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.