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.