Maxim D. Shrayer. Leaving Russian: A Jewish Story. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2013. Illustrations, Index of Names and Places. xxii + 324pp. $29.95 (cloth).
Once, in Moscow, in his seventh-grade classroom Maxim Shrayer was passed a note, “To the Jew from the Russians.” Containing the usual message of bigotry—“You Jewboy son of a bitch,” etc., complete with misspellings—it was signed by two boys, both named Fedya, neither of whom had previously appeared particularly virulent in their anti-Semitism.
Episodes such as this were part of the normal life’s experience of a Jew in the Soviet Union. Prof. Shrayer’s book treats not only what it’s like to be a Jew in Russia, but also what it’s like to be part of a “refusenik” family. He was eleven years old when his parents decided to apply for emigration. After nine years of living in limbo, the family finally was given permission to leave when he was twenty.
Those nine years were, to put it mildly, full of stress. While describing numerous incidents of harassment, however, this book is not about a worst-case scenario, not about Jews who were hounded unmercifully to their perdition. There are probably other Russian Jews who could write such a story. Take the issue of bullying at school. Maxim Shrayer was harassed periodically, subjected to taunts, sometimes to collective jeers directed at Jews in general. But he was not bullied. Wisely his father taught him early on to fight, and fight he did. He seems to have had, always, a highly developed self-assurance. He was, as he himself says, outgoing, a “popular” schoolmate.
The what if question shows up, or is implicit, again and again in this book. First off, what if the boy had been introverted, shy, not a fist fighter? Plenty of Jewish boys are like that. Plenty of American children, Jewish and otherwise, are subjected on a daily basis to horrendous bullying in American schools today. It drives some to suicide.
What of his parents, Emilia and David Shrayer? What was their life like in the Soviet Union? Once again, the situation could have been much worse. “My mother and father had both reached professional prominence”(30). Emilia was a teacher of English and a translator. David was a successful doctor and a published author, a member of the Union of Soviet Writers. His pen name was/is David Shrayer-Petrov. Of course, after they declared their intention to leave, their lives changed drastically. No more Union of Soviet Writers, no more good jobs. But, lucky for them, they were able to find menial jobs, they were able to survive. Their only son was consistently successful at everything he did. He was bright, an A student, he had experiences that other Soviet students seldom have: working during breaks from his studies as an orderly in a hospital, riding horses at the Moscow race track.
By the time the family was finally allowed to leave in 1987, after nine long years of harassment and frustration, Gorbachev’s New Era was on the horizon, and on a different horizon—not far past that—was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The author himself poses the question, “Should we have left?”
“In some memories of my Moscow youth I feel so at peace that I start wondering why I left in the first place. Had I experienced the best of friendships in the wrong place at the right time so I would then go on remembering the time even as I forget the place?” (117).
This book, despite the limbo and the stress of those nine years, is full of good friends, happy times and the halcyon days of youth. The chapter describing a university expedition to the south of Russia in 1986, when Maxim was studying in the Soil Sciences department at Moscow State University, is idyllic. The family’s yearly trips to Estonia for summer vacations are described as highly relaxing and appealing.
Prof. Shrayer is a published writer of poetry, fiction and literary criticism. Recently he published a fascinating book on the relationship between Bunin and Nabokov. He began his writing career while still a student in Moscow. The book is full of little details that embody Soviet life of the seventies and eighties, things that I myself recall from the many times I visited the country.
Caraway/coriander rye bread (“Borodinsky”), poplar fluff, fatback and sunflower seeds. Ah yes, Russia. The way you walk into a restaurant and never ask for a menu— because nothing on the menu is available. You just say, “What have you got?” This is such a normal situation that Shrayer doesn’t bother explaining it for the non-Soviet reader (116). And this: “One of the two bus drivers was a misanthropic middle-aged man who regarded his ochre-colored bus as a submarine under his command” (166). Ah, yes, you could write a whole book about Russian driving habits and the puffed-up pride that men take in being the all-powerful captain of the auto-ship.
And this: “The director [of the House of Culture] spent much of her time drinking tea in the company of two junior administrators, whose principal tasks were to brew tea and to pour it into cups” (50). When working for the Red Cross in Russia and Central Asia (1992-1993) I ran into hordes of these “junior administrators.” They were hired to be, largely, sycophants, while the director (and maybe one secretary) did all the work. That’s the way Russian institutions often operate.
Then there’s the yearly harvest, the days in late August when the big cities overflow with luscious watermelons and the denizens are afflicted with watermelon fever:
“The city streets reeked of rotting watermelons. . . . Street corners and areas in front of food stores would be filled up with cage-like metal containers full of watermelons. People congregated in front of the large metal containers, picking and choosing ripe melons, sniffing them, tugging at their twisted piggish stems, tapping and pressing at them like doctors giving an abdominal exam. Parents would lift up children and put them inside the containers, and children crawled over the mounds of white and green stripy balls. Emotions ran wild and people would get in fights over watermelons. Women would lean over dirty edges of the metal containers in order to reach for watermelons, and boys would peer at the ‘panorama,’ as we called it in our jargon, of underwear and garter belts. Streams of pink watermelon juice flowed down pavements and mixed with the Stygian waters of the city streets” (75). Stygian?
There are lots of other passages in the book striking for their literary merit and evocative of Russian quotidian life. The train cars of Russia, “stuffed with people like sausages are stuffed with meat, fat and fennel seeds” (xvi). “A flowering potato field we passed on the way to the whitewashed milestone where my father would get off the heaving bus, mesh sacks of groceries in both hands” (8). The “Soviet grandee Boris Rozanov,” who had “the large, jutting mauve ears of a pedigreed Chihuahua” (109). Not just a Chihuahua was Comrade Rozanov, but a Chihuahua with a pedigree!
What’s it like, leaving all these things behind—familiar things that constitute the everyday quintessence of your very life—and starting out in a new country, “the miracle country” (40) of American the Beautiful? Did the new country live up to the expectations of the Shrayers? This myth of America as Fairyland Wonder has a long history in Russia, dating back at least to the eighteenth century. Time and again in the great works of Russian literature characters and authors dream of leaving all their troubles behind and going to America. Just before shooting himself—in the presence of a Jewish watchman whose face “had the eternal expression of resentful affliction that is so sharply etched on every Jewish face”—Dostoevsky’s perverted Svidrigailov (in Crime and Punishment) says, “If anyone asks, say that I said I was off for America.” In the torment of his last years Tolstoy considered emigrating to America. In the Russian imagination America was the place where dreams came true.
As representative in flesh of the Great Myth an American in Russia always had a special status. On the unwritten list of national rankings America and Americans were number one. In 1972, for example, when I was at Moscow State University for the first time with a group of American Russian teachers—and where I probably walked past young Max Shrayer on the street—the American contingent received the highest stipend of any group there. The group leader of the North Vietnamese—with whom we were then at war, and with whom the Soviets were allied—went to the administration to complain. The Vietnamese received the lowest stipend, except, perhaps, for the Africans. He, the complainer, was quickly shown the door. How could a mere Vietnamese demand higher status than an American?
Then, in 2012, not having been in the country for several years, I went back to St. Petersburg and there I discovered the corpse of the old myth. I wasn’t special any more. It took the collapse of the Soviet Union to finally kill off the American dream in the Russian mind. For the first time in Russian history the citizens of the country were allowed to visit the U.S. They came in great hordes to the promised land. Some of them emigrated. Many of them were disillusioned. Guess what? It’s not a wonderland after all. But then, even if it had been a hundred times better than it really is, America could never have lived up to the dream. Russian visitors took that sad news back home with them, and the long-perpetuated myth expired.
It’s not for nothing that the book mentions an American TV documentary about Russians miserable abroad (224-25). My experience with Russians in the U.S. is that the great majority of them adapt, if at all, rather poorly to American life. Some of them go crazy. “The social stress of being an immigrant to a new country is one of the critical factors in developing schizophrenia” [David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (NY: Random House, 2011), p. 211].
But what about the Shrayers? We don’t know if they consider America enough of a dream to justify all their trials, what they had to go through to get here. Only another book by Maxim Shrayer will clear that up for us, for this one ends with their departure from the Soviet Union. He does, however, describe how it feels going back “home.” “While visiting Russia I now feel like a comprehending alien” (xix).
Being a part of the great Jewish community, of course, is a consolation, but, then again, there are big differences between Russian Jews and American Jews and Israeli Jews. Prof. Shrayer writes, “I have encountered American- and Canadian-born Jews who regard me and other ex-Soviet Jews with a mixture of solidarity, skepticism, and condescension—as somehow a lesser Jew” (113). He describes his anger when a rabbi in Boston informs him, “We’re going to grow you as a Jew” (114).
I often tell Russians and Russian Jews I know that a Russian Jew, in my opinion, is much more like a Russian than like an American Jew. Both the Russians and the Russian Jews get insulted when I say this. But I see the Russians—Jewish or otherwise—as often voicing the same opinions and playing the same games.. A friend of mine, laughing, once told me about his reception in Israel after leaving the Soviet Union: “In Russia they called us Yids; in Israel they call us Russians. We can’t win for losing!”
At one point Prof. Shrayer mentions “the members of the Soviet intelligentsia who wear masks in public and remove them from their faces when they come home at night, only to discover one day that the masks won’t peel off” (133). Yea, Bogoo, oh so true, but it’s not only the intelligentsia. The Soviet Union (and now Russia—nothing has changed in this respect) is a country full of people wearing masks. This book is full of the very Russian thing of pretending, faking it, telling untruths and half-truths. The chess games. I have known Russians who push this business to the point where they lie so much that they end up bamboozling their very selves. Russian refuseniks, however, were in a special situation; not only did they have to do the usual Russian prevaricating—they were forced to prevaricate at a still higher level!
Shrayer describes his romance with a young woman from another refusenik family, Lyuba, who remarks “how odd it was that we were refuseniks, our families had been oppressed by the Soviet regime, and yet we still remained brainchildren of the Revolution and subscribed to its myths” (136). Lyuba goes on to tell Maxim that they would have to keep their trysts secret from her parents. Why? Because her mother thinks she should already be married and having children. She would not approve of the still-too-young, “un-marriable” Maxim. So that’s the way it went, with Maxim’s parents knowing and Lyuba’s family “either not knowing or pretending not to know.” Later Maxim describes how he and his mother had a risky meeting with an American journalist, after which their cab was chased by an unmarked car. He was tempted to tell Lyuba about “the night chase, but I didn’t, deflecting Lyuba’s question with another half-truth about having been ‘occupied’ on account of my parents’ troubles” (151).
As part of my class on Russian folklore and folklife at Miami University I included a discussion of Russian mentalities. In that class there were often students who were born in the Soviet Union, or whose parents were. Once, when I was discussing the Russian games of lying and perpetual chess, one of my students raised his hand. Thoroughly puzzled (after all, he was American-born), he told the following story.
“My uncle Boris fell down the stairs drunk and broke his arm. Aunt Lydia, not even a member of our family, but some kind of cousin, came over and began telling us how we would present this event to friends and family. We would tell grandma that he fell, but he was not drunk. We would tell his brother that the arm was not really broken. We would tell Aunt Lena that he was walking backwards down the stairs, and the reason he fell was because someone left a book on the steps, and we would keep the whole thing secret from that horrible Masha Volkova—although she was bound to find out and spread her nasty gossip. What I want to know, though (said my student), Why can’t we just tell the truth?” Ah, the naïve American, who believes that truth can be told!
Prof. Shrayer mentions his encounter with an American professor in Moscow, who launched into a tirade on the games played in American academe. “I remember thinking, ‘How very enticing’” (233). Now a successful writer and university professor, Shrayer has almost certainly learned to play the American games well, but, after all, those games are child’s play for one who has grown up in the labyrinthine morass of game playing that is Russia!
Another example. Not many years back I met a Russian woman (let’s call her Galya) who wanted to be my friend. In her calculating Russian mind she pondered deeply on what she should tell me about herself to best appear in a favorable light. Although Galya was with her Jewish friend Tanya when we first met, she was careful to ensure me (several times) that she herself was not Jewish. Later I learned that she had emigrated to Israel; she had lived there twenty years and spoke Hebrew. She told me that one of her daughters had married a Jew and emigrated to Israel, and that’s how she and her husband had got out of the U.S.S.R. But she was not Jewish, no. Soon I learned that both her daughters were married to Jewish men. She gingerly fed me such information in small doses, a little at a time, so as to make it more palatable. Her automatic assumption was that I cared deeply whether she was Jewish or not. I didn’t.
A few months later, while I was visiting Galya in Nevada, I noticed that all of her friends there were Russian Jews. She again assured me that she was not Jewish, although I never brought the subject up. Finally, just before I left, she informed me that one of her friends had told her she better own up. So she did. “I’m not Jewish, but I am kind of half-Jewish because my mother was Jewish.” What Galya, who had lived in the U.S. for several years but spoke little English and knew zilch about American mindsets, didn’t realize was (1) I couldn’t care less whether she was Jewish or not and (2) since I have been around Russians for many many years and am well-versed in Russian game-playing, I assumed from the very start that she was probably Jewish. In fact, I expect, momentarily, to receive from her the information that her father was Jewish too.
The Shrayers spent nine years playing the excruciating game of applying for exit visas. We are never told, but apparently this game works somewhat like the repetitive game of taking final exams in Russia. In a process that puzzles an America professor, as it puzzled me when I taught in Russia on a Fulbright, you never actually flunk a final exam. You get to keep taking it over and over until you pass. The Shrayers applied and applied, over and over, and their persistence finally paid off. In 1987 they emigrated to the U.S. Back now to an earlier question: would they have been better off never leaving?
One thing is for sure: the Shrayers, had they remained in Russia, would have found no diminution in anti-Semitism after the collapse of the Soviet Union— for disparagement of Jews is the default mode in the psyche of average Russians. I have run into it in my dealings with Russians and Ukrainians so often that it ceases to surprise me. Some of them are merely casually anti-Semitic; others are virulently so—“the kind of Russians who savor the word Kike in the mouth like a juicy fresh fig” (Nabokov). In my experience the Russians who are not anti-Semitic tend, nevertheless, not to discuss the topic of Jewishness, as if it were some taboo thing best left alone.
I can give you countless examples. Once I was sitting with a Ukrainian friend when Steven Spielberg appeared on the television screen. Apropos of nothing the Ukrainian remarked with a sneer: “I don’t care who gets the Academy Award, as long as it’s not that zhidyonok (little Kike).” I have special insights into bigotry, since I grew up in a little Southern racist town in the forties and fifties—surrounded by bigots of every stripe. One of the most common of bigots is the one who pushes hatred almost to the point of obsessive love.
I had one uncle who, no matter what the subject of conversation, would inevitably bring it back to “N-word.” He had N-word and n’s on his mind day and night and probably in his dreams. If you were speaking of exploration of space, for example, he would say, “A n caint get a job as an astronaut, no way. A n ain’t got the brains for it.” A Ukrainian I knew was the same way about Jews—an obsessive love-hater. Talk about space exploration, famine in Africa, a meteor that fell on Buenos Aires, this Ukrainian, invariably, would bring in some disparaging something about Jews. Once she insisted that Gogol was a Jew. I said to her, “Listen, Marina, if Gogol was a Jew, then Pushkin was too, and we’re all of us, you and me and your aunt Matilda, Jews!”
Here’s an unfortunate fact about human beings: in one way or another we’re all bigots. Hard-wired deep into our brains is this fear and hatred of “the other.” Recent studies in brain science have revealed amazing things about human bigotry. People who are flaming liberals, who pride themselves on their sense of rectitude, sometimes participate in brain studies with neuroscientists and discover that—deep in the neurons of their brains—they are racists!
In July, 2006, when the actor Mel Gibson was arrested for speeding and driving drunk, he spewed out a tirade about how Jews are responsible for all the wars of the world. The next day, sober and contrite, Gibson issued a statement: “I said things I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I am deeply ashamed of everything I said.” Later it turned out that Gibson had spent the afternoon before his arrest at the house of a Jewish friend. That friend described how Mel, when he’s drinking, “becomes a completely different person.” He went on to say, “If Mel is an anti-Semite, then he spends a lot of time with us [the Jewish man and his Jewish wife], which makes no sense.” [This episode is detailed in David Eagleman’s book Incognito, p. 101-104].
“There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.” So who is the real Mel Gibson, the bigot or the non-bigot, the friend or the enemy of the Jewish people? It’s an impossible question to answer, since the one-hundred billion neurons deep in our brains are—as Dostoevsky once wrote of man in general—“broad, way too broad.” They can accommodate racism and anti-racism and scads and scads of other viewpoints. Taking this broadness into account, we can easily believe Maxim’s old classmate, Fedya, in an e-mail he sent to the author in America. In that e-mail, Fedya, who had long since forgotten the mocking note he and the other Fedya signed back in the seventh grade, writes, “Can you really imagine that your nationality makes any difference to me?. . . . I was NEVER, even in childhood, when many things pass without our being conscious of them, permitted to place anybody beneath me, and especially on the basis of ‘skin color’” (28).
So the nasty note, which still lives on hurting in the psyche of the one offended, was probably forgotten immediately by the perpetrators, who were kids playing a silly prank and who consider themselves unbigoted. And, in some sense, they probably are not bigoted. But somewhere deep in their brains they still are. Life is complicated. At the moment of this writing there is a shocking article in the Atlantic titled, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” The author, a Jew, concludes that, given the anti-Semitism of Islamic immigrants in European countries, given the danger to life and limb, it is indeed time for the Jews to flee Europe.
Unfortunately, the little ditties have enormous staying power. “Fatty, fatty, two by four, can’t get in the bathroom door, had to do it on the floor.” That comes out of my childhood, but you can count on its still being around now, directed maliciously at any overweight child anywhere in America. Two hundred years from now, assuming that human beings haven’t destroyed all life on earth by then, there will still be Russian children (and adults too sometimes) rattling off the Russian version of “Two Jews and a Kike went to Israel on a hike” (18). The Collected Works of Maxim D. Shrayer may be forgotten by then, but the ditties will still be around.
Would that it were not like this, but this is the way it is. Prof. Shrayer’s beloved Nabokov once wrote a novel, Despair, which has such a skewed narrative structure and such a brilliantly perverse narrator that you don’t realize, even dimly, what’s going on until you are three-quarters of the way through it. Then you read it again from a totally different perspective, and you begin “getting” it, but you have to read it at least one more time. Or two. Shrayer’s writings are not so complicated, but there is a parallel to be drawn here. We can’t be sure about some of the things in Leaving Russia without reading the next book, the one still not written. Did America prove to be worth it for the Shrayers? I dare say it was worth it for Maxim, but what about his parents? Would they have enjoyed their lives and found more gratification in life if they never had started the excruciating process of applying to emigrate, if they never had left Russia? Stay tuned for the next book, the one called (maybe) Living in America. There’s where you’ll find the answer to that question.