when mercy and compassion disappear

wheat field in Ukraine - matching their flag

In an attempt to create systemic justice, communists took my family’s land away in post-revolution Russia (in the region that is now Ukraine). My people (Mennonites) had been given the land by Catherine the Great because it was politically convenient for her to have safe, loyal farmers there. This put the Mennonites somewhat in the middle of things; their existence supported an unjust regime, but they were not (for the most part) capitalists but land-owning farmers (kulaks). Still, they were not awesome at looking out for their non-Mennonite neighbours.

The communists were, of course, not ones to nudge gently toward caring for the common good. They just took the land, made it into “collectives” and let inexperienced peasants run the show – a foolish move that contributed to a famine; maybe collectives could even have worked if they allowed them to be run by people with experience and knowledge.

A year ago, I visited this region where my mom grew up, the area near Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. It was an emotional and provocative chance to reflect on many layers that helped make up my own history. As a critic of capitalism myself, it provided a few surprising glimpses into the communist experiment.

For example, I learned that a broad, park-lined avenue in Zaporizhzhia won a design award in Paris in the 20s – at the same time, and only miles down the road, from when and where the Mennonites were having their villages pillaged by anarchists.

And I learned that a village we visited had, under Soviet rule, about five hundred adults employed and supported by their village collective. Now only thirty adults were employed by the businessman who had taken control over most of the land. (They can’t buy the land because Ukraine hasn’t figured out how to make that transition yet without instantly impoverishing all those who still own their handful of acres – now “leased” for a pittance to large businesses.) The rest are largely unemployed and elderly, their children off looking for nonexistent work in the cities.

Hearing about the relative success that the collectives had eventually reached in supporting village communities led to speculating with our Ukrainian hosts whether the communists did some things right. “Yes, maybe, but what they got wrong was demonstrated in their very language.” Ukrainian leaders told us that words for concepts like “mercy” and “compassion” all but literally disappeared from Russian vocabulary in the post-revolution years. These human virtues were ignored or actively rejected because the systemic cure had arrived. Justice was here now, and it was enforced! “Who needed concepts like mercy and compassion that were too associated with religion?”

Few things stuck in my mind from this visit as much as this one comment and the sad irony with which it was said. May our hunger for justice always stay grounded in mercy and compassion.

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