Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots: Review by Herb Randall

Herb Randall, whose essay, “A Question in Tchaikovsky Lane,” Punctured Lines was delighted to publish last year, is back with a review of Sana Krasikov‘s monumental novel, The Patriots (Spiegel & Grau, 2017). Krasikov was born in Ukraine, lived in Georgia, and immigrated to the United States; like other contemporary ex-Soviet Jewish writers, she writes in English on Russian/Soviet-related themes. Her first book, the short-story collection One More Year (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), with settings and characters alternating between the U.S. and the former Soviet space, was highly critically acclaimed, and she has won, or been nominated for, several prestigious awards. The Patriots is her second work and first novel, which has also been lauded by critics and readers.

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Sana Krasikov, The Patriots, by Herb Randall

…політика — це далі жити в своїй країні.
любити її такою, якою вона є насправді.
політика — це знаходити слова: важкі, єдині
і лагодити все життя небеса несправні.

…politics is to continue living in one’s own country.
to love it as it really is.
politics is to find words: difficult, unique
and to repair one’s whole life this broken heaven.

— Serhiy Zhadan, “Hospitallers” (trans. Maria Kinash for this review)

One question that has troubled humans for generations is how much of a person’s life is determined by the choices they make, and how much by the environment that surrounds them. This tension between free will and external forces like family, society, and history, has been explored in various literary, religious, political, and philosophical works. Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots is notable for its focus on the consequences of an individual’s choices in the face of near-impossible circumstances, and how the consequences affect subsequent generations.

The Patriots is a gripping, often suspenseful read, despite the reader learning key plot elements early as its parallel narratives wind between generations and continents. The novel focuses on Florence Fein, the granddaughter of Jewish emigrants from the Russian Empire to Brooklyn, and her decision to jettison family and country to live in Stalin’s Soviet Union as the ultimate commitment to her socialist ideals. The second plot line concerns Florence’s son Julian and his own son, Lenny, who, as an American, follows a similar journey to Florence to live in post-Soviet Russia. Much of this plot line focuses on Julian’s reflections on his mother’s choices that left him confined to an orphanage and alienated from her even after they are reunited.

Krasikov weaves real historical events throughout her narrative, so readers familiar with the era will appreciate how skillfully she renders the paranoid, conspiratorial milieu at the personal level of her characters, while unobtrusively explaining context for those less familiar with the Soviet Union’s tumultuous history. Florence’s journey from middle-class Flatbush to Soviet life and the Gulag, her clever subversion of the system that imprisons her to save her own life, and her uneasy return with her Soviet-born family to the United States are all so engagingly told that the reader may occasionally yearn for the return to that plot line during the interlacing chapters about Julian and Lenny. These chapters, though, are crucial for a better understanding of Florence’s character and how her decisions impact not only her own life but the subsequent strained relationship with Julian, which in turn affects his connection with Lenny.

Coming of age during the Great Depression, Florence finds a job at the Soviet trade mission in New York thanks to her Russian-language skills. A temporary assignment lands her in the path of Sergey, a handsome young Soviet engineer who is part of a delegation visiting the U.S., on whose account she loses her virginity, and later her job. Left without work, nursing a deep sense of injustice in terms of American society, and feeling trapped in her parents’ home, she looks to the Soviet Union to find “a life of meaning and consequence.” Florence rejects the incremental politics of reform in the U.S. for her own great leap forward. As the narrator says:

Yes, she could have stayed and waited for all the changes to happen— the decades-long march toward progress. She could have stayed and become part of that march. But she’d had no patience for all that. She had wanted to skip past all those prohibitions and obstructions, all the prejudice and correctness, and leap straight into the future. That’s what the Soviet Union had meant to her back then—a place where the future was already being lived. And so she had fled the Land of the Free to feel free.

However, the third-person objective narrator of the Florence chapters makes it evident that she is a master of self-justification. For although her ideals and hopes for the future are her rationale for the decision to live in the Soviet Union, there is another, much more personal motive:  

But she was too proud to admit to herself […] a fact that might recast her entire noble journey not by the lantern of courage but by the murkier bed lamp of longing.

Leaving behind her parents, whom she would never see again, Florence severs her connection to America, save for corresponding with her beloved younger brother, Sidney. Florence’s journey across the Atlantic finds her in sympathetic company when she meets another young Jewish woman, Essie, from a decidedly less comfortable upbringing in the Bronx, on her way to Moscow to follow similar ideals. Their friendship lasts for years, until Florence becomes bound to Essie by a moral crisis that engulfs them both.

However, unlike Essie, Florence first lives not in Moscow, but Magnitogorsk. She goes there to search for Sergey, but also as a self-imposed trial by fire to remake herself into a true member of the proletariat, worthy of her new home and hoped-for match. It’s a cleverly chosen detail by Krasikov because it encapsulates Florence’s personality: novelty-seeking, serious, brave, clever, but not as clever as she sometimes thinks. The bustling industrial city being forged there is not the proletariat playground of Katayev’s Time, Forward! Instead, Florence finds chaos, squalid living conditions, indifference from her new compatriots, foreshadowing of political problems, and to her horror, bedbugs. What she doesn’t find is Sergey, who has been forced to relocate to Moscow after complaining about corruption at his workplace.

Florence decides to flee Magnitogorsk for Moscow, where she does finally, very briefly encounter Sergey. It is not the reunion she longs for, and in fact he scolds her for her ill-advised decision to come to the Soviet Union. After his rebuke and rejection, Florence reconnects with Essie and is drawn into her circle of friends, including Leon, another idealistic New York Jewish émigré. Florence is initially repulsed by his brash manner, but gradually falls in love with him and they marry. Florence and Leon adopt the Soviet Union as their home by choice, and the Soviet Union in return abducts them by force.

The realization that she and Leon are trapped in the Soviet Union hits Florence suddenly during the late 1930s at a time of increased prewar tension with America and Europe. She hands over her U.S. passport to a Soviet office clerk while applying for continued residency, and it is never returned despite several attempts to regain it. Leon’s passport is also confiscated. It is only after having lost her passport and reading a letter from her brother that Florence feels an urgent desire to return to the U.S. to visit. Issued a receipt with her passport number and told by the residency office she must renew it at the American embassy, she attempts to do that, but the Soviet police blocking the embassy entrance will not allow her through without the original document. She desperately shouts through the gate but in vain.

Even for those lucky few who manage to pass through the Soviet guards outside, the American embassy is unable and unwilling to help, as Julian subsequently relates: 

My parents were hardly the only Americans to be stranded in Moscow after 1936. Hundreds like them were cut adrift in the Soviet Union, comprehending too late that they’d fallen from the grace of the American government. The U.S. Embassy seems to have found every excuse to deny or delay reissuing these citizens their American passports—passports they had lost through no fault other than their naïveté.

Krasikov’s highlighting of this lesser-known aspect of relations between the Soviet Union and America during these years adds further nuance to understanding how little control these expatriates would have over their future after placing themselves in such a precarious position.

Not only is Florence abandoned by the American government in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but, as she later realizes, the Soviet authorities place her under surveillance when she attempts to enter the embassy. She had taken a series of jobs utilizing her native English skills that make her more conspicuous and vulnerable to co-option by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police. Her handler, Subotin, holds out the possibility that her collaboration will earn her an exit visa. She gradually reveals more information about her colleagues and acquaintances, mistakenly thinking she is manipulating him and keeping her family safe from the terror raging around them. However, like the real-life foreigners who were suddenly trapped in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Florence and Leon, although forcibly turned into Soviet citizens, are still seen as outsiders and therefore suspect by Stalin’s regime.

***

The characters’ outsidedness, in various ways, is a crucial theme in The Patriots. Florence, Leon, Julian, and their friends keenly feel the disconnectedness of multiple identities, of “otherness,” most notably in being Jewish. A child of immigrants in America, an American among Soviets, yet seen everywhere as a Jew, Florence never belongs anywhere entirely, even in the country to which she voluntarily devotes her life:

Amerikantsi,” Subotin said as he wrote it down. He was smiling to himself, a smile that suggested he knew just as well as Florence did that—American or not— they had the double blessing of being Jews.

During the Second World War, Florence, Leon, Essie, and their friend, Seldon, work for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, organized by the Soviet government to create propaganda to galvanize political and financial support in the West for the war effort. As victory nears and their usefulness to the regime diminishes, there comes a fresh wave of anti-Jewish sentiment. Florence and Essie recount the sudden rise in antisemitic attitudes even from their close colleagues:

“After all these years, I thought I was finally…”
“One of them,” said Florence.
Essie nodded, her eyes dry now. “But we never will be, will we?”

A generation later, Julian also experiences discrimination, less virulent but still institutionalized in the Soviet Union, when his doctoral thesis is rejected, the quota of Jewish doctorates having already been filled. When necessary to further their aims, the Soviets overlook Florence’s dual identities as “disloyal” Jew and “dangerous” foreigner, while using them as tools to control her, but as Stalin’s regime grows ever more paranoid, she becomes expendable. Florence’s enthusiastic decision to settle in the Soviet Union and devote her life to building communism is not enough to shield her and her family from the midnight knock on the door that all along the reader suspects is coming.

***

Unlike Florence, Julian is a first-person narrator who movingly recounts the story of his abandonment after his parents’ arrests. Spending seven years in a state orphanage, as an adult Julian struggles not so much with that desertion as with Florence’s inability to denounce the system that held them both captive and to admit her mistakes. His yearning to comprehend how Florence could choose to live in Soviet Russia, marry and have a child, while not doing everything possible to protect him is the primary source of momentum in The Patriots, keeping the reader engaged even as the outline of this story is revealed at the outset of the novel. Reflecting on his mother’s actions, he says, “The defining tragedy of my mother’s life was that she’d never had an instinct for family preservation.” When Florence reveals that an old friend had offered them help to flee Moscow and “stay with her relatives for a while, keep low after Papa was arrested,” he is shocked by his mother’s lack of concern for their well being:

“So why didn’t we go?” I said.
But she’d laughed at my dismay. “What was I going to do in a village? Pick turnips? Grow potatoes?”

Compounding Julian’s internal conflict is his adult son, Lenny, who is in Moscow not for any supposed high ideals like Florence, but merely to chase his fortune, precariously and only partially successfully. Julian routinely travels to Russia for business, but he also uses his visits to clumsily try to convince Lenny to return home to America. However, Lenny, who had a special bond with his grandmother, shares her stubbornness:

“Baba Flora didn’t regret her life. And neither do I. She had a front seat on history.”
I thought my jaw might drop. “Is that what she called it?”
“She always said, ‘The only way to learn who you are is to leave home.’”

Like his grandmother, Lenny will not admit defeat regardless of the difficulties. He feels his life in Russia has been an adventure, just as Florence did. Julian, on the other hand, sees only the resulting catastrophe:

“Adventure?” I said. “That’s what they call it when everyone comes back alive. Otherwise it’s called a tragedy. That’s what my father’s life was—a tragedy. And my mother’s, too, for that matter.”
“Yeah? She didn’t seem to think so.”
“That’s because she was a narcissist, Lenny,” I said. “She didn’t think about anybody but herself. She was a grade-A delusional narcissist. Like you.”

The selfishness may have skipped a generation, but Julian must bear the consequences from both mother and son. Just as Florence minimized the many privations and persecutions of her life in the Soviet Union in order to maintain her own fantasy of living with greater meaning there, Lenny is unconcerned about the rough treatment he endures in contemporary Russia and the justified worries of his parents. He is oblivious to both Julian’s childhood traumas and to the fact that, like a child, he still needs his father’s help to escape troubles of his own devising.

***

The catastrophe, when it comes, finds Florence trapped in an impossible moral dilemma, which is largely a product of trying to live in her own idealized image of the Soviet Union. She throws her best friend Essie to the NKVD in a desperate last bid to save herself and her family. However, the net of Stalin’s repressions and paranoia inexorably draws tighter around Florence, her husband, and remaining friends. It is a testament to Krasikov’s skill in creating a truly complex character like Florence that readers will find themselves sometimes sympathizing with her even if she is not entirely sympathetic. They might empathize with her decision to settle in a country with a recent revolution, violence, and state terror in the context of naïve political idealism and the lure of a first romance. However, Florence is unable even decades after her imprisonment in the Gulag to fully admit to herself or her son the extent of the damage she caused by her decision to live in the Soviet Union. Worse still, as Julian points out, the consequences could have been avoided entirely:

“And what about me, Mama? Did you ever think about what would happen to me when they came for you?”
[…]
“Yes, I did think about it. Your father and I talked about it […] [W]e knew that, no matter what happened to either of us, they would never let anything bad happen to the children here. The children were always going to be taken care of.”
[…]
“No matter what happened to you, Mama? […] [B]ut, Mama,” I said, “it didn’t have to happen to you at all! Don’t you get it? None of it had to happen to you, or to anybody.”

Eventually, while in Moscow for work, Julian gains access to his mother’s criminal file that confirms what he already suspected: his mother had been an informer, albeit with the goal of staving off disaster for herself and her family:

[A] victim of her times, of her political beliefs, a victim of her stubbornness and of her illusions. And, certainly, she had been a victim, but until this night I had not considered how she might also have been something else. An accomplice to that very same system that preyed on her. Only now did I allow myself to consider the alternate explanation: that her muteness was not the submissiveness of a slave but the silence of an accessory.

Julian finally realizes that his mother’s inability to renounce her choice to live in the Soviet Union despite the tragic outcome for everyone she cared about was not a rejection of him in favor of her political beliefs. Rather, it was a way for her to deal with the guilt of having been a part of that system of collaboration, denunciations, and betrayals. Tragically, this understanding of her motivations comes too late to repair their strained relationship. Yet Florence unknowingly bequeaths Julian a legacy that brings not only peace to a grieving son, but a way for him to break the generational cycle that he and Lenny are repeating, where now, like Florence’s parents, he is the disapproving father of a child seeking a new life in a foreign country. In her police file, Julian discovers that Florence’s interrogation had ended abruptly, and what could have resulted in a death sentence instead became time in the Gulag with a chance to survive and see her son again. The reason is unclear as Julian reads her file, but Sidney explains how Florence was able to game the system and escape with her life by pitting one of her tormentors against the other. Inspired and impressed by her audacity, Julian uses the same method to extricate Lenny from his legal troubles in Putin’s corrupt Russia. More importantly, Julian comes to understand that, like Florence, full of “[w]anderlust and stubbornness,” Lenny must be left free to follow his own path, even if he feels it is misguided.

***

The final section of The Patriots opens with an abrupt shift to the story of Henry, an American F-86 Sabre pilot in the Korean War, who is downed and ends up in the same camp as Florence, subject to intense interrogation to reveal the secrets of the advanced technology of the fighter jet. Fluent in English, Florence becomes his interpreter, an act that saves her life once again as she uses the circumstances to receive extra rations, rest from physical exertion, and receive necessary medical attention by drawing out the interrogation, with Henry’s cooperation. The pact Henry and Florence make to keep her alive, though, is not entirely sincere on her part. Florence’s symbiosis with the unfortunate pilot highlights the extent to which the life she chose in the Soviet Union results not only in her traumatization by, but her assimilation into, that brutal system. The conclusion of Henry’s story offers a heartrending reflection on the meaning of the novel’s title, as well as a stark personification of the theme of personal responsibility in conflict with the grand sweep of history.

Julian’s uncle advocates the view that the individual is no match for those forces of history that constantly push and pull and sometimes smash:

“The point, my friend,” Sidney said sharply, “is we’re all leashed pretty tightly to the era we’re living through. To the tyranny of our time. Even me. Even you. We’re none of us as free as we’d like to think. I’m not saying it as an excuse. But very few of us can push up against the weight of all that probability. And those that do—who’s to say their lives are any better for it?”
I knew he meant Florence—unpinning herself from one set of circumstances, only to be pinned down by another.

The struggle between fate and free will finds no simple answer in The Patriots. Julian develops a more nuanced understanding of Florence’s tragic life, informed by Sidney’s argument for the inescapability of the system that nearly obliterated their young family. This is not to discount Florence’s responsibility in making her decisions, however: while youthful and naive, they were still hers alone to make. The novel begins with Florence’s creed, “[b]reaking your family’s heart was the price you paid for rescuing your own,” and the enormous, generation-spanning price paid for this outlook lingers in readers’ minds long after reaching the closing pages of Krasikov’s captivating, sensitive work.

Herb Randall lives among the idyllic mountains, forests, and waters of rural New Hampshire and has travelled extensively in Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, and Estonia. He enjoys exploring lesser-known places, reading with a special focus on fiction in translation, and writing about forgotten people and places. His writing can be found in Punctured Lines and Apofenie. Twitter: @herbrandall

You can buy The Patriots here and One More Year here, and of course from your favorite independent bookstore.

“Only happy children are loved” — A Review of Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva

Most of us who grew up in the Soviet Union will remember Samuil Marshak’s rhyming dramatic tale Koshkin dom — The Cat’s House. A wealthy angora cat builds herself a new residence. Two destitute kittens show up at her doorstep, begging her to share her house with them: We’re your nephews, they say. We’re poor orphans. Won’t you let us in and feed us? The wealthy angora cat has her servant shoo them away, setting off the action of the drama in which the angora cat eventually gets her punishment for refusing help to the kittens in need, and the orphan kittens prove to be in the position to give her shelter.

Marshak’s rhymes were at the tip of my tongue while I was reading Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva (Academic Studies Press, 2019), as though Doba-Mera and her brothers were the original orphans, the prototypes behind Marshak’s dramatic tale — except their life’s story didn’t make room for happy endings.

Doba-Mera Gurevich was born in 1892 in the shtetl of Khotimsk on the eastern edge of Belarus and the Pale of Settlement — that part of the Russian empire where Jews were allowed to live. Her mother died in 1903, when Doba-Mera was eleven, and as she was dying, she left Doba-Mera this parting message: “From the moment I close my eyes, the whole world will reject you. Because only happy children are loved.”

This is, indeed, what happened: Doba-Mera had to leave school to take care of her brothers; Doba-Mera’s father, a teacher, remarried, and because his new wife didn’t have the resources to raise the children from his previous marriage, Doba-Mera and her two younger brothers went from relative’s house to relative’s house, working and suffering their way through their childhood. Several years later, her baby brother, of poor health from birth, succumbed to an illness and died.

Khotimsk in 2013, photo by Dmitriy Ivchenko from Photo Encylopedia Belarus

Doba-Mera describes one occasion on which, after spending time with their grandfather for High Holidays, she and her brothers were sent by a hired wagon to their uncle’s house:

Uncle himself came out and asked in a saccharine way, “Who are these children you have brought me?” “They are the orphans of your younger sister Rokhl”… “So why did you bring them to me? asked Uncle. “You, Veniaminovich,” said the driver, “take them off the wagon, warm them up and feed them — they are hungry and wet — then ask your questions. Look, the poor little ones are frozen stiff.”…. And Uncle stood by the door and stroked his beard and said, addressing the driver by name: “I have nowhere to put them, but they have an aunt here, their father’s sister. They don’t live very far; take them there.”

Eventually, Doba-Mera’s family put together the money to apprentice her to a tailor, and after learning how to fend for herself in a male-dominated environment, she acquired a trade. She witnessed a pogrom and was lucky to come out unscathed physically. She married a distant relative whose parents hated her and made her married life very difficult. She describes years of fear, poverty, and anguish during WWI. After October 1917, she and her husband were eventually able to leave their shtetl and settle in Leningrad, improving their fortunes somewhat, but then came WWII and its attendant horrors.

I won’t overstate the matter if I say that this was a relentlessly sad book down to the very last page. In fact, the most horrific incident comes in a footnote on that page: in this footnote, Michael Beizer, Doba-Mera’s grandson and the force behind the publication of this book, recounts a story told by a resident of the town of Klintsy (not far from Khotimsk), who had been forced to bury the dead after the Nazi shooting of the Jewish residents. I won’t tell this story here — it’s painful. I have to admit, at first, I was deeply angry at Beizer for leaving me with this story on the last page of Doba-Mera’s book, and it’s only with time that I came to realize how appropriate it was to end the book with this Holocaust story. Though Doba-Mera and her children had been able to escape it, it is the Holocaust and the loss of so many lives and so much knowledge that necessitated if not the writing than the publishing of her book. It still hurts to recall that story though.

Doba-Mera began writing her memoirs in the 1930s, living in Leningrad and wanting to tell her children something about her past. Having left school at the age of eleven, she clearly took a lot of pride at her abilities as a learner and deeply regretted that life hadn’t allowed her to use those skills more. She wrote in Russian and addressed herself to her Russian-speaking children and grandchildren, explaining Jewish customs and a way of life. The memoir comes to us in English in a deeply nuanced translation by Alice Nakhimovsky, who in her accompanying note marvels at Doba-Mera, ascribing to her membership in “a vanishingly small group of memoirists who are neither elite nor highly literate but whose observations from the ground cast a vivid light on a lost world.” Nakhimovsky helps to illuminate that world by bringing into English Doba-Mera’s particular idiom, a Russian infused with concepts and a particular cadence taken from Yiddish — the memoirist’s first language.

To me, this memoir feels valuable also because of the way Doba-Mera not only captures her personal experience but constantly connects it to the larger social structures that governed her life. For instance, this is how she recounts life at the edge of the Pale of Settlement (her town was apparently right on the border of what is now Belarus and Russia):

One summer day after work I went with my girlfriends to walk along Barabanovka Street. The street was on the other side of the river, where everybody used to go walking. Jews were allowed to walk but not to live there. A landowner lived there by the name of Robert. He couldn’t stand Jews, but as our stetl was in Mogilev Province, and Jews were permitted to live there, he got the government to make his street part of Orel Province, where Jews were forbidden to live. And he got all the Jews sent away from there. The empty houses where the Jews had lived were boarded up, and nobody would buy them because the Russians were confident that they would get everything anyway.

So on the Sabbath and holidays everybody would stroll there. The street was beautiful, with a lot of greenery, and so everybody liked to stroll along it.

This moment from the year 1907 is probably one of the happiest in Doba-Mera’s life. She goes on to describe her encounters with various socialist revolutionary groups during this period of her life. She wasn’t a revolutionary herself — she had her brothers to provide for — but she recalls going to underground gatherings and gives us the outline of the underground activity in her area.

The other distinct pleasure of reading this memoir is the candid way Doba-Mera writes about her own emotions, including the times when they turned ugly. She doesn’t shy away from describing her feelings of regret, sadness, jealousy. In one particularly devastating moment, she drops her work for several months to travel with her ailing father to Kiev, in the vague hope that he might be saved by the doctors there. She gets recommendation letters to distant family members and with trepidation approaches them upon arrival, encountering in their way of life such luxury and wealth that she hadn’t seen in the Pale.

Brodsky’s free Jewish clinic in Kiev (image circa 2011 from the website Interesting Kyiv)

I was seized with anger and at the same time envy, because [a relative’s son] was a student and could get nothing but Cs and was given everything he could possibly need, while I studied so well but had to become a tailor and live a life of piteous need and, to make matters worse, turn up in a big, unknown city where Jews weren’t allowed to live with a sick father, without money, wondering every minute whether I would get him home alive. At every step I cursed the day of my birth and came to the conclusion that only rich people should have children, because poor people get only suffering from them and the children also suffer.

The bitterness of Doba-Mera’s voice felt deeply familiar to me and eventually I realized that it was bringing back the intonations of my grandmother’s speech. My grandmother Raissa (Reesya) was born in Tikhinichi, another Belarusian stetl, about 130 miles from Khotimsk in 1912 or 13, about the same time as Doba-Mera’s first child. Like Doba-Mera, Raissa received her first education in a male cheder (elementary school where boys learned to read Hebrew and studied the Torah), though being a generation younger and having her mother to help her, she was able to continue her education in Leningrad. Nevertheless, life, to Raissa was a series of trials and punishments for sins she didn’t commit, and though she believed that she improved her lot by hard work and sacrifice, she refused to talk about things like “love” and “happiness.” When I tried to ask her about these things, the most she would tell me was pozhivesh–uvidish, which loosely translates as “just wait and see what life is really like.”

As a child in the 1980s, I resented this attitude and was only too happy to have a chance to escape “my lot” by moving to the United States. I have escaped, and so completely that I needed Doba-Mera’s book as a reminder of this way of thinking. Today, I find myself deeply grateful to Michael Beizer and Alice Nakhimovsky and to Academic Studies Press for this brave book. Its nonconformity to the expectations we place on the genre of the memoir (tell us what your struggles have taught you; or in any case, please land on an uplifting note) is liberating and feels deeply true to my ancestors’ ways of conceptualizing their own lives.

Maybe Esther, A Family Story by Katja Petrowskaja, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch

Katja Petrowskaja grew up in Kiev, studied in Estonia and Moscow, and lives in Berlin. Maybe Esther was written in German and first published in Germany, in 2014. It was translated to English by Shelley Frisch and published in 2018. She came to the Bay Area Book Festival about a year ago, and I went to her talk and picked up this book. When I started reading it, frankly, I wasn’t sure I was going to finish it. As far as family stories go, this one felt too similar to my own–and why read about something I already know so well, from living it?

I stuck with it because Petrowskaja’s a good storyteller, and a tenacious one, because she has followed her family story several more steps than I have ever done with mine, and because on the page she’s able to capture the complex emotions of following these heartbreaking stories. Of course, in actuality, her family’s story isn’t anything like mine. The similarities begin and end with this: We both grew up in Jewish families in the Soviet Union and emigrated after the Soviet Union fell apart. I write in English, she in German. If it felt like a familiar story at first, it’s precisely because I haven’t read enough books like this. I’ve only read just a few that focus on the Soviet Jewish family saga with any degree of depth (Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog in Lisa C. Hayden’s translation being the most recent, and wildly different from Maybe Esther), and they feel the same only because the gap between Kiev and Leningrad Jews in the 1980s is a lot narrower than, say, between Petersburg Jews and New York Jews. That is, it feels close enough to home.

There are a few main characters in Petrowskaja’s family saga. The story of Grandmother Rosa provides the main through-line. She grew up in a Jewish family, and her father, Ozjel Krzewin was born in Vienna, lived in Poland, and then died in Kiev, and ran a private school for deaf-mute children throughout his life–Rosa, too, inherited the profession of educating deaf-mute children. Rosa’s husband and Katja’s grandfather, Ukrainian Vasily Ovdiyenko during WWII was captured and became a prisoner of war in German labor camps. When he returned from the war, he met his wife briefly, but then went to live with another woman and stayed with her for more than forty years. Shortly before his death, he came home to Rosa–who was still waiting for him.

In writing the book, Petrowskaja follows the story of the Jewish side of the family, and then she also traces Vasily’s journey through the German labor camp system throughout Austria–it was a brutal three-year journey that few survived. She visits several labor camps that also served as death camps for Hungarian Jews, to arrive at an epiphany: it must’ve been something that Vasily witnessed in the camps that made his return to his loving family, a wife and two children, impossible after the war.

I don’t know where this conviction stemmed from, but it was right here in this small camp that something happened after everything that had happened already that made my grandfather’s return home impossible, so that he, back in Kiev, could not stay with his family, not with his daughter and not with his wife, Rosa, whose mother and sister lie in Babi Yar, which makes a person Jewish forever, I know that his failure to return had something to do with the death march of the Hungarian Jews

That sentence doesn’t have a period and it doesn’t need one. I should add, that actually this relative’s experience Katja and I, too, have in common: my grandfather, Jewish, was a POW in a German labor camp, and survived. He did return to the family, and one of the things I’m forever trying to write about is what his survival looked to the rest of us, his family, living with him. I finished the book grateful to Katja Petrowskaja for finding the words to unpack some of her experiences.

For a more formal review of this book, please read Linda Kinstler’s review in LARB.

Hilah Kohen responds to Completely Different, the collection of queer Russophone science fiction, a Twitter feed

In a post from a few weeks ago, I mentioned Completely Different — a Russian-language collection of queer science fiction published in Bishkek, and Calvert Journal’s publication of a translation of one of the pieces. In a series of Twitter posts, Hilah Kohen responded and partially reviewed this collection. Given how rare conversations about queer Russian-language science fiction are in the English-language russophone zone, and my delight in them, I asked for Hilah’s permission to put her response on Punctured Lines. Enjoy! (I’m preserving most of the Twitter grammar.)

Hilah Kohen:

Completely Different, the collection of queer Russophone sci-fi and fantasy that this story in @calvertjournal comes from, is available [on Academia.edu as a PDF]. I was late to the party and haven’t read all of it, but what’s really struck me so far is how many pieces center the aftermath of all queer feminists splitting off from society completely and (literally, cuz sci-fi) building their own world. (Sounds dead obvious, I know, but imo it’s not & says something really interesting about post-Soviet opposition politics).

In this piece, the queer separatist utopia is a planet where residents rebuild their own bodies rather than terraforming. In another, it’s a “dimension” that only special augmented reality glasses can see (the patriarchy has its own, mutually exclusive AR system).

(Worth nothing that “kvir-feminizm” works differently in Russian than in English. Even waaay outside scholarship/theory, people use it to label a worldview aligned with intersectional feminism and opposed to TERFism/”radical feminism” but in the same semantic category as both.)

Anyway, with earthly utopias so lacking, these stories could just indulge endlessly in their fictional utopias (since they did take the unexpected imaginative step of separating them out), but no, they have to struggle with the prospect that no matter what beautiful, willfully self-contradictory society Russophone queer feminism might build on its own, it’ll never be content without going back to the old world ~forever~ because the very fact of reproduction means some citizens of the utopia will always be abroad.

(insert dramatic music)

Rus­sophone Science Fic­tion and Uto­pias in the Mar­gins, an essay by Sanna Tuorma in Aleksanteri Insight

This article published in December just before the holidays, seems worth highlighting. The topic is dear to me: I’ve been an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy literature, and I am particularly fond of contemporary feminist science fiction. But first, I want to highlight the books that Tuorma mentions in her essay.

Tuorma begins with a review of a scholarly volume, The Post-Soviet Politics of Utopia (I.B. Tauris, Sept. 19, 2019), edited by Mikhail Suslov and Per-Arne Bodin. As always with scholarly publications, this book is insanely expensive. Amazon, however, does have a decent preview of it that includes the introduction and gives us a good sense of the various threads of inquiry in this book.

Summarizing the volume’s findings, Tuorma writes, “Current Russian scientific and fantasy literature, both utopian and dystopic, seems to lack the radical and transformative power seminal to science fiction.” She suggests, following the advice of a Finnish-language publication Voima “to abandon dystopias, the predominant mode of global cultural production, and to envision ecological and economic utopias instead.”

She offers one recent anthology of Russian-language feminist and LGBT science fiction that comes from outside of the imperial center. This book, Совсем другие, is available in full from Academia.edu–in the Russian language. An English translation of its opening story, “Element 174,” penned by Kyrgyz activist and academic Syinat Sultanalieva, recently appeared in The Calvert Journal, translated by Lesya Myata and Samuel Goff.

I was born this way: a shameless lesbian. Ever since it became clear that I would have to be physically present on the planet of Omay, it had been my personal goal to sleep with as many of their famously gorgeous women as possible. There were rumours that they were all lesbians. I think my brothers would have understood, had they known about my plans — after all, it wasn’t exactly easy to get hold of women on Earth. There weren’t many left, and those that remained had mostly already been distributed amongst the domains. Those who grew up in ours were either too young or already related to me. I might be a lesbian, but I’m not so craven as to seduce them. I had to get by as best I could, making rare visits to the worse-for-wear residents of the Wild Zone or engaging in self-care. Luckily my father had some antique pictures and videos of sordid delights from before the Exodus, so I could indulge my fantasies at will.

https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/9831/being-lgbtq-element-174-syinat-sultanalieva-shtab

I’m incredibly grateful to Tuorma for pointing out what looks to be a very exciting read.

Looking over the articles that comprise the scholarly volume, I do find it unfortunate that the names of whom I think first in the list of post-Soviet science fiction and fantasy authors had not been taken up for consideration. My personal anthology of writers in this genre begins with the names of Max Frei, Lena Eltang, Linor Goralik, Elena Pervushina–that’s off the top of my head…

Emily Couch on The Ethnic Avant-Garde and Diversity in Russia Studies

By Emily Couch

In 2015, Steven S. Lee published the monograph The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures & World Revolution. It may seem strange to write about a book four years after its publication, but the continued lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies makes Lee’s work more relevant than ever. Today we should consider The Ethnic Avant-Garde as not only a valuable source of information and analysis on a much neglected topic, but also as a springboard for reconsidering the field’s methodologies, as well as dominant political discourses on the region and its Soviet past. 

WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?

Lee defines the “Ethnic Avant-Garde” as referring to the diverse artists and writers who engaged with the Soviet Union from beyond its borders, but his central contention is that the phrase defines a  “largely unrealized utopian aspiration […] the dream of advancing simultaneously ethnic particularism, political radicalism, and artistic experimentation, debunking the notion that particularism yields provincialism.”  The Ethnic Avant-Garde, he adds, “foregrounds a distinct way of seeing – a ‘transnational optic’ that, for the contemporary reader, makes it possible to discern unexpected connections among radical artists and writers from many different countries.” The book does not idealize the Soviet system or its minority policy, but rather argues that foregrounding the Ethnic Avant-Garde facilitates a “minority and Soviet-centered remapping of global modernism” and “provides for new scholarly and creative communities in the present day.”

Chapter 1 analyzes the cultural exchange between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Langston Hughes by looking at the way in which the latter translated and adapted the poetry of the former. Chapter 2 considers Sergei Tretyakov’s play Roar, China and its reception in the United States. Chapter 3 looks at Hughes’ famous dismissal of the planned Soviet movie about African American struggles, and Chapter 4 addresses the complex attitude of American Jews towards socialist internationalism.  Overall, the book covers the inter-war period from 1918 to 1939.

REVIEW OF THE BOOK 

The strongest suit of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is the multitude of significant, but little known, examples of cultural interaction between Western ethnic minorities and the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most emblematic of these is Lee’s analysis of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Black & White” (1925) – a poem in which Willie, a black sweeper at an American cigar company in Havana, slowly gains awareness of racial inequity – and its subsequent translation into English by Langston Hughes in the 1930s. Through analysis of word choice, form, and rhythm, Lee reveals the cultural collaboration that took place between these seemingly disparate authors (even though Mayakovsky was no longer alive by the time of Hughes’ translation), and highlights the way in which Hughes not only translated Russian into English, but also represented Afro-Cuban culture in a way that was comprehensible to an American audience.  Another strength of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is that its content – the book covers multiple ethnicities, including African American, Asian, Afro-Cuban, and Jewish – reflects Lee’s mission to “delineate an avant-garde grouping that cuts across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries.”

This ambitious motivation is, in part, responsible for the book’s shortcomings.  The concept of the Avant-Garde is inherently abstract (think of Kazimir Malevich’s paintings), so it is not surprising that Lee’s writing style is heavily theoretical – his use of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919 – 1920) as a visual metaphor for the Ethnic Avant-Garde is a prime example of this tendency.  The plethora of abstract concepts with which Lee grapples frequently leads to dense and obtuse paragraphs that would make little sense to a reader who was not well-versed in the theoretical underpinnings of modernism. Terms such as “Freudian melancholia” and “Now-Time,” for example, receive little explanation. This trend carries through to the final chapter which, instead of bringing the book’s narrative to a close, offers yet more theorization – this time, focusing on how Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010) negotiates the “eternal idea” of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its reality.  While the discussion of Yamashita’s work is rigorous, it does feel like something of a non sequitur in a book that primarily discusses the Soviet Union.

WHY IS IT SIGNIFICANT?

Let’s turn to methodologies. Russia studies, like every field of area studies, is an umbrella term that houses multiple disciplines – namely, international relations, political and social science, history, literature, art, and language.  Yet, while Russia studies is a broad church, there is a strange lack of interdisciplinary dialogue, particularly when it comes to the international relations and political science strands.  For scholars of literature and art, it is natural to draw on the research in these fields in order to understand the backdrop of, and worldview encoded in, the work. However, there is little in the way of reciprocal influence due to the unfortunate tendency among IR and political science scholars to see their disciplines as detached from the “softer” realm of cultural studies. The Ethnic Avant-Garde embodies the fruitful results of this kind of interdisciplinarity work.  Lee himself is an Associate Professor of English Literature at Berkeley, but he uses the techniques of literary analysis in order to draw wider conclusions about the social and political nature of the relationship between the Soviet Union and ethnic minorities abroad.  

Interdisciplinary methodologies, in turn, prompt a rethinking of Western political discourse on the Soviet Union. Understanding the cultural ties and, indeed, the cultural attraction that it exerted for Western ethnic minorities invites a critical reassessment of the traditionally antagonistic Cold War rhetoric. The dominant U.S. rhetoric of the Cold War period posited the Soviet Union as the antithesis to American ideals of democracy and capitalism.  Encoded in this rhetoric, however, was the pervasive inequity in racial relations, especially regarding the African American community. Thus, anti-Soviet discourses erased the experiences of those ethnic/racial groups who were not included within these “patriotic” ideals. Granted, The Ethnic Avant-Garde does not technically cover the Cold War (i.e. post-World War II) period.  However, its final chapter does suggest that the People’s Republic of China – founded in 1949 – offered a beacon of hope for Western ethnic minorities. The nuancing called for by Lee’s work, in turn, spotlights the ever growing need for greater diversity among the practitioners and scholars who study the region.

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL 

The iconic slogan of the 1960s and 70s women’s movement has been repeated to the point of banality over the last six decades, but this does not mean that it is any less relevant today. Academic book reviews rarely mention the author’s personal biography, but in this discussion of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies it is salient to point out that Lee himself – as he writes in the Acknowledgements – is the child of Korean immigrants to the United States.  He is among the few ethnically East Asian scholars in Russia studies (other examples being Notre Dame’s Emily Wang and UPenn’s Brian Kim). Lee’s personal background makes The Ethnic Avant-Garde political: beyond its specific content, the very fact that a seminal contribution to the field has been made by a person of color is, in itself, worthy of celebration. Most significantly, however, is that The Ethnic Avant-Garde points to the way diversity in the profession can facilitate a dramatic reinterpretation of the Soviet Union’s place in the global cultural space by foregrounding the inter-ethnic and inter-racial connections that the present Eurocentric scholarship has overlooked.

Emily Couch is a Staff Intern at the Kennan Institute.  She recently completed a double Master’s degree in Russian & East European Studies at University College London and the Higher School of Economics (Moscow). She has just returned from a year living in Russia where, in addition to her degree, she interned with the independent Russian pollster, The Levada Center.  Earlier this year, she defended her thesis entitled The Inter-regional Diffusion of Russian Protest Repertoires in a Trans-National Context, 2008 – Present.  Her articles have been published by news outlets including The Moscow Times and The Calvert Journal.
Twitter: @EmilyCouchUK

Alicia J. Rouverol on Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories (WTAW Press, 2019)

A recent review singing the richly deserved praises of our own Olga Zilberbourg’s debut English-language collection, LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES, out now:

“In an era of ‘short shorts’ hailed in by the venerable Lydia Davis—and culminating in ‘the fragmentary’ in the recent Nobel Prize-winning work of Olga Tokarczuk—one wonders if there remains space for a new collection of shorts: stories that up-end expectation and offer distinctive voice and lesser charted areas of exploration. San Francisco-based, Russian émigré writer Olga Zilberbourg, in her first story collection published in English, allays that concern. Zilberbourg is author of three Russian-language story collections; her fiction has been widely published in esteemed US literary journals; and she has won numerous prizes, including the Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize in 2016. A native of Leningrad, raised in St Petersburg, Zilberbourg moved to the US in 2006 to study at the Rochester Institute of Technology, later earning the MA in Comparative Literature at San Francisco State University.”

http://www.themanchesterreview.co.uk/?p=11103

The NOS(E) Award’s 2019 Longlist

Thank you, as always, to Lisa Hayden of Lizok’s Bookshelf for keeping us all up to date on prize-related announcements. We are happy to share the list here, particularly as it contains her very helpful, and entertaining, descriptions of the nominated works. Less happy is the subject we’ve talked about previously on this blog (and which, in the wake of the Nobel, some of us have debated in a – let’s go with “spirited” – manner on Twitter): of the sixteen titles, only three are by women. While no one in their right mind would suggest that gender should be the sole criterion for anything, really, there is a real issue with Russian literary prizes being overwhelmingly skewed toward male writers (googling the major award winners will confirm this in short order). This is not meant as a slight to any of the men on the list, but it is a question that needs to be asked, over and over, until we arrive at a workable solution: how do we honor good writing whoever the writer may be while at the same time ensure more balanced representation in terms of nominations and winners? Suggestions welcome; perhaps someone can forward them to the Russian prize committees.

http://lizoksbooks.blogspot.com/2019/10/the-nose-awards-2019-longlist.html

A Soviet YA Classic: Aleksandra Brushtein’s Дорога уходит в даль (The Road Goes off into the Distance)

It is hard to overstate just how much Aleksandra Brushtein’s autobiographical novel about Aleksandra (Sasha) Yanovskaya, a young Jewish girl growing up in Vilna at the turn of the century, was beloved by generations of Soviet children. At a time when I have completely forgotten plots of books I read much later, I can still recall various episodes from this one. A copy of the book, which my family took with us when we left the Soviet Union, is one of my prized possessions. My mom loved this book so much she wanted to name me Sasha (an attempt ended by my great-grandmother Aleksandra’s announcement post my birth that Ashkenazi Jews cannot name children after living relatives). A remarkable thing about this novel is that it has a Jewish protagonist and depicts Jewish life but still became so popular in a country as anti-Semitic as the Soviet Union. Its popularity has endured in contemporary Russia, where “since 2005, a new printing of the book by different publishers has appeared almost every two years,” including an annotated edition.

Yet as Liza Rozovsky’s article notes, Brushtein “is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world.” To date, there is no English translation. If there is a translator out there who could take on this project, many in the diaspora would be eternally grateful on behalf of their children and their English-speaking friends’ children. In any case, it’s great to see this book being written about at length and we — and our inner younger selves — are thrilled to highlight it on Punctured Lines.

“The book that is imprinted in my memory as a moral and political compass, and the book I would like my children to know, is a Soviet-era work for children and juveniles titled “The Road Slips Away into the Distance.” It’s an autobiographical trilogy by the Jewish children’s playwright and memoirist Aleksandra Brushtein, who is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world. The first volume of the work was translated into Hebrew in the 1980s, but Brushtein (1884-1968) remains unknown in Israel, too. In the Soviet Union, where it ran through many editions of tens of thousands of copies each, the trilogy achieved cult status.”

The Novel That Introduced Soviet Jews to Their Forgotten History

Yelena Furman on Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories

“In ‘Rubicon,’ which opens Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories, the narrator, on her way to pick up her son from preschool, says, ‘spring came on hard and much too early this year, which must be why the dimensions of reality shifted.’ If the story’s realistic beginning gives the impression that this shift is figurative, it soon becomes apparent that reality really does alter: on a street in San Francisco, a young man she knew back in 1990s Russia, who is ‘still seventeen on this day in 2018,’ drives up to hand her a ‘TDK compact cassette, the exact kind he and I used to exchange in high school.'”

http://jordanrussiacenter.org/news/review-olga-zilberbourgs-english-language-debut-like-water-and-other-stories/#.XaItf0ZKiyI