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History General

When Sonia Met Boris

by (author) Anna Shternshis

Oxford University Press
Initial publish date
Jun 2021
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2017
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2021
    List Price

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Russian-speaking Jews from the former Soviet Union are a peculiarity in the Jewish world. After decades living in a repressive, nominally atheistic state, these Jews did manage to retain a strong sense of Jewish identity - but one that was almost completely divorced from Judaism. Today, more than ten percent of Jews speak or understand Russian, signaling the importance of an ever-vexing question: why are Russian Jews the way they are?

In pursuit of an answer, Anna Shternshis's groundbreaking When Sonia Met Boris: An Oral History of Jewish Life under Stalin draws on nearly 500 oral history interviews on the Soviet Jewish experience with Soviet citizens who were adults by the 1940s. Soviet Jews lived through tumultuous times: the Great Terror, World War II, the anti-Semitic 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 they could in a profoundly hostile environment. One of the first scholars to record and analyze oral testimonies of Soviet Jews, Shternshis unearths heartbreaking, deeply poignant, and often funny stories of the everyday choices Jews were forced to navigate as a repressed minority living in a totalitarian regime. Shternshis reveals how ethnicity rapidly transformed into a disability, as well as a negative characteristic, for Soviet Jews in the postwar period, and shows how it was something they needed desperately to overcome in order to succeed.

That sense of self has persisted well into the twenty-first century, and has impacted the Jewish identities of the children and grandchildren of Shternshis's subjects, the foundational generation of contemporary Russian Jewish culture. An illuminating work of social and cultural history, When Sonia Met Boris traces the fascinating contours of contemporary Russian Jewish identity back to their very roots.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Anna Shternshis is the Al and Malka Green Professor in Yiddish Studies and the Director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923 - 1939 .

Other titles by Anna Shternshis