By Robin Jacobson.
Russia is in the news a lot lately. Am I imagining that American Jews pay particular attention to news from that country? Millions of us descend from immigrants who fled Czarist Russia. One could speculate endlessly on what our family stories would be if those ancestors had stayed put. The thriving genre of Soviet Jewish émigré fiction provides insight into that “road not taken.” These novels reflect the experiences of authors who were born in the former Soviet Union and emigrated in the 1980s and 1990s. Beth El’s book club has already sampled from this genre, reading works by David Bezmozgis and Boris Fishman.
Here are two more talented Soviet-Jewish émigré authors to try: Sana Krasikov and Lara Vapnyar. Both have compelling new novels relating to Russia and, interestingly, they are mirror images of each other. Krasikov’s The Patriots is about American immigrants in Russia, and Vapnyar’s Still Here is about Russian immigrants in the United States.
Sana Krasikov’s sprawling historical novel, The Patriots, follows one Jewish family for three generations. In 1934, Florence Fein, an idealistic young woman from Brooklyn, sets sail for the Soviet Union. She is eager to join the socialist cause and to reunite with a handsome Soviet engineer she met while he was on U.S. assignment. Alas for Florence, life in Stalin’s empire is grim and dangerous. In 1936, Soviet authorities confiscate her American passport, leaving her trapped in the U.S.S.R., a fate shared by many American expatriates. In time, Florence is arrested for alleged anti-Soviet activity and serves seven years in brutal labor camps while her son, Julian, suffers in orphanages.
A generation later, Julian decides he’s done with the U.S.S.R. after he is denied a Ph.D. because the “Jewish quota” is full. He immigrates with his young family and the elderly Florence to the United States. Despite this family history, Julian’s son, Lenny, opts to return to Russia as an adult, hoping to become rich in the post-Soviet capitalistic state. Distressed by Lenny’s decision, Julian takes advantage of a business trip to Russia to try to persuade Lenny to come back to America. While in Russia, Julian also researches Florence’s past in newly opened KGB archives. Bewildered by what he discovers, Julian gains understanding as he and Lenny become entangled in a corrupt Russian scheme.
Still Here by Lara Vapnyar is a contemporary novel about four Russian friends in their late 30s. They immigrated to New York over a 14-year span but feel like outsiders in America. The four friends are Sergey and Vica, a financially stressed married couple; Regina, a literary translator; and Vadik, a computer programmer who restlessly changes apartments, girlfriends, and his online dating profiles. Sergey and Regina have Jewish backgrounds, but Judaism is not a theme in the novel. Mainly, the friends struggle to understand American culture and take turns guiding each other.
This book is rich in humor, mostly relating to the friends’ enthusiasm for technology, especially apps. Regina can’t wean herself from an app called “Eat’n’Watch,” which orders takeout food delivery matched to her TV shows. Vadik uses a “KitchenDude” app that texts on the status of the food cooking in his immersion cooker. Sergey is developing an app called “Virtual Grave” that would enable people to program their social media accounts so that the accounts continue to tweet, like, and comment appropriately after the account holders die. Sergey’s friends react to this project – and to death and loss – in ways both comic and poignant.