The general history of Russian Mennonites during the 20th century is well documented. Following World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917, civil war between White and Red Armies exposed Mennonites to atrocities and suffering. Those Mennonites who were unwilling or unable to leave their homeland in the 1920s experienced violence, famine, disease, imprisonment, deportation and death over the next six decades as Communism gripped the country. This history serves as the backdrop for Red Quarter Moon: A Search for Family in the Shadow of Stalin. Anne Konrad’s focus, however, is family history, specifically the stories of her extended family members who remained in the Soviet Union after her parents emigrated in 1929.
As a child and then later as a young adult, Konrad heard stories of the harrowing decade of the 1920s and the hardships of her relatives living behind the Iron Curtain. As time passed, Konrad developed a passion to discover the fates of lost relatives—people she didn’t know but had only experienced through spotty stories, faded photographs, and limited face-to-face encounters. These stories led to more questions about her family’s tragedy:
Were my people persecuted more because of their ethnicity, the religion, or economic class? My parents looked only to understand the Soviet experience as part of God’s plan; the fates of their brothers and sisters and other innocent victims were personal tragedies, but God would know the reasons, I wanted answers (51).
Red Quarter Moon is, in part, a catalog of answers presented in story form. We journey with Konrad as she uncovers the grim stories of her relatives—not only the aunts and uncles left behind but also the cousins who grew up in a very different world than the world of their parents. As one might expect, there are myriad stories of hardship at the hands of Soviet authorities, failed attempts to emigrate, and deportations during Stalin’s dekulakization program. Konrad provides many harrowing accounts of Mennonites who are simply verschleppt—taken by authorities and never heard from again. In the face of these difficulties, some family members somehow learned to survive in this hostile world, although Konrad makes it clear that the survivors were never really free from the trauma they experienced.
Despite the apparent narrow focus in Red Quarter Moon on Konrad’s family members, a reader of begins to feel early on the enormity of the author’s task. Her extended family is large—not uncommon for Mennonite families of this era—and she tackles multiple stories from this huge cast of characters. The text is also geographically expansive as a reader is taken on a global tour: Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Alberta, Germany, Paraguay, China, among other locales. Konrad also moves through various historical periods of the 20th century in separate sections of her book:
The Soviet State (1930-1933),
Years of Terror (1935-1938),
Second World War (1939-1945), and
Prisoners and Singers in Siberia (1941-1954). In addition, multiple voices are heard as the history is told through her own narration, comments from her husband (historian Harvey Dyck), interviews with relatives both living and deceased, letters from the 1930s printed in Mennonitesche Rundschau and Der Bote, Konrad’s journal entries on trips to the Soviet Union, as well as—perhaps most powerfully—Soviet interrogation files, which provide, in some cases, the ultimate (although vague) answers regarding the fate of her family members.
Families are endless threads, interwoven, knotted, quickly unraveled, Konrad writes in a journal entry on the occasion of her father’s death (31). The same could be said for narratives, and therein lie the strengths and weaknesses of Konrad’s text. The reader faces a daunting task in tracking multiple and frequently shifting characters, settings, voices and time frames in Konrad’s impressive research. Unless one is a member of the Konrad or Braun families, a reader will undoubtedly lose some of these threads. For a non-relative, however, it probably is not crucial to remember, for example, whether Dietrich Toews was the first or second husband of Anna Konrad or to identify the exact location of a specific stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. As in a Faulkner novel, it is easy for a reader to get lost in these details (or spend an inordinate amount of time flipping to the provided family trees and maps) and thus lose sight of the moving and senseless tragedy of it all. Casual readers would do well simply to immerse themselves in the stories, to get lost in the sheer human drama of those who struggled to survive (often unsuccessfully) against overwhelming odds.
The one constant amidst the avalanche of detail in the text is Konrad herself. In fact, the book becomes just as much about Konrad’s search (thus the appropriate subtitle) as it is about the fate of Konrad’s family. Konrad is no disconnected observer. Hers is a personal quest:
People of my father’s and mother’s ‘Russian homeland,’ my parents’ siblings and their families cut by that red sickle, who knew or would ever remember them? (194). Konrad’s heartfelt and all-consuming search is about reconstructing the past and preserving memories. There is, however, no
feel good ending, no neatly wrapped-up sense of closure, no overarching sense of God’s providence in the face of tribulation as her search comes to a close.
What a waste. Wasted lives, Konrad writes in the last chapter as she contemplates the fate of the Soviet interrogators who extracted false confessions from their victims. The same could be said for her Russian-Mennonite relatives, either destroyed directly by the Soviet machine or forced to live with
an invisible mantle of trauma (302). The melancholic undertones of the book—reinforced by the ominous apocalyptic symbolism of a red quarter moon—come full circle. Konrad’s honesty and her driving perseverance throughout her quest, however, guide the reader through the grim sense of loss.
Anne Konrad’s text will surely be of interest for those Mennonites with ancestors who survived the harrowing experiences in twentieth-century Russia or for those simply interested in Mennonite and Soviet history. More broadly, however, the book should be engaging to all who have ever contemplated the bonds of family, the power of memory, and the strength and limitations of the unfortunate ones caught in the throes of history.