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Young Jews Lost in Leningrad: Part One of a Two-Part Blog

Monday, November 24, 2014| Permalink

Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual writer and a professor at Boston College. Shrayer’s latest book is Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, a finalist for the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards. This week he blogs for the Visiting Scribe series about the texture of Jewish memory—about a buried Soviet past which means more to Jewish immigrants in America than it does to today's Russians in Russia.

I felt the first pangs of this Leningrad remembrance when my daughters and their Hebrew school classmates, standing in a semicircle next to the bimah, sang “Or Zarua LaTzadik….“ Then it was Mickey Katz, a wonderful Boston cellist and the comedian’s namesake, living through every measure of Kol Nidre and reminding me so acutely of a Jewish musician I once knew in Leningrad. And finally, there were wet striations on the eastern wall of our shul’s main sanctuary, marks of recent water damage or watermarks of aged Soviet memory. I was in shul with my wife, daughters and parents, our Brookline shul with a gilded dome; I was also back in Russia, under the tall dome of Leningrad’s autumnal sky…

On a snowy Thursday in December of 1986 my best Moscow friend Max Mussel and I met up at the Leningradsky train station. Ditching Friday and Saturday classes, we went to Leningrad for the weekend. It was a familiar routine: two or three times a year during 1984–86, Max and I would go to Russia's westernmost city, where my father had been born and raised, just to get away from our inland capital. We would either take the cheapest overnight train from Moscow and ride in a car with doorless sleeper compartments, or, when money was particularly tight, we went by day train with its seats made of uncushioned wood. Our monthly university stipends were about forty to forty-five rubles, and the cheapest roundtrip student ticket to Leningrad cost about ten rubles, so with some help from our parents we could almost afford these occasional trips.

Waxing poetic about the architectural splendor of St. Petersburg, this last of the great European cities, would be like saying that Paris is romantic in the spring—equally true and trite. And while Max and I loved what was left of St. Petersburg in the Leningrad of our Soviet student years, it wasn't the Western architecture that so attracted us. Rather, going to Leningrad accorded the uplifting sensation of being at the boundary, the Gulf of Finland separating Russia from—linking it to—the West.

On that particular December visit in 1986 we took a train Thursday night, expecting to arrive in a northern city choked with snow and icy chill. Express overnight trains arrived early in the morning, and in winter, immediately upon getting off the train, Muscovites would take comfort in knowing that their climate was less severe. This time, as we walked up the long platform of Leningrad’s Moskovsky station, songs about the city of Lenin, the cradle of Revolution, booming from up on high, Max and I were surprised how unseasonably warm it felt. Buttons were undone and winter hats stuffed in our weekend duffle bags. Our best Leningrad friend Katya Tsarapkina, who met us on the platform by the entrance to the station, remarked with only a bit of irony that we both looked like "young Western authors or filmmakers" visiting her windy Soviet city.

Maxim Mussel and Maxim D. Shrayer. 1986. Photo courtesy of Maxim D. Shrayer.

Years later we would refer to that December 1986 visit to Leningrad as our "surrealist" trip. The word siur (short for the Russian “siurrealizm”) was considered chic, and we used it not always correctly or judiciously. My recollections of that visit are enveloped with a film of strangeness, and not just tinged with spellbinding illusions of loss. Such was the light, crisp and bright, with strips of azure and magenta around the edges of buildings and monuments. Such was the air our lungs gulped that morning; not the arresting air blowing from the Gulf of Finland, but a warm, southerly breeze, as though wafting in, impossibly, from the Mediterranean. And such was the mood that overtook us at the train station platform and held us, happy and serene, for the rest of the warm December day.

Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Photo by Maxim D. Shrayer.

We dropped the bags at Katya’s apartment. My father and Katya's mother, Inga Kogan, are the same age and grew up in adjacent buildings in Lesnoye, a neighborhood of Leningrad's Vyborg working-class district. And as if this connection wasn't enough, in Leningrad Katya and her parents were living in an apartment house erected next to the site of a razed eighteenth-century building where my father had grown up. When we stayed there during our visits to Leningrad, we would be carried back to the time of my father’s postwar boyhood in the siege-ravaged Leningrad, but also to the youth and Khrushchev’s Thaw that our parents had in common.

Katya, too, was blowing off classes at her Chemical-Pharmaceutical Institute. The three of us rode the metro back to the center and walked along the embankment of the undulating Griboedov Canal, heading for Leningrad's Theater Square, site of the Kirov Theater (now, again, Mariinsky) and the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. There, at the college attached to the conservatory, our friend Marina Evreison was studying piano. Marina's last name means "Jewison"; when she said her name in public, people turned around. This petite woman with perceptive eyes of Nevan grey was something of a legend in the circles of young Leningrad musicians, owing both to her talent and to the quiet dignity with which she carried her most Jewish of names. Katya, Max, and I swang by the wing of the conservatory where Marina's class was about to end. We ran down the conservatory's granite steps cracked by wartime bombardments and polished by the feet of many great musicians. We were feeling free and rebellious. All day, while it was still light out, we wandered around Leningrad, soaking in its beauty. As it turned out, this was to be my last visit to Leningrad prior to emigration, but I could hardly imagine at the time that six months later, in June 1987, I would leave Moscow for good—to become first a Jewish refugee in Italy, then a Soviet immigrant on an East Coast university campus.

Born in Moscow in 1967 in the family of the writer David Shrayer-Petrov, Maxim D. Shrayer emigrated to the United States in 1987. He has authored over ten books in English and Russian, among them the memoir Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration, the story collection Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, and the Holocaust study I SAW IT. Shrayer’s Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature won a 2007 National Jewish Book Award, and in 2012 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. A recent review in Jewish Book Council's literary review magazine Jewish Book World called Leaving Russia, his latest book, a “stunning memoir” and recommended that it “should be assigned reading for anyone interested in the Jewish experience of the twentieth century.”

Copyright © 2014 by Maxim D. Shrayer

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