The Dis­si­dent

  • Review
By – May 31, 2023

Paul Goldberg’s new nov­el con­tin­ues his explo­ration of Sovi­et Jewry’s strug­gle for cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty and phys­i­cal free­dom. Hav­ing immi­grat­ed to the US from the Sovi­et Union as a teenag­er in 1973, Gold­berg always writes about his for­mer home­land with the wicked, satir­i­cal eye of an insider-outsider. 

The Dis­si­dent con­jures the repres­sive Sovi­et Union of the 1970s, a crit­i­cal inter­val in mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry at the thresh­old of mass Jew­ish emi­gra­tion and the 1991 fall of the Sovi­et Union. Gold­berg focus­es on a group of refuseniks—Jews who have applied to leave Sovi­et Rus­sia but who have been denied the request to emi­grate — and on the sur­veil­lance-obsessed polit­i­cal world of pre-glas­nost Rus­sia, at the end of the Sovi­et empire. 

The nov­el opens on Jan­u­ary 13, 1976, at the wed­ding of Oksana, an Eng­lish teacher, and Vik­tor, an engi­neer who leads Demo­c­ra­t­ic Moscow” tours for Amer­i­can stu­dents. Both younger-gen­er­a­tion Jews, they know vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing about the rit­u­als of Jew­ish practice. 

The plot flash­es back to the dou­ble mur­der of two impor­tant Moscow refuseniks and the Sovi­et State’s attempt to pin the crime on Vik­tor. He dis­cov­ers the blud­geoned, decap­i­tat­ed bod­ies while try­ing to secure a smug­gled copy of The Laws of Jew­ish Life, a banned guide he needs for the wed­ding ceremony.

Through­out the book, Gold­berg illus­trates the ways in which Jew­ish mem­o­ry threat­ens the Sovi­et order, chal­leng­ing the State’s vaunt­ed self-image, its claim to hav­ing cre­at­ed a so-called com­mu­nist par­adise. After the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, Jews were seen as out­siders in their native land and forced to car­ry iden­ti­ty cards inscribed with a J.” The State feared that the mass emi­gra­tion of mil­lions of Jews seek­ing reli­gious free­dom would not only go against Sovi­et ide­ol­o­gy, but would also pose a seri­ous threat to the economy.

A decade lat­er, the inter­na­tion­al call for human rights in the Sovi­et Union, along with Russia’s need to be des­ig­nat­ed a favored nation” in order to trade with the West, became urgent. The Sovi­et Union did not want its large Jew­ish minor­i­ty (esti­mat­ed to be over two mil­lion in 1970) to join up with its grow­ing, self-declared cohort of dis­si­dents,” that group of otherwise-thinker[s]” con­sid­ered an ene­my of the State.

Gold­berg fills his large can­vas with a range of mem­o­rable char­ac­ters, some his­tor­i­cal­ly real” (like Yele­na Bon­ner and Andrei Sakharov’s wife, an ardent dis­si­dent) and oth­ers not. The most com­pelling, thick­ly drawn fic­tion­al char­ac­ter is Norm (“Nuchem”) Dymshitz, a tough Jew from Pitts­burgh. Com­mit­ted to the refusenik cause, Norm flies to Moscow to deliv­er much-need­ed Amer­i­can cash and jeans, which are worth hun­dreds on the Sovi­et black mar­ket. A fear­less Jew­ish hero, Norm fought Nazis in the Russ­ian for­est dur­ing World War II along­side Oksana’s father. He sur­vived dire cir­cum­stances, all in the inter­est of sav­ing per­se­cut­ed Jews.

In the end, Norm exem­pli­fies Goldberg’s def­i­n­i­tion of the dis­si­dent”: he pos­sess­es the intel­lec­tu­al pow­er of oth­er­wise-think­ing” and the vision of oth­er­wise-see­ing.” As the nar­ra­tor explains, Norm is a par­ti­san, Norm is a Jew, or a Jew and a par­ti­san, the hunt­ed, the hunter.” A wise, val­or­ous, tor­ment­ed man,” Norm is a wit­ness and sur­vivor who under­stands that, when faced with extreme con­di­tions, you push hard­er, past the edge … to push through, to bend the world.” This strat­e­gy, Goldberg’s nar­ra­tor reminds us, has guid­ed Norm through the cat­a­clysms of the twen­ti­eth century.”

The Dis­si­dent dra­ma­tizes, with an insider’s mem­o­ry, the long­ing of Sovi­et Jews to escape the soul-dead­en­ing repres­sions of the State. For Oksana and Vik­tor, who wished to be mar­ried Jew­ish­ly, Gold­berg pro­vides a hap­py end­ing of sorts years lat­er, after Vik­tor — a KGB scape­goat for the refusenik mur­ders — serves time in the Gulag.

In a brief epi­logue, Vik­tor receives a sud­den deliv­er­ance from his Sovi­et cap­tiv­i­ty and, thanks to Norm’s Moses-like” agency, joins Oksana in the free world of Pitts­burgh. Viktor’s emi­gra­tion, it turns out, coin­cides with Passover. Norm leads a seder — Viktor’s first. No longer a refusenik, Vik­tor will be able to keep Jew­ish mem­o­ry alive.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

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