Shternshis, “When Sonia Met Boris”

In February, Oxford University Press will release When Sonia Met Boris: An Oral History of Jewish Life under Stalin by Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows:

when-sonia-met-borisSoviet Jews lived through a record number of traumatic events: the Great Terror, World War II, the Holocaust, the Famine of 1947, the Doctors’ Plot, the antisemitic policies of the postwar period, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But like millions of other Soviet citizens, they married, raised children, and built careers, pursuing life as best as they could in a profoundly hostile environment. One of the first scholars to record and analyze oral testimonies of Soviet Jews, Anna Shternshis unearths their everyday life and the difficult choices that they were forced to make as a repressed minority living in a totalitarian regime.

Drawing on nearly 500 interviews with Soviet citizens who were adults by the 1940s, When Sonia Met Boris describes both indirect Soviet control mechanisms?such as housing policies and unwritten quotas in educational institutions?and personal strategies to overcome, ignore, or even take advantage of those limitations. The interviews reveal how ethnicity was rapidly transformed into a negative characteristic, almost a disability, for Soviet Jewry in the postwar period. Ultimately, Shternshis shows, after decades living in a repressive, nominally atheistic state, these Jews did manage to retain a complex sense of Jewish identity, but one that fully disassociates Jewishness from Judaism and instead associates it with secular society, prioritizing chess over Talmud, classical music over Hasidic tunes. Gracefully weaving together poignant stories, intimate reflections, and witty anecdotes, When Sonia Met Boris traces the unusual contours of contemporary Russian Jewish identity back to its roots.

Baran, “Dissent on the Margins: How Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses Defied Communism and Lived to Preach About It”

Next month, Oxford will publish Dissent on the Margins:9780199945535_140
How Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses Defied Communism and Lived to Preach About It, by Emily B. Baran (Middle Tennessee State University). The publisher’s description follows.

Emily B. Baran offers a gripping history of how a small, American-based religious community, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, found its way into the Soviet Union after World War II, survived decades of brutal persecution, and emerged as one of the region’s fastest growing religions after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. In telling the story of this often misunderstood faith, Baran explores the shifting boundaries of religious dissent, non-conformity, and human rights in the Soviet Union and its successor states.

Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses are a fascinating case study of dissent beyond urban, intellectual nonconformists. Witnesses, who were generally rural, poorly educated, and utterly marginalized from society, resisted state pressure to conform. They instead constructed alternative communities based on adherence to religious principles established by the Witnesses’ international center in Brooklyn, New York. The Soviet state considered Witnesses to be the most reactionary of all underground religious movements, and used extraordinary measures to try to eliminate this threat. Yet Witnesses survived, while the Soviet system did not. After 1991, they faced continuing challenges to their right to practice their faith in post-Soviet states, as these states struggled to reconcile the proper limits on freedom of conscience with European norms and domestic concerns.

Dissent on the Margins provides a new and important perspective on one of America’s most understudied religious movements.

 

De Wolf, “Dissident for Life”

Next month, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. will publish Dissident for Life: Alexander Ogorodnikov and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in Russia (2013)by Koenraad De Wolf.  The publisher’s description follows.Dissident for Life

This gripping book tells the largely unknown story of longtime Russian dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov — from Communist youth to religious dissident, in the Gulag and back again. Ogorodnikov’s courage has touched people from every walk of life, including world leaders such as Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.

In the 1970s Ogorodnikov performed a feat without precedent in the Soviet Union: he organized thousands of Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians in an underground group called the Christian Seminar. When the KGB gave him the option to leave the Soviet Union rather than face the Gulag, he firmly declined because he wanted to change “his” Russia from the inside out. His willingness to sacrifice himself and be imprisoned meant leaving behind his wife and newborn child. Continue reading

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