Aileen Friesen was raised in Charleswood and is of Mennonite descent on both her parents’ sides.
“My grandparents on my maternal side came in the 1920s from the Soviet Union, and they were Mennonites. On my paternal side, my ancestors came in the 1870s. (They’re) also Mennonite from Imperial Russia,” she says.
Friesen’s Mennist ancestry creates an intersection between her personal and work life.
Co-director of the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Friesen is also the executive director of the D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation. The not-for-profit organization supports projects dedicated to Mennonite culture and origins.
Friesen’s first book project involved her editing The Russian Mennonite Story.
“I’m working on my second book project. My first book had to do with orthodox peasants in Siberia, so not on a Mennonite topic. I think there are a lot of stories that have not been told about that immigration,” Friesen says.
“The stories that have been focused on (are) ... this issue of self-defense during the civil war. There was a lot of violence in what is present-day Ukraine,” Friesen says.
A recent federally funded project will allow Friesen to explore how women experienced similar events, giving new perspectives on the mass migration from Russia.
“Some Mennonites took up arms, and there’s been a lot of focus on that story without any concern with what women thought about this breach in religious principles or (focus) just sort of solely (told) from this male-dominated perspective,” she says.
In regards to the Russian invasion and recent annexation of Ukraine, Friesen had this message to add:
“I might have described myself as a Russianist in the interview, but that’s a frequently used term in my field I no longer identify with,” Friesen says.
What is the best thing about your work?
“Getting to work with archival documents. I love to travel to these places. Obviously, right now, because of the war (in Ukraine), my ability to travel to the places that I study has been limited.”
What was your worst grade in university?
“B+ in biology.”
What do you do in your spare time?
“I have a six-year-old, so my spare time is not my own. I run my son’s schedule. With all the projects I have going, I work a lot.”
Published in Volume 77, Number 05 of The Uniter (October 6, 2022)