Online Book Club Review

This book speaks to every person who has left their country of origin.
Nomi Griffin

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Zhanna Sosensky was born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and into the wrong family. The place was the Soviet Union. The time was 1941, only a few days after the German invasion began. The family consisted of a dying mother, a tyrannical and abusive father, and two quarrelsome older sisters. Her memoir, I Never Met My Mother, details the challenges she overcame in dealing with her dysfunctional family, coping with postwar shortages of essentials, and – most difficult of all – navigating her way through a society in which every detail of daily life was censored and controlled by the Communist Party.

Determined to build a better life away from her abusive family, Zhanna left school at 14 to work at a sausage factory. A quick learner, she helped to improve processing procedures, receiving awards, and better earnings. As her skills in building relationships improved, she moved on to much better positions at Gosplan USSR, the central planning institution for the entire country.

Better jobs with higher salaries allowed Zhanna to socialize with friends, to attend concerts, and to host dinner parties. Cooking was her passion from early years at the orphanage, where she ended up from the street, suffering from starvation. She continued to take night classes toward her most important goal, a university degree, even after marrying and giving birth to a son. When Zhanna finally received her diploma, she and her husband decided to seize a new opportunity and emigrate to Canada with their seven-year-old son. Thus their life in the USSR came to an end. 

I Never Met My Mother paints a revealing and appalling picture of life in the Soviet Union during the Cold War years. Extreme food shortages led to long lines whenever there was any food available to purchase. Housing was in equally short supply. As many as eleven people might share an apartment, sometimes without heat, hot water, or indoor plumbing. The complete absence of birth control, causing many women to have multiple abortions, would horrify most modern women.

Equally revealing of daily life in the USSR are the book’s frequent descriptions of the strategies Zhanna – and most other Soviet citizens – employed to cope with bureaucratic rules, a complex system of record-keeping, and constant surveillance. For example, when the elderly woman who rented the bed in her tiny room to Zhanna was accused of illegal subletting, Zhanna told the police that her friend was lonely, had invited her to stay just for the companionship, and had not asked for any payment. Zhanna also acquired a few nice outfits by placing orders with Gosplan employees who occasionally traveled outside the USSR. And she learned to bring a gift of expensive chocolates for the record keepers when requesting personal documents.

I Never Met My Mother has earned 4 out of 4 stars for its fascinating revelations about life in the Soviet Union. It is a superb portrayal of a woman who forged a path to success and happiness in the face of extreme adversity. The narration flows smoothly, and the sequence of events is easy to follow. The book is also well-edited, with only a few minor typos that do not cause any problems. Readers who appreciate unusual personal stories or who have an interest in Russian history will be sure to enjoy this book.

 Online Book Club Reviews

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