Gazing into Stalin’s abyss
Book review: Red Quarter MoonBy Peter J. Klassen
For countless families, Joseph Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union from the 1920s to 1953 left a tragic legacy of loved ones arrested, imprisoned or sent to labor camps. Others disappeared without a trace, frequently victims of summary “trials,” often followed by execution. In many instances, their families never knew their fate.
In many communities, including dozens of Mennonite villages, uncertainty and fear characterized life in the Stalin era. During the decade after World War I and the Russian Revolution, hundreds of Mennonite families left the land where their ancestors had lived for more than a century. But by the end of the 1920s that avenue of escape was largely closed. Communication was cut off. Arrest and imprisonment was often the fate of those who tried to let others know what was happening in the Soviet Union.
As Stalin determined to enforce collectivization and destroy religion, referred to as the “opiate of the people,” most churches were closed. Those who were viewed as being German, like the Mennonites, were subjected to especially harsh treatment. Their churches were seized, and ministers often sent into exile or prison. Villagers who continued to practice their faith could expect visits from the secret police, with prison or death the punishment.
In his pursuit of totalitarian, atheistic control, Stalin implemented policies of imprisonment, forced labor and summary trials that often led to execution. Communication with relatives abroad was monitored and dangerous.
It is thus not surprising that emigrés to Canada and elsewhere remained largely uninformed about events in their former home villages and cities, now behind an “iron curtain.” The silence gave rise to deep foreboding and concern. Later events confirmed these fears.
Like many other Mennonites, the extended Konrad family, depicted in this moving account, was divided by Soviet policy. Some members had left early and found a new home in Canada. Later, emigration was largely stopped, and many members of the family suffered under the anti-religious, anti-German discriminatory and extremely harsh policies of the Soviet regime.
This book graphically recounts what happened to these family members, as well as to others who were victims of the barbarous Stalin “dekulakization” — the process of deliberately destroying the wealthier farmers (kulaks) by false accusations, seizing their farms and sending them to labor camps or prison.
Author Anne Konrad set herself the task of discovering what happened to her relatives and others who suffered under Stalin’s repression. A tireless investigator, she established contact with many members of the extended family. Repeatedly she found her worst fears confirmed.
Tireless travel, research and extensive personal contact in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union — as well as with relatives in Germany, Paraguay and Canada — revealed that some relatives had been imprisoned or sent to labor camps in the primitive conditions of the north.
Some returned, broken and scarcely recognizable. Others disappeared without a trace. For some, the pressure had been so great that they embraced the teachings and practices of the regime and thereby gained a measure of security.
Konrad depicts the alienation of those who adapted to Communist pressures. She also presents a deeply moving portrait of many who quietly retained their faith — and exhibited a remarkably resilient spirit — but suffered the consequences of economic deprivation and social ostracism.
For those brave enough to gaze into the abyss of Stalin’s destructive, anti-religious, totalitarian policies — and at the same time see the resilience of the human spirit — this volume presents a compelling, graphic portrait.
Peter J. Klassen is professor emeritus of history at California State University, Fresno.
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