Cover image for My life in Stalinist Russia : an American woman looks back
My life in Stalinist Russia : an American woman looks back
Leder, Mary M.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Bloomington : Indiana University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xiv, 344 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Added Author:

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DK268.L4 A3 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



"A sometimes astonishing, worm's-eye view of life under totalitarianism, and a valuable contribution to Soviet and Jewish studies." --Kirkus Reviews

In 1931, Mary M. Leder, an American teenager, was attending high school in Santa Monica, California. By year's end, she was living in a Moscow commune and working in a factory, thousands of miles from her family, with whom she had emigrated to Birobidzhan, the area designated by the USSR as a Jewish socialist homeland. Although her parents soon returned to America, Mary was not permitted to leave and would spend the next 34 years in the Soviet Union. Readers will be drawn into this personal account of the life of an independent-minded young woman, coming of age in a society that she believed was on the verge of achieving justice for all but which ultimately led her to disappointment and disillusionment. Leder's absorbing memoir presents a microcosm of Soviet history and an extraordinary window into everyday life and culture in the Stalin era.

Author Notes

Mary M. Leder has lived in New York since her return from the Soviet Union in 1965.

Laurie Bernstein is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University, Camden, and author of Sonia's Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia.

Robert Weinberg is Associate Professor of History at Swarthmore College. He is author of The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa: Blood on the Steps and Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and The Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

In the depths of the Depression, Leder's parents, socialist, Russian-born Jewish immigrants, decided to take their family from the U.S. to the Soviet Union to help colonize a proposed Jewish homeland in Birobidzhan. Once arrived in a rural village in the Soviet Far East in 1931, Mary, a 15-year-old who shared her parents' politics, was appalled at the primitive living conditions and insisted on going to Moscow, where she began working at a factory with the help of her step-uncle. When her disillusioned parents returned to the U.S. two years later, Mary was unable to go with them: she had become a Soviet citizen because she had needed an internal passport to keep her job. In this engrossing memoir, Leder (Sonia's Daughters) recounts the 34 years she lived in the U.S.S.R., working at a motor factory, then as proofreader, editor and translator at the Foreign Workers' Publishing House. While attending the University of Moscow, she was recruited into a secret spy school, which folded during the Great Purge Trials. She married, had a child who died during the evacuation of Moscow during WWII and was constantly under surveillance as a foreigner. Leder has a marvelous memory for the details of everyday life, from living arrangements and survival during the terror to discussions of the law forbidding abortion in 1936 and the marriage "reform" law reintroducing illegitimacy in 1944, as well as for the many friends she made. She was particularly aware of the growing anti-Semitism after WWII, and that, coupled with her husband's death in the late 1950s, prompted her strenuous efforts to return to the U.S. in the 1960s. This plainly written account will particularly appeal t0 readers with a general interest in women's memoirs, Russian culture and history, and leftist politics. 8-page photo insert. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Mary Mackler Leder was by no means a significant figure in Stalinist Russia, but readers will find that she writes an arresting observer's account of life in Russia over more than two decades. Sovietologists of the Stalinist era will find interesting anecdotes about Soviet life that confirm, revise, and in some cases authenticate the constructed sociology of the time. One example that constantly reappears is Leder's insistence on stating that she is an "American," while the authorities both high and low, all across the Soviet Union, simply classify her as "Jewish," with all the usual and stereotypical ramifications of that view. Two particular periods of the account are noteworthy--those about the purges in the 1930s and the war years, during which time her baby daughter died. Perhaps most remarkable is Leder's ability to recall her past with exquisite detail and precision so many years beyond the events. Upper-division undergraduates and above. C. W. Haury Piedmont Virginia Community College