Leav­ing Rus­sia: A Jew­ish Story

  • Review
December 10, 2013

Max­im D. Shrayer’s stun­ning mem­oir Leav­ing Rus­sia is an engag­ing sto­ry of grow­ing up as the son of Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als in Moscow who applied for emi­gra­tion when he was ten to give him a future as a Jew. Their request was refused, and thus they became the refuseniks.” Shrayer’s par­ents were stripped of their aca­d­e­m­ic careers, and the nar­ra­tor embarked on a ten-year bat­tle to make the Sovi­et sys­tem work for him. Indi­vid­u­als some­times gave him a chance, but the sys­tem nev­er did. His father was banned from pub­lish­ing, yet the son attempts, in vain of course, to find a pub­lish­er for his first poems. He weath­ers anti-Semit­ic jeers at school, but he is nev­er ashamed of being Jew­ish. His family’s cohe­sion is admirable, and their con­crete-tow­er apart­ment, where they host refusenik salons, becomes a pal­pa­ble home for the reader.

Sum­mers spent at the Baltic sea­side resort of Pär­nu pro­vide respite; Jew­ish fam­i­lies from across the USSR reunite every sum­mer and the nar­ra­tor meets his two best friends there. Shray­er cap­tures the glassy leisure of Eston­ian sum­mers spent in the com­pa­ny of art­sy friends, while Moscow looms as a pres­sure cook­er of majes­tic beau­ty and harsh realities.

Lat­er, Shray­er sur­pris­es with a homage to Rus­sia in his atmos­pher­ic account of a sum­mer expe­di­tion to the Cau­ca­sus as a Soil Sci­ence stu­dent. He takes the read­er along to expe­ri­ence Moth­er Rus­sia in the vast­ness of the steppe, the for­bid­ding moun­tains along the Geor­gian bor­der, and the crum­bling coun­try estates where fruit trees have avoid­ed col­lec­tiviza­tion and the youths can gorge on cher­ries. Clear­ly he is grate­ful for see­ing the coun­try beyond the urban real­i­ties and the Baltic idyll. Upon his return to Moscow, his refusenik con­science swings into place. He resigns from the Kom­so­mol (Sovi­et youth orga­ni­za­tion) after his moth­er is beat­en dur­ing a demon­stra­tion for the release of refusenik hero Yosef Begun. When the fam­i­ly is final­ly grant­ed per­mis­sion to emi­grate in 1987, the absur­di­ties they endure show that here a Jew­ish fam­i­ly had to leave not because they hat­ed Rus­sia, but because life in the Sovi­et sys­tem had become unten­able. Often, in dis­cus­sions of twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish his­to­ry, the plight of Sovi­et Jew­ry recedes behind the calami­ty of the Holo­caust. Leav­ing Rus­sia should be assigned read­ing for any­one inter­est­ed in the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence of the twen­ti­eth century.

Read Max­im D. Shray­er’s Vist­ing Scribe Posts

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

Notes of For­give­ness: Part Two of a Two-Part Blog

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