Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Review: LEAVING RUSSIA: A JEWISH STORY, by Maxim D. Shrayer

Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, by Maxim D. Shrayer. Published 2013 by Syracuse University Press. Nonfiction. Memoir.

Leaving Russia is a detailed account of one family's struggle to emigrate from Russia, set in Moscow and elsewhere in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.

Full disclosure: I interviewed Shrayer in 2008 when I worked for the Association of Jewish Libraries and featured his collection of short stories Yom Kippur in Amsterdam on their blog and mine; I have since kept in touch with him via social media including Facebook and while I have not met him in person, he is someone I know a little bit and I thought you should know that up front.

Anyway, that aside, I finally got around to reading his memoir recently, and it's pretty excellent, especially for readers interested in Soviet refuseniks and Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union. The book covers Shrayer's life from his teen years through age 20, when he left with his parents David and Emilia. It's quite a searing portrait both of Soviet life as the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse and the very daunting struggles of Jewish refuseniks to carve out a life while they waited to leave. He and his family live at the mercy of a capricious bureaucracy capable of both arbitrary and systemic antisemitism. They find community with other refuseniks but Shrayer lives a double life, a good student and ordinary kid outside the home, and a persecuted rebel at home. And then there are the times when his two lives overlap.

He writes with great affection about his friends and especially his family. The love he has for his parents radiates from the pages. He clearly idolizes his father, a fellow writer and his role model in so many parts of his life. And his admiration for his mother and her sacrifices, including the physical danger she has from time to time put herself in to support their refusenik cause is also quite palpable. He also shares the vivid world of the friendships and adventures that sustained him and have stayed with him. At the same time there is no doubt that the USSR was a hostile place for him and his family.

I enjoyed reading Shrayer's book a lot for both the refusenik story and the details about Soviet life it offers. This is after all a disappeared world, and I would place it alongside the other leaving-the-USSR memoirs I've read, like Elena Gorokhova's Mountain of Crumbs and Tina Grimberg's Out of Line. As a story about Jewish emigration Shrayer's story has more in common with Grimberg's but Grimberg's book was written for a middle-reader audience while Shrayer's book is unambiguously written for an adults. That said, I don't think there's anything inappropriate for a teen reader interested in the subject of the refusenik movement. It's a very moving, detailed and fascinating story about one family's experience of something that happened to so many families, as well as one young man's coming of age.

And on a personal note, as a Cold-War-era kid I will say that until I started working in synagogues I was completely unaware of the extent to which the story of Soviet dissidents was the story of Jewish people who wanted to leave due to antisemitism. For some reason this "detail" was left out of my public-school education, and I would therefore recommend this book very highly to anyone else who doesn't know very much about this subject, regardless of background. It may seem like a "niche" issue but it really isn't, because it's about the big issues of freedom and the power of the imagination to shape the world.

This counts towards the Read My Own Damn Books Challenge.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive a copy of this book for review.