Don­ald Weber recent­ly spoke with David Bez­mozgis about his new book, The Betray­ers, which was pub­lished last week by Lit­tle, Brown and Com­pa­ny. Bez­mozgis is also the author of the short sto­ry col­lec­tion Natasha and the nov­el The Free World.

Don­ald Weber: I’m curi­ous why you were drawn to the refusenik sto­ry based around Natan Sha­ran­sky: in light of your core themes of exile, dis­place­ment, and his­to­ry (I’m think­ing of the pow­er­ful vision of Jew­ish mem­o­ry and his­to­ry in a sto­ry like Minyan”), how does The Betray­ers con­tin­ue or, per­haps, depart from what has engaged your work in the past?

David Bez­mozgis: It’s true that the orig­i­nal inspi­ra­tion for the nov­el had to do with Natan Sha­ran­sky. In 2004, I’d been research­ing an obit­u­ary about Alexan­der Lern­er, anoth­er promi­nent refusenik, when I came upon a curi­ous and com­pelling detail: Lern­er and Sha­ran­sky were both in the same cir­cle of refuseniks in Moscow and they were both false­ly accused of being CIA spies by anoth­er Jew, Sanya Lipavsky. As often hap­pens, it is the curi­ous excep­tion that sparks the idea for a sto­ry. Put plain­ly, I was intrigued by the case of Lipavsky. I won­dered what hap­pened to him. I won­dered what led him to com­mit this betray­al. I won­dered too what might be the fate of a man who betrayed his own peo­ple for a coun­try that sub­se­quent­ly ceased to exist. But deep­er still — and this is where the idea accrued for me the nec­es­sary sub­stance to sus­tain a nov­el — I won­dered about the moral and con­sti­tu­tion­al dif­fer­ence between a man like Lipavsky and one like Sharansky. 

The ques­tion at the heart of the book is a moral one: Why is one per­son able to sac­ri­fice every­thing for the sake of his or her prin­ci­ples while anoth­er is not? In oth­er words, the cen­tral idea behind the book is one of virtue or good­ness. The ques­tion is as old as phi­los­o­phy. What does it mean to lead a vir­tu­ous life? I am con­scious — I assume like most peo­ple — of my own moral behav­ior. And — per­haps again like many peo­ple — I won­der how I would fare if I was ever put to a tru­ly dif­fi­cult moral test. Would I be able to retain the clar­i­ty and the strength of my prin­ci­ples and con­vic­tions? Is there a prin­ci­ple for which I would be pre­pared to sac­ri­fice my lib­er­ty and my life? As a writer approach­ing forty, and a father of chil­dren, I felt myself some­how, oblig­ed to tack­le this ques­tion. In the case of Kotler and Tankile­vich, the main char­ac­ter of my nov­el, I found the frame­work in which to engage with it. And, in fur­ther answer to your ques­tion, in the case of these two men I also found the frame­work to con­tin­ue the project I’d begun with the first two books: name­ly, telling the sto­ry of the Sovi­et Jews. 

Natasha and The Free World cov­ered, in their own ways, the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry; The Betray­ers is delib­er­ate­ly as con­tem­po­rary as I could make it. And where­as the first two books were con­cerned with the Sovi­et Jews’ expe­ri­ences in the lands of the Sovi­et Union, Europe, and North Amer­i­ca, The Betray­ers—though set large­ly in Crimea — con­cerns itself very much with Israel. Par­tic­u­lar­ly since the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union, the Jews of the For­mer Sovi­et Union have trans­formed Israel, and it is there that their great­est impact has been and con­tin­ues to be felt. Since the ques­tion of Israel’s future con­cerns me a great deal, I saw the oppor­tu­ni­ty to com­bine three of my main pre­oc­cu­pa­tions: moral­i­ty, Sovi­et Jews, and Zionism.

DW: About the fig­ures of Boruch Kotler and Chaim Tankile­vitch (mod­eled on Sha­ran­sky and Lipavsky), I won­der if you could com­ment on their respec­tive moral and con­sti­tu­tion­al difference[s]”? Each suf­fers the indig­ni­ties of Jew­ish his­to­ry; each betrays and is betrayed; and each is black­mailed — iron­i­cal­ly — by fel­low Jews. I won­der if Tankilevitch’s sto­ry is even more com­pelling than Kotler’s?

DB: The moral and con­sti­tu­tion­al dif­fer­ences between Kotler and Tankile­vich have dic­tat­ed the cours­es of their lives. Because Kotler did not com­pro­mise his prin­ci­ples, he suf­fered many years in the gulag and ulti­mate­ly became a famous man and a Zion­ist hero. Because Tankile­vich struck a bar­gain with the KGB and impli­cat­ed his friend, he became a pari­ah. The nov­el asks — and posits an answer — as to why Kotler behaved one way and Tankile­vich the oth­er. That is what I mean by their moral and con­sti­tu­tion­al dif­fer­ences. Tankile­vich defends his posi­tion. And per­haps many peo­ple would sym­pa­thize with him in the end. Kotler also defends his posi­tion, though, I sup­pose, one would hard­ly expect him to need to do so since he is pre­cise­ly the sort of per­son soci­ety cel­e­brates — some­one like Gand­hi or Man­dela or Joan of Arc. But this is the crux of the nov­el: what explains a man like Kotler? And if we all are encour­aged and aspire to be like him, are we actu­al­ly capa­ble of it — or are we, in fact, more like Tankile­vich? I think this moral ques­tion is rel­e­vant to every­one but I think that Jews, par­tic­u­lar­ly after the Holo­caust, delib­er­ate exceed­ing­ly upon it. Know­ing what we know about those ter­ri­ble years, we ask how we might have behaved in the most extreme cir­cum­stances. Would we have betrayed oth­ers to save our own lives? Or alter­nate­ly, would we have had the courage and the strength of our con­vic­tions to risk our own and our fam­i­ly’s safe­ty to shel­ter anoth­er? I tried to answer this ques­tion as objec­tive­ly and hon­est­ly as I could. And if the nov­el is provoca­tive, it seems to me it is because of how it answers this ques­tion more than any­thing it says about Ukraine or Rus­sia or the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian conflict.

As for whether Tankile­vich’s sto­ry is more com­pelling than Kotler’s, I could­n’t say. How­ev­er, I did want to cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion in which both men find them­selves in dire straits when fate or coin­ci­dence con­spires to bring them togeth­er. In that sense, Kotler stum­bles upon Tankile­vich at a very deci­sive moment in his life. I don’t know how com­pelling Tankile­vich’s sto­ry would be at most oth­er times, but it’s cer­tain­ly com­pelling when Kotler meets him. And I sup­pose it’s com­pelling because it dis­tills the prob­lems fac­ing many Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in the For­mer Sovi­et Union — where com­mu­ni­ties that have endured for cen­turies are in the final stages of with­er­ing away. This sit­u­a­tion is made some­how more melan­choly and iron­ic since Crimea had — in the 1930s and again after World War II — been pro­posed as a pos­si­ble Jew­ish state, an alter­na­tive to Israel.

DW: For me, Tankile­vitch emerges as a fig­ure out of a Mala­mud sto­ry, or a Frédéric Bren­ner pho­to­graph — one of those aged Jews dan­gling on the edge, a sur­vivor man­ag­ing, some­how, to hang on. I won­der if you could say a few words about the array of fas­ci­nat­ing women char­ac­ters in The Betray­ers. As you draw them, the women deep­en, com­pli­cate, our under­stand­ing of Kotler and Tankilevitch.

DB: Though I under­stand what you mean about Tankile­vich being rem­i­nis­cent of a Mala­mud char­ac­ter — I think, for instance, of the impor­tu­nate DP Shi­mon Susskind from The Last Mohi­can”— the Mala­mud char­ac­ter who influ­enced the book most was actu­al­ly Yakov Bok from The Fix­er. To no small extent, the prin­ci­pled and unyield­ing Bok was in my head when I was writ­ing Kotler.

As for the women, I sup­pose they must inflect and com­pli­cate our under­stand­ing of Kotler and Tankile­vich, but to me they aren’t there to serve that pur­pose. To me they are their equals — inter­est­ing in their own right. They are vari­a­tions on a sort of tough-mind­ed woman who is com­mon­ly found among Rus­sians and Russ­ian Jews — though I believe she exists in all nations where women are sad­dled with innu­mer­able bur­dens. I admire these women and enjoy try­ing to see the world through their eyes. I am nev­er as clear-head­ed and prac­ti­cal as when I am try­ing to chan­nel their voic­es. Com­pared to them, I seem imma­ture to myself.

DW: I won­der how you imag­ine, or would like to imag­ine, your atten­tive Jew­ish Amer­i­can and Cana­di­an read­ers to respond to your new novel? 

DB: I would like Jew­ish Amer­i­can and Cana­di­an read­ers to read the nov­el the same as any read­ers any­where — with an open heart and an open mind. It is how I wrote the book — con­stant­ly chal­leng­ing my own beliefs and feel­ings in the hopes of arriv­ing at the truth. I don’t expect every­one to agree with all of the nov­el­’s for­mu­la­tions and con­clu­sions. I would­n’t say I agree with all of them myself. There are ideas the book puts for­ward as seem­ing­ly irrefutable that I am still turn­ing over in my head — ideas, for instance, about an iden­ti­fi­able nation­al char­ac­ter. With respect to Israel, the Mid­dle East, and Ukraine, I tried, to the best of my abil­i­ties, to describe the cur­rent moment. If I have done my job well, the nov­el should enable read­ers to have a con­ver­sa­tion about those places — if only with­in them­selves. As for Kotler’s being sus­pend­ed in time and space at the end of the book — that reflect­ed, for me, a painful admis­sion or real­iza­tion. In life, we would all like to find some respite, some relief — even, in our weak­er moments, to enter­tain the illu­sion that there is such a thing as arrival, that we can stay or indef­i­nite­ly fore­stall the worst. After some 2,000 years, Israel was sup­posed to serve this func­tion for the Jews, to be the place where they could set­tle and find safe­ty and well­be­ing. I sup­pose, by the end of the nov­el, Kotler, by no means a naïve man, con­fronts the unpleas­ant idea that for him and for his peo­ple, the uncer­tain jour­ney continues.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He lives in Amherst, MA.