All Rus­sians Love Birch Trees

Olga Grjas­nowa; Eva Bacon, trans.

  • Review
By – March 6, 2014

Masha Kogan is a per­ma­nent­ly dis­placed immi­grant strug­gling through a free-float­ing dan­ger­ous world. She and her par­ents, a Jew­ish music teacher moth­er and a failed Russ­ian cos­mo­naut father, fled Azer­bai­jan in the 1990s dur­ing the tumultu­ous breakup of the U.S.S.R. where they were in con­stant dan­ger and suf­fered a mea­ger exis­tence. Masha has wit­nessed the hor­rif­ic vio­lence of the Armen­ian pogroms. Although many of her fam­i­ly mem­bers were mur­dered in the Holo­caust, when their papers final­ly come through the Kogans decide to set­tle in Frank­furt, Ger­many rather than an unsta­ble Israel.

Masha is a con­stant out­sider and out­cast in her Ger­man schools. She excels in lan­guages and hopes to become a world-class trans­la­tor. Her choice to tie her­self to the lan­guages of many lands is inter­est­ing, as she feels untied to any nation­al alle­giances or iden­ti­ties herself.

When Elias, her Ger­man boyfriend, dies from com­pli­ca­tions of a soc­cer injury, Masha is again thrown into a dark and haunt­ed place as she floun­ders, aches, and grasps at an unknown future. Masha’s nar­ra­tion vivid­ly and often humor­ous­ly makes the read­er feel the omnipresent feel­ing of dan­ger she lives with.

After Elias’s death Masha trav­els to Tel Aviv to work as a trans­la­tor for a Ger­man firm. This move places her in a polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al land­scape fraught with old and new chal­lenges and entan­gle­ments. Masha takes part in Israeli life, but feels lit­tle con­nec­tion to the coun­try. She often feels she should defend a way of life she has per­son­al­ly reject­ed to her many Arab friends. Ara­bic is one of her many lan­guages, but she has nev­er stud­ied Hebrew. Masha brings her trou­bled past, fears, and pan­ics with her as she moves through social and roman­tic rela­tion­ships in her new sur­roundings. Many of the char­ac­ters who enter into Masha’s stormy world are also immi­grants who are dis­as­so­ci­at­ed from their own eth­nic back­grounds and lands.

Masha keeps look­ing for a pur­pose as she tries to out­run her tragedies and grief. She does not want to be defined by her refugee sta­tus, her Judaism, or her loves. She yearns for a new way to view the world. Is it pos­si­ble to defy stereo­types and break bar­ri­ers in a polit­i­cal world?

Grjas­nowa, whose biog­ra­phy some­what echoes Masha’s, writes in the open voice and mood of her gen­er­a­tion. She explores new glob­al rela­tion­ships and makes one under­stand the polit­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and emo­tion­al toll of not belong­ing on the immigrant’s soul.

All Rus­sians Love Birch Trees is an impor­tant and cur­rent book. A strong and thought­ful read!

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

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