David Bezmozgis’s Jews are haunted by the traumas and indignities of modern history. Drawn with psychological nuance, historical acuity, and deep compassion tinged with irony — in the tradition of great storytellers like Isaac Babel and Bernard Malamud — Bezmozgis’s Jews tend to find themselves on the edge of history: displaced, in transit, suitcases already packed, seeking spiritual and physical asylum.
In his richly-imagined new novel, The Betrayers, Bezmozgis focuses on a major chapter in recent Jewish political and social history: the ordeal experienced by “refuseniks” — Jews who sought to emigrate from the Soviet Union but were “refused” exit by the implacable Russian State. (As Gal Beckerman shows in his harrowing account When They Come for Us, We’ll be Gone, beginning in the 1970s thousands of refuseniks petitioned to leave, but were inevitably harassed and threatened by the KGB.)
Probably the most famous refusenik is Natan Sharansky, now an Israeli citizen and vocal political actor on the far Right. In The Betrayers, Bezmozgis conjures a Shcharanksy-like character in the figure of Baruch (néee Boris) Kotler, a high-ranking Israeli Cabinet minister in his early sixties who survived thirteen years in a Soviet prison. After winning his release through a 98-day hunger strike and the sheer power of his will to resist, “the world’s most illustrious refusenik” landed in Israel, where he was lionized as a Biblical hero, the reincarnation of King David himself.
As The Betrayers opens, we learn that after twenty-five years of refusenik celebrity and as leader of “his Russian immigrant party,” “a dissident champion,” Kotler has publicly voiced his dissent regarding the government’s policy of forced removal of Orthodox settlers in the West Bank. As a result, Kotler has been named a defector; his refusal of allegiance to the Prime Minister and, by extension, to the Israeli State represents the first of many layers of “betrayal” Bezmozgis explores in this resonant political novel.pol
Kotler’s betrayal also has a personal dimension. He has fled to the resort town of Yalta in the Crimea accompanied by Leora, his young mistress. They are in shameful flight from Israel, where photos exposing their affair are now spread on the front page of every newspaper in the land, much to the chagrin of Kotler’s wife, daughter, and son, Benzion, who is currently serving in the Israeli army.
The day before his hasty departure, Kotler was blackmailed by a government emissary with evidence of the affair: the official will not release the photos if Kotler reverses his position and publicly announces his support for the removal policy. True to his deepest character, shaped by his refusenik ordeal, Baruch refuses to cave in to this political threat, which uncannily recalls the KGB tactics of his Russian past. “If you or the people you represent think that I can be intimidated by this sort of KGB thuggery,” he says, “you are mistaken.” In this respect, The Betrayers carries a substantial charge of social criticism, in this case leveled at the Jewish State.
In drawing the complex figure of Baruch Kotler, a betrayer — and, as it turns out — among the betrayed, Bezmozgis aims to deepen our understanding of the sordid psychic and political landscape of refusenik-era Russia and its tangled, ironic legacies in the present.
The powerful drama of The Betrayers unfolds during Kotler’s twenty-four-hour sojourn — or adulterous flight — to Yalta, once filled with Jewish vacationers, and now home to an aging remnant of Jews struggling to survive in the corrupt post-Soviet era. By accident, the journey brings Kotler face-to-face with his own betrayer from when he was a young political activist in Moscow. This is Chaim Tankilevitch, now a weary and disheartened old man, “tormented body and soul,” who rents out a portion of his home in the summer to tourists — Baruch and Leora among them. For the principled dissident Kotler, however, the charged scene of recognition makes his knees buckle as he undergoes a shattering return of the repressed: he “sensed the nearness of his old tormentors;” seeing Tankilevich summons the “cold menace of the KGB.” Shifting from present to past, we learn that Tankilevich had been a KGB informant who, during the refusenik era, falsely denounced Kotler (his own roommate, no less) in the Soviet press and was instrumental as a State witness in Kotler’s “conviction” and prison sentence. [Tankilevich appears, in this respect, to be modeled on the real-life Sanya Lipavsky, who publicly accused Sharansky in the Soviet newspaper Izvestia.] Now a broken man scraping by, forced to travel every Saturday three hours each way to a synagogue in Simferopol to help a doddering group of old Jews maintain a minyan, Tankilevich is still not wholly abject. Despite the indignities he suffers in the new Russia, where casual anti-Semitism — “the penetrating look of contempt” — injures his Jewish soul, Tankilevich, like many Jews dangling on the edge, has managed to hang on. Bezmozgis feels profound compassion for this betrayer, for Tankilevich is a survivor. Above all, Tankilevich feels the palpable claims of affiliation. Observing his fellow aging Shabbat worshippers, he reflects: “History had laid its heavy hand on them, but they had burrowed, eluded, and remained. One needed only to look at their faces — expressive Jewish faces — to see that they had known the depths of life.”
In The Betrayers, shameful history and guilty memories continue to haunt, rupturing uncannily into the present. Each a victim and a betrayer, each blackmailed and betrayed by a Jew-hating Soviet state and by fellow Jews, Kotler and Tankilevich, once roommates, now enemies, undergo a soul-wrenching encounter with their pasts. In this impressive new novel, David Bezmozgis deepens his excavation of Jewish history and memory. He remains an artist with a Jewish heart, compelled to paint, in words, the range of “expressive Jewish faces.”
- Reading List: David Bezmozgis
- Reading List: Russian/Soviet Jewry
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Read Donald Weber’s interview with David Bezmozgis here.
1. One of the novel’s opening epigraphs is the following quote from David Raziel: “There can be no struggle for national liberation without sacrifices and repression, death in battle and the execution of martyrs. And nothing on earth can withstand the power of self-sacrifice.” Are there martyrs in this novel? If so, who and why?
2. At the beginning of the novel, Baruch has the opportunity to protect his family from the public embarrassment of his affair by withdrawing his opposition to the Prime Minister’s plan regarding the West Bank settlements. But Baruch refuses to yield to blackmail. He explains his decision to his daughter, Dafna, by saying that “there are matters of principle where you cannot compromise. Under any circumstances. If I’d compromised it would have been worse.” Do you agree with Baruch’s decision to remain loyal to his moral ideals over his family? Why do you think he made that decision? Would you have done the same? Discuss.
3. Discuss the relationship between Baruch and Leora. How does their relationship evolve throughout the novel?
4. Discuss the female characters in The Betrayers, such as Leora, Svetlana, Miriam, and Nina Semonovna. Do you resonate with any in particular? How are they different from one another? Similar?
5. What role does decision-making play in the characters’ lives? What do their decisions (for example, Tankilevich’s decision to betray Baruch, Benzion’s decision to go against orders) demonstrate about the importance of retaining a sense of independence and self during times of difficulty? Discuss the difficult decisions made throughout the novel and how/why the characters make decisions.
6. While speaking to Benzion, Baruch says, “If you think there’s no choice, look harder. There is always a choice. A third way if not a fourth. Whether we have the strength to take those choices is another matter.” Do you agree that we always have a choice? Did Tankilevich have a choice? Did Baruch?
7. Discuss the role of fate in The Betrayers. Do you believe in fate? Is the reunion between Baruch and Tankilevich an instance of fate or coincidence?
8. Throughout his political life, Baruch has remained steadfastly loyal to the Jewish community. But when his affair with Leora is exposed, he becomes something of a joke to the Israeli citizens he serves. Do you think this is just? Should the personal lives of politicians play a role in how we judge them? Discuss how the exposure affected Baruch and Leora. How does each character react to the situation?
9. Discuss Tankilevich. Does your perception of him change throughout the novel? Do you think he has paid for his sins? If so, does this mean that Baruch is obligated to forgive him? What does a person gain from withholding (or granting) forgiveness?
10. Baruch asserts that Tankilevich is not a villain, stating, “I don’t blame him. He is an ordinary man who was ensnared in a villainous system.” Do you blame Tankilevich? Is there a danger in asserting that ordinary people who become ensnared in villainous systems should not be blamed? What other “villainous systems” throughout history have ensnared ordinary people? Do you think these people are blameless, or should they be held morally responsible? Discuss.
11. Baruch believes that one cannot change his or her character, and that “just as there are people in this world who are imparted with physical or intellectual gifts, there are those who are imparted with moral gifts. People who are inherently moral. People who have a clear sense of justice and cannot, under any circumstances, subvert it.” Do you agree that certain people are inherently moral? Are others inherently immoral? Have Baruch’s actions demonstrated that he is inherently moral?
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He lives in Amherst, MA.