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Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 127–128 

Book Review

It Happened in Moscow: A Memoir of Discovery

Maureen S. Klassen. Winnipeg, MB and Goessel, KS: Kindred, 2013. 207 pages.

Reviewed by Marlene Epp

This is the kind of book that could be made into a movie, indeed, should be made into a movie, if only to broaden the audience for such a captivating story. It Happened in Moscow, by Maureen Klassen, is a combination of biography, memoir, historical account, and perhaps even has a bit of fiction slipped in here and there. It is a fascinating read and contributes greatly to our understanding of the complicated and tough lives of Mennonites in the Soviet Union (and former USSR) in the twentieth century.

Klassen is a British Columbia-based writer and daughter-in-law of the main character of the book, Mary Brieger Klassen. In the late 1980s Maureen and her husband Herb co-authored a biography of Herb’s father, C.F. Klassen, a man well-known for his work assisting the migration of Mennonites from the Soviet Union in the 1920s and after the Second World War. Much less was known about C.F.’s wife, Mary, who he met in Moscow, married in 1926, and at that time became father to her son Harold from her first marriage to Jacob J. Reimer.

The story of Mary’s life “before C.F.” was mostly a mystery and clouded with misassumptions, until Maureen and Herb Klassen went to Moscow on assignment with Mennonite Central Committee in 1993. It was there that the journey of discovery began, after a surprising telephone call from Erika Reimer Gurieva, the daughter of Mary’s first husband Jacob and his second wife, and thus the half-sibling to Herb’s brother Harold (yes, it gets genealogically complicated!). The book goes on to describe the joint efforts—alongside their growing friendship—of Maureen and Erika to find out more about Mary and Jacob during their ten-year marriage, about the relationship between Jacob and C.F. Klassen, and especially, about the fate of Jacob Reimer. Through persistence and creative sleuthing, new information and perspectives about all the book’s characters are discovered. Since this memoir reads a bit like a mystery story, it would be unfair to the reader to reveal too much here.

We do learn that Jacob Reimer was arrested by Stalin’s secret police in 1937 and, like many other Mennonite men who similarly disappeared during the great purges, was never heard from again. However, it is the {128} painstaking efforts of Erika to learn the fate of her father that allows Maureen to give a rare and detailed account of an individual outcome common to so many others. Even while this memoir is focused on a few individuals and the web of relationships that connect them, it also illuminates, through specific examples and broader analysis, the postwar lives of so many Mennonites who remained in the Soviet Union. And so we learn about people that Maureen encounters during her various sojourns in present-day Russia and Ukraine. Such as Natasha Rempel, a Russian Orthodox icon painter whose father was a Mennonite pastor who died in a forced labor camp. Or Garri Klassen, a retired burn specialist in Crimea, who survived severe deprivation during his years of exile in Kazahkstan.

The book is enriched tremendously by numerous photographs from the collections both of those who left and those who remained. Because the photos depict such different sides of the story of Jacob, Mary, and C.F., it would have been helpful to note the source for each photo along with the caption: Was it from Erika’s photo album or Maureen’s?

One of the most delightful aspects of this book is that it represents a continuation but also a revision (indeed correction) of the biography of C.F. Klassen. What could be more intriguing and satisfying for a historian than to realize that a story she thought was complete has much more to reveal. Klassen’s book is certainly a memoir, but it is also an example of revisionist history, especially in shedding new light on roles that women played at pivotal times in Mennonite history. It also adds significantly to a growing body of memoir literature that chronicles the lives of the “left behind ones”—those Mennonites who remained, for a range of reasons, in the Soviet Union through the difficult and tragic decades of the mid-twentieth century. The story also prompts future reflection on what the author calls “the perennial Mennonite dilemma: leaving or remaining” (4), a theme that continues to characterize many Mennonites in the world today.

Marlene Epp
Professor of History and Peace & Conflict Studies
Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario

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