with Dalia Wolfson
Sana Krasikov, winner of the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, published her first novel in January. The Patriots explores the conflicting loyalties of a Jewish family as they navigate their lives between Russia and the United States. Read an excerpt from the novel in the 2017 issue of Jewish Book Council literary journal, Paper Brigade.
Dalia Wolfson: The book grew from a story you heard from a friend about his mother, Pauline Friedman. How much “raw material” on her story did you start with, and why did this story appeal to you?
Sana Krasikov: I knew about Pauline’s story for a couple of years before I sat down and interviewed Timothy. I think his mother’s reverse immigration spoke to me on such a deep level because it suggested a life’s journey totally different from my own. My family had arrived embracing the American dream; Pauline had turned her back on it.
I knew Pauline had worked for Amtorg — the American Trade Mission — in New York. Amtorg midwifed all the big business deals between Soviet factories and American industry. Since the U.S. didn’t officially recognize the Bolsheviks, Amtorg served as a de facto embassy, but also the nerve center for all the spying that happened on American soil. The fact that business, politics, and espionage were all mixed up in its carpeted halls made Amtorg endlessly fascinating to me. Under the cover of all this official opprobrium, our countries were forming these intricate alliances. Talk about history catching up to the present!
Later Timothy sent me his mother’s interrogation files from the Lubyanka, Moscow’s political prison. The way her whole life was put on trial in those documents was both engrossing and heartbreaking. I used the documents as a kind of roadmap, but I also diverged from them because Pauline’s life was more unbelievable and dramatic than anything I could put into a book. Were I to include it all, the novel would have been twice as long.
DW: The Patriots provides a rich context — both historical and contemporary — for its interweaving plots, referencing items as diverse as the Davies incident, Dovid Bergelson and the interior of the restaurant at the Metropol Hotel. Can you tell me a bit about your research process for the novel?
SK: I always look for the detail that doesn’t fit, because that’s usually the one that’s true. Then I flesh out the picture like a Sudoku puzzle. There’s definitely a lot of history in the book, but I tried to integrate it in a kaleidoscopic way so the reader could truly inhabit it. By the end it was hard for me to tease apart the story of Russian Jews from the story of American Jews in the twentieth century because they were so intertwined.
The most surprising chapter for me had to do with learning about the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which played a huge role in raising funds during World War II. On Stalin’s orders, the greatest lights of Yiddish literature and the Jewish stage — people like Solomon Mikhoels (the original Tevye) and David Bergelson, who was second only to Isaac Babel — were put to work winning the hearts and minds of American Jews. They wrote articles and essay published in the States, and then were brought over and taken around to JCCs and Hadassah chapters, where Jews listened to them talk about Jewish unity, and opened up their purses. These men figured out how to tap into the miracle of Jewish giving and came back to Russia with something like $90 million for the Red Army. But it wasn’t a cynical undertaking — the Soviet Jews who’d been listening to these Yiddish poets on their radios were also moved. For the first time in decades, they permitted themselves to embrace a national identity that had been quietly suppressed since the revolution. So much so that by the time Golda Meir made her first visit to Moscow in 1948, thousands of Jews went out into the streets to cheer her and shout “next year in Jerusalem!”
The JAFC became a kind of heart of Soviet Jewry, an advocacy group for those whose homes had been illegally appropriated by their own countrymen during the war. But of course once the JAFC became an actual grassroots phenomenon, it could no longer be tolerated. The crackdown was swift and brutal, and these writers were rounded up and murdered for essentially doing their service to the state. The purge became a dress rehearsal for the better-known “Doctor’s Plot” to follow, and touched the lives of many Americans in Russia, like Pauline and Sam, who were working as translators. But even the murder of these “poets” couldn’t entirely suppress the Jewish awakening that had started blossoming on the power of these poets’ words. They became almost like secret martyrs for Russian Jews.
DW: Your book is such a complex operation of stories happening in parallel. Can you tell me more about the structure of interlocking narratives in three separate “books”?
SK: In some ways the story is your classic hero’s journey — a departure and a return. But I also thought of the three acts of Florence’s life as coinciding with her relationship to each of the three men in the book: Sergey, Leon, and Henry. Sergey and Henry are almost mirror images; Sergey is her Russian in America, and Henry, the Korea pilot she meets in the labor camps, is her American in Russia. In his own way, each one leads her through to the other side of the looking glass.
But as I began to write, the image of the dialectic also became an operating metaphor for the novel’s chapters, threading through the relationships between the generations as well as between the nations. I’m not just talking about Marxist theory here, but also the idea of the dialectic that stretches back to Hegel and the Greeks: the very notion that binaries are not permanently stable, but rather are always interpenetrating one another, struggling, resolving, turning into something new. Each break from the past is a dialectic negation that creates the possibility for a second, opposite, movement. History is like a helix coming back around, each time at a new level. I wanted the novel itself to walk that narrow spiral between the public and the private, to examine the deepest emotions between a family torn apart by a century of cold war, but also to interrogate the ideas and philosophical arguments supporting that war.
DW: Florence remains quite opaque, in some ways, although her story is told by an omniscient narrator who is prone to break into imaginative, over-the-top scenes (as with the Roosevelt-Morgenthau encounter) or launches into meditations (as with the history of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee). How did you settle on this voice for the Florence chapters?
SK: Originally I wrote the whole book in Julian’s voice, because I was processing the story of his mother through his eyes, and also because Timothy’s voice — and the voices of so many immigrant men I know — played strongly in my head. As I wrote, that voice began to take on the characteristics of omniscience, in much the same way that books like The Great Gatsby, or Philip Roth’s oeuvre, or even classic novels like Wuthering Heights, take on an element of omniscience whenever a human-sized character is narrating the story of a somewhat opaque, bigger-than-life character. I began to think about omniscience as a loop in which the first-person voice and the all-knowing “God” voice came around to touch. But at some point I also realized that for Julian to be on his own journey — to get to a place where he truly understood his mother — he couldn’t also be the person telling her story. So I divorced the two voices and gave each narrative its own corporeality, its own coordinates.
This process helped me embrace omniscience as a mode of storytelling. I think it’s a mode that’s been abandoned by many twentieth century modernists, but is being taken up again by some excellent contemporary writers. It’s possible we’re seeing a return to omniscience in the post-internet age because the collective intelligence suddenly feels like so much part of the everyday.
DW: Your previous publication, One More Day, was a collection of short stories. What were the challenges of writing a novel?
SK: Letting myself veer away from that narrow modernist voice was a big part of it. I felt like I had to unlearn everything I’d learned about writing.
DW: Throughout the book, we see a variety of survival strategies in the Logic-Free zone — believing in a “becoming” utopia, self-centered negotiating, deep-seated cynicism, self-censorship etc. Are these mentalities that you recognize from your own upbringing, and what would you like readers to learn from them?
SK: Oh yeah, those are frames you carry around in yourself as a product of people who are products of the Soviet Union. Ways of thinking that seem wildly inconsistent to my American peers feel perfectly natural to me, and vice versa. You know, I hear the word “resistance” being thrown around a lot these days. And the American image of resistance always makes me think of Martin Luther nailing that list of grievances to the church door. That image of jump-starting a reformation, of standing up and being counted — that’s the subconscious image of heroism here. But what if you live under a system where that’s not an option? It won’t lead to any reform, and you’ll only bring punishment on yourself. Well, then, getting by often involves adopting the mechanisms of the same system that’s oppressing you and manipulating it to make life more livable. But also attempting to do it in a way that won’t deform you morally and psychologically.
I’m not interested in writing “about Russia,” I’m interesting in writing about people. What does “courage” or “dignity” even mean under circumstances so different from our own? Those are some questions I hope a reader might be asking.
San Krasikov won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her collection One More Year, also named a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and awarded the National Book Foundation’s ‘5 under 35’ prize. To research The Patriots, she traveled to oil fields in Texas and KGB warehouses in Moscow. She lives with her husband and children in Hastings, New York.