russian homeschool history

Book Review: When the Sickle Swings

The history of the latter 20th century was dominated by the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was known as the Cold War. Each superpower attempted to outmaneuver the other politically and militarily, creating a global nuclear standoff that lasted for over forty years. The Cold War was all-important during these decades. It was a consideration behind all international diplomacy and an ever-present reality in the minds of Americans, who were raised in awareness of the possibility of nuclear annihilation at any moment.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the Cold War has increasingly faded into history. People born after the Cold War are often unaware of the challenges of the period. Many young people, in fact, don’t even know what Communism is or why it was so stridently opposed by the West and the Catholic Church.

I was very pleased, therefore, to learn about a fantastic new book from author Kristen Van Uden, When the Sickle Swings (Sophia Press, 2023). Subtitled “Stories of Catholics Who Survived Communist Oppression,” Van Uden’s book is a collection of first-hand accounts from Catholics who lived behind the Iron Curtain.

Though they come from places as diverse as Cuba, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, the people interviewed in Van Uden’s book all share the common experience of living out the Catholic faith in the midst of Communist attempts to stamp out religion. The stories are full of heroism and perseverance and will definitely make you thankful for the freedoms we enjoy in the West.

I also want to highlight the service to historians that Kristen Van Uden has done by preserving these first-hand accounts, which she gathered by conducting interviews with survivors and their families. If it were not for Van Uden’s work, such accounts might have been lost to history.

From a pedagogical perspective, this book would be good to add to a unit on modern European history of totalitarianism. It gives a very poignant crash course in what Communism means—not just ideologically, but what it means on the ground, what it looks like for the average person trying to get by under its oppressive weight. If a high school student asked me, “What is Communism?” I’d hand them a copy of When the Sickle Swings. It presents a crystal clear description of what Communism means without getting bogged down in abstractions about Marxist theory. And at 184 pages, it is slim enough to be easily worked into a monthly unit.

I also want to mention a very interesting chapter in the book on the spirit of the antichrist. This chapter offers a synopsis of the Church’s condemnations of Communism and explores the idea of Communism as an ideology in the spirit of the antichrist. It also talks about the Church’s engagement with Communism in the present in a few places, like Vietnam, where there are still Catholics living under the Communist yoke.

I highly recommend Kristen Van Uden’s When the Sickle Swings as a supplementary text for any homeschool unit on Communism, the modern Church, totalitarianism, or modern European history. It is well-researched and well-written and will admirably flesh out your studies on this important period.

If you’d like to continue this discussion, I invite you to join me and other Catholic homeschooling parents at our Homeschool Connections Community or our Facebook group.

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Resources to help you in your Catholic homeschool…

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Homeschooling Saints Podcast

Good Counsel Careers

The Catholic Homeschool Conference

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