Over the years I’d read a small number of Americans had been imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag during Stalin’s reign of terror. Sadly, I never had much luck finding any additional information about this, like a memoir or other detailed account. Therefore, when I came across a copy of Karl Tobien’s Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag during one of my trips to the public library I quickly realized this was a excellent opportunity to finally learn about an overlooked bit of history that’s intrigued me for so long.
But that wasn’t the only reason I wanted to read this book. Upon closer inspection, I noticed review blurbs all praising the book were from avowed evangelical Christians, and none of them household names. I wondered why a book about an American woman surviving the Gulag would strike such a receptive chord with evangelicals. Even as an ex-evangelical Christian my curiosity quickly got the better of me and I added Dancing Under the Red Star to the growing stack of unread library books on my desk.
In 1932 with America and much of the world in the grips of the Great Depression Carl Werner brought his wife Elisabeth and their young daughter Margaret to the USSR. The Ford Motor Company, the employer of Margaret’s father had recently agreed to a joint venture with the Soviets to help modernize the USSR’s industry. Relocating to the city of Gorky, he went to work in a Ford-affiliated factory as his wife and daughter settled into their new home. Despite the early challenges learning the language and culture, acclimating to the USSR’s authoritarian ways and enduring Gorky’s low standard of living Margaret thrived. (At a summer camp for Communist youth she even made friends with a young Alexander Dubcek, the future leader of Czechoslovakia.) Things looked rosy for Margaret, as well as the rest of her family.
Then came the Stalin’s purges. Despite being an American her father was arrested, accused of being an enemy of the people and shipped off to the Gulag never to be heard from again. Several years later, mother and daughter, like many in Gorky were evacuated ahead of the invading German Army but like most civilians suffered from chronic malnutrition bordering on near starvation.
World War II’s conclusion might have brought peace to the USSR, but it soon brought untold suffering to Margaret. Just like her father before her, she was falsely accused to being an enemy of the state and thrown in the Gulag, where she spent nearly a decade in Arctic Siberia before being released thanks to Khrushchev’s reforms. She soon married, had a son (Karl, the book’s eventual author) immigrated to East Germany, later defected to West Germany, and finally after decades returned to America.
Karl Tobien, in retelling his mother’s incredible journey does so from her perspective, using the first person, much like Alex Haley did with The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The voice he channels comes across as light, almost conversational but always conveying gravity. A sincere believer in what I suspect is some flavor of evangelical Christianity she wears her faith on her sleeve, attributing any incidents of personal good fortune to the providence of a loving God. Whether I agree or not with her take on divine intervention is irrelevant. After all, its her story.
If you end up reading Dancing Under the Red Star I’d also encourage you to read two memories by women who survived years of imprisonment at the hands of Communist oppressors. Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind recalls the time she spent in the Soviet Gulag. Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai is an account of her years of wrongful imprisonment during China’s Cultural Revolution.