Book review: The Great Depression, the U.S.S.R. and family secrets

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

An older friend, who grew up during the Great Depression, more than once told me stories about the radical slant of many of the laborers she knew. These factory workers, a good percentage of whom were first generation immigrants, supported the labor union movement and socialistic ideals. She still remembers them singing, “Lenin is our leader. We shall not be moved” to show their support for the Russian experiment with communism. This was before World War II and Stalin’s purges, when idealists thought socialism and communism were the answers to the world’s economic crisis. Even their children, many of whom were born in the United States, believed in these ideals as shown, for example, by Florence Fein, one of the main characters in Sana Krasikov’s impressive novel “The Patriots” (Spiegel and Grau). Unlike the majority of those who supported the Soviet Union, Florence decides to take the future into her own hands: she leaves Brooklyn College to begin a new life in Russia. The novel also tells of the next two generations of her family – as they travel across the Atlantic Ocean in different directions.
In Krasikov’s prologue, readers learn that Florence’s life in the Soviet Union took an unexpected turn. The section introduces us to her son, Julian, as he is reunited with Florence after her years in a work camp in Siberia. Chapters then alternate between Florence’s life story (from the start of her involvement in radical politics in the U.S. through her years in the Soviet Union) and that of Julian, who emigrated to the United States in 1979, and who now travels in Russia in the 21st century both for business and to visit his son, Lenny. During his latest trip, Julian asks to see his mother’s KGB file – the one that will not only tell him the story behind her arrest, but whether or not she betrayed family and friends. However, while Julian and Lenny’s stories are absorbing, the heart and soul of the novel is Florence, a woman living in pre-feminist times who wants to make her mark on the world.
Florence is a complex and fascinating character. She wants to make a bold statement with her life and not wait to see if the economic situation in the United States improves. Her parents are unhappy she’s leaving, but, as a woman, activist and a non-practicing Jew, Florence believes the U.S.S.R. is where she can make a difference. She soon learns that Soviet life is far from perfect. Many Americans who also traveled to Russia – and received special privileges for doing so – return to the U.S. when the political situation becomes precarious. At one point – after a failed love affair – Florence feels lonely and lost, and wonders if her inability to adore Stalin means she should leave the country. However, she suddenly finds the place for which she’s longed: “In the cozy oasis of [her boss’] salon she felt a sense of rarity and belonging that her life back in Brooklyn had stingily withheld. She had only to play the cosmopolitan role requested of her to gain admissions... She merely had to quiet her doubts, and life would open its doors.” Florence finally feels completely happy for the first time in her life.
Unfortunately, for Florence and many others, the rules changed without notice and people began to disappear – either into graves or Soviet prisons and work camps. Before World War II, American citizens who now wanted to leave the country were unable to do so. When Julian thinks of his mother’s life during that period, he offers a scathing look at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s lack of action on behalf of those Americans stranded in the Soviet Union – speaking of the way FDR “admired” Stalin. Julian’s answer to the question of whether FDR was a closet communist is “heavens, no.” He notes that “the dispenser of government millions to the biggest corporation in the country was nothing of the sort. He was just a run-of-the-mill utopist. Scratch a utopist and you will find a Machiavellian – one who, to achieve his shining vision, must inevitably subscribe to the principle that the ends justify the means.” Julian sees his parents and their friends as victims of Roosevelt’s choices.
Julian also comments on the casual antisemitism found in the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia. His mother tried to protect him from that – like other Jewish males of his generation, he was not circumcised – but his American heritage also counted against him. When Julian experiences Jewish quotas at universities, which prevent him from getting a degree, he realizes it’s time to emigrate. Yet, even after all she’s experienced, Florence doesn’t want to leave the Soviet Union. Julian comes to realize that his mother was unable to view her adopted country realistically. He called this blindness “the critical Soviet ability to see life not as it is, but as it is becoming. Or better still, as it ought to become.... A muddy culvert clogged with garbage is transformed through words into a future aqueduct. A block of demolished houses from which residents had been forcibly removed is not a vacant, brick-littered lot, but a People’s Palace in the making. In my mother’s mind, the future and the present are already becoming agreeably fused together.” However, Florence’s development is far more complex than Julian realizes, and readers are fortunate to learn about Florence’s heart and desires through her own eyes.
At more than 500 pages, “The Patriots” creates a depth of understanding and compassion in its characters, particularly Florence, who is an amazing creation. Julian and Lenny also shine light on contemporary Russia, which, in turn, creates greater understanding of that country’s history – at least in light of those Americans who saw the Soviet Union as a beacon of light and hope in a harsh world. The fact that the country turned on those who shared its original utopian dream is a cruel irony.