandon a Mennonite remnant of believers, remain the lasting testimony of his life.


A version of this story first appeared in the June 2019 issue of the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta Chronicle. Learn about their work at mennonitehistory.org


Resources:

Harms, Wilmer A., ed. The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia: The Saga of Anna K (Hillsboro: KS , Hearth Publishing, 1998).

Klippenstein, Lawrence. A series of articles on Mennonites in Siberia in Mennonitische Post, 2011- 2013, Steinbach, Manitoba.

…… “The kirchliche Mennonites in the USSR,” Mennonite Historian, Vol. V. December, 1979, 1-2, and Vol. VI, March, 1980, 2-3.

Rahn, Peter, Mennoniten in der Umgebung von Omsk (Vancouver, B.C.: by the author, 1975).

Savin, A.I. and Paul Toews, comp. and ed. Ethno-Confession in the Soviet State. Mennonites in Siberia, 1920 – 1989. Annotated List of Archival Docunents. Translated by Olga Shmakina and Liudmyla Kariaka (Moscow and Fresno: Russian Academy of Sciences and Center for MB Studies, 2008).

Sawatsky, Walter, “From Russian to Soviet Mennonites,” in John Friesen, ed., Mennonites in Russia.1788-1988. Essays in Honour of Gerhard Lohrenz (Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 1989), 299-339.

Yoder, William, News releases from Moscow for the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ca. 2000-2019. See especially release of news dated November 14, 2018.

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