Maxim Shrayer memoir - Leaving Russia Interview

Growing up Refusenik: A Q&A with Maxim Shrayer on his new memoir

[Update – Want to read this in Russian? Click here to read a translation of my Q+A on]

Memoirs about Soviet-Jewish life during the immigration period of the 1970s and 1980s have not yet saturated the memoir genre, so I’m excited to tell you about a new book that’s just come out this month. Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story is the second memoir by writer and professor writer and professor Maxim D. Shrayer. The book is a very honest, self-reflective account of life in Moscow as a Jew and son of refuseniks in the waning days of the evil empire. If you’ve spent time around Soviet-Jewish emigres, much of the book will be familiar – the constant stress and tension of living a double-life is a common theme, as is the subtle ways people used to determine who belonged where, and who could be trusted with the most dangerous of secrets – the desire to leave the USSR. Its strength is very much in the details of daily life – not just dramatic episodes with the KGB, but the endless little ways that life choices were constrained by the simple matter of being Jewish. If you grew up in North America, think back for a moment to how you chose your university major. Then go read how Shrayer’s field of study was chosen for him.

And like so many escapees from the USSR, Shrayer evokes the constant push-pull of hating a country which hates you, and love for the people and places of your youth – it’s as much about growing up as it is about being a Jew in the USSR. Reading the book was a bit like walking into a conversation I’ve overheard many times before among ex-Soviet-Jews.

Shrayer very graciously answered my nosy questions about his book and writing process, which you can read below. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but it made for a much more interesting conversation. You can also read an excerpt of the book in the Forward, where Shrayer talks about what it was like to be the only Jewish kid in his Moscow class. It’s worth knowing that under the Soviet system, you stayed with the same group of classmates throughout your entire school career (and often, I’ve been told, with the same teacher).

(Slightly ironic sidebar – just a few days after I finished reading the book, I watched the old Soviet Shurik “Operation Y” films, which included a scene of the university exam system – a scene I’d just read about a few days earlier in Shrayer’s book. The Soviet system was for students to walk up and draw a question in something like a lottery system. I hadn’t understood the scene until I saw it play out in a movie released almost 2 decades before Shrayer’s university days.)

This book is your second memoir—you’ve published backwards, so-to-speak, starting with the more recent period after you left the Soviet Union. Did you originally intend to only write about the Italy period, and what prompted you to look back all the way to Moscow? 

It was an organic process, and it took time, distance, and another language to compose both books. Here’s what happened. I had started taking notes for and tinkering with the idea of a memoir of growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union even prior to the writing of Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration. Life — literary life and family life — often makes its own arrangements. Waiting for America ousted my previous attempts to write in the autobiographical vein. I completed the writing of Waiting for America when Karen and I were expecting the birth of Mira, our first child. Waiting for America ended up being a story of a Jewish refugee’s life in transit, first in Vienna and then in Italy, and it starts on the day we leave Moscow and ends on the day we land at JFK. It’s a book of discovering the world after twenty Soviet years of living in isolation; it’s a romantic story replete with adventures, a book about a young person’s identity in the process of transformation. Despite its moments of sadness and heartbreak, I think it’s a joyful book celebrating the deliverance of Jews from the USSR where they lived as captive aliens.

Waiting for America was published in 2007, and Tatiana, our younger daughter, was born in the same year. I now imagined my daughters clamoring for information about their father’s Jewish and Soviet past. My wife, posing as Mnemosyne, urged me to write a prequel to Waiting for America. Leaving Russia, both a seething memoir of Jewish life and death on the brink of the Soviet Empire’s collapse and an analytical autobiography of an ex-Soviet Jew, is told in a linear fashion and includes many photographs from the family archive. It is a story of trauma and persecution, even though it does depict many happy moments of love, friendship, and literary growth. It’s a bitter book, a book of parting and of tearing away. Leaving Russia took quite a few years to write, and at times even the writing itself was painful. While Leaving Russia is, chronologically speaking, a prequel to Waiting for America, it is a very different book, both in scope and in tone, and I’m still not sure whether to think of the two books as having formed a dilogy. And, believe it or not, people are already asking whether a third memoir is on the docket. At this point, it’s only a vague idea of a book about a Soviet immigrant’s romance with America…

Did you do any historical research for this book, or did you just work with your memories, and those of your family members?

No research in the way I usually conduct research for my books of criticism and biography. Leaving Russia is based on my memories and recollections, and the whole point is that I wanted to write only about things I personally experienced, saw and witnessed. Of course I made use of my parents’ archive and queried them on many occasions so as not to commit factual errors. But I composed from memory, and this is, to a large degree, a personal history, not a collective history of Soviet Jewry or the refusenik movement. The only exception is the chapter “Across the Steppe and into the Black Sea”— here I relied on the diary from a 1986 expedition from Moscow to North Caucasus and the Black Sea coast. This expedition diary is the only “Soviet” diary that I ever kept, and I was very lucky to be able to bring it with me when I left Moscow for good.

Can you comment on how the book has been received thus far, and if you’ve found that your audience responses differ between Russian Jews and North American Jewry?

The book’s only been out for two weeks, and so far its reception has been most gratifying. I think North American Jews who are not of Soviet origin view it as a kind of extended explanation of why Jews left Russia and why they still loved this land. Jews of Soviet origin, and especially their children, read the book as a kind of manifesto of their generation. I’ve already gotten very moving letters — especially after a section about being the only Jewish kid in my class in Moscow was featured in the Jewish Daily Forward — from fellow Soviet immigrants who write that this was also their experience, and that they can only speak about it after a few drinks. I think Leaving Russia is about the baggage of memories — both traumatic and happy — that we Soviet Jews brought with us when we emigrated. And we all have different ways of unburdening, of letting go of these memories. In some ways reading this book probably facilitates the process of unburdening.

Your family was fairly involved in the refusenik movement in the USSR. Once you came to the US, did you keep up with former refuseniks here in the US?

Yes and no. My parents, Emilia Shrayer and David Shrayer-Petrov, are still in touch with a few families of veteran refuseniks. In fact, their next door neighbors here in Brookline are also former refusenik activists. But on the whole, my feeling is that many former refuseniks have moved on, and this is not just the case in the US and Canada but also in Israel. My father, who wrote Herbert and Nelly, the first Russian-language novel about refuseniks, speaks of the persecution of refuseniks by the Soviet regime as a “lesser form of genocide.” I suppose the years of detention in the Soviet Union do not make for the fondest of memories, and many former refuseniks would rather not look back at all.

What do you think about the attitude towards the Soviet-Jewry movement today? Did you pay attention to the 25-year-anniversary last year? It seems to be of more significance to North American Jewry, than to Soviet/Russian Jewry.

I think the attitude varies. There are those who feel that this is a thing of the past. And there are those who live and relive these memories each and every day. The autumn of 1987 was our first autumn in America (we left Moscow on June 7, 1987). On December 6, 1987, my father and I participated in the March on Washington (for Soviet Jewry). I still have the banner my Brown roommate Chris Springer and I made and carried. On this banner, cut out of a plain white fabric, we painted the words “Free our brothers and sisters from the prisons of refusal” — in both English and Russian. In red and black.

At one point you write, “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?” You speak only briefly of this in the epilogue, but you return regularly to the “motherland.” Can you comment on that? It’s always struck me as such a complicated relationship for Russian-Jews, and very different from that of many other immigrant groups. 

I meant what I said about the kinds of friendships one only makes once in a lifetime. I speak about it throughout the book, and I specifically address this question in the epilogue: “It’s impossible to tell how things would have turned out had I stayed in Russia. And yet, for better or for worse, Russia had made me who I was at the time of the leaving, in 1987. And America enabled me, a twenty-year-old Jewish-Russian immigrant, to start unlocking the hyphens of my self. She let me in and took me as her own—Soviet lock, Russian stock, and Jewish barrel.” I went back for the first time in the summer of 1993, after having been naturalized as a US citizen. I go back regularly, about once a year. But I go back because I have research to conduct, lectures and readings to give, book projects to oversee. Earlier this year the Russian translation of Waiting for America was published in Moscow, and I occasionally contribute essays and stories to Russian publications—either self-translations or pieces written directly in Russian.

I don’t know whether I would be visiting Russia regularly if I didn’t have work to do there. Work aside, I have three main reasons to visit Russia. My two best friends, Maxim Mussel and Katya Tsarapkina, live in Russia. Family members on my father’s side — his parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts — are buried in St. Petersburg, and at this point we have no living family members left in Russia. I visit the graves annually. And, for the past two years, my daughters, Mira and Tatiana, have been going to Russia with me. It’s a very special experience.

Did the process of writing the book change your perspective on the Soviet Union, or on Soviet Jewish history and identity?

In a sense, the whole book is an extended answer to this question: How has the experience of growing up Jewish and facing prejudice and later, when my family became refuseniks, experiencing direct persecution, affected me? I believe, tentatively, that writing Leaving Russia made me more aware of the complex architecture of identity.

I was fascinated by the section where you got back in touch with your former classmates. Putting your Jewishness out front like that and addressing the anti-Semitism you experienced, in a somewhat aggressive manner – feels a bit out of place from the perspective of 2013, in that I don’t think it’s something many North Americans Jews would do in a similar situation. Can you speak more about why you chose to address the “Jewish question” right away? Did you think your former classmates would respond as they did?

Thank you. I don’t think I was aggressive; I was direct and upfront. I didn’t seek them out. They came to me. This section in the book is very detailed, and I was especially careful to record both the factual side and the emotional side. I quote my responses and the classmates’ comments. Several of them never wrote again after I confronted them. I’m now regularly in touch with four of my former Moscow classmates. It would have been disingenuous on my part to engage in small talk when the question that loomed large was antisemitism, my experience as a Jewish kid in my Moscow class, and the collective indifference of the Russian majority.

Lea, you have every right to feel the way you do, but I honestly have no idea what “the perspective of 2013” means. Are you saying that today the legacy of antisemitism in the former Soviet Union is somehow less relevant? (Would it be like saying that the legacy of the Shoah is less relevant today?) Allow me to add this perspective as a way of answering your question: As a young person, I experienced and observed many forms of racially, politically, and ethnically-based intolerance and persecution, ranging from the taunting of Jewish kids in school to the beating of Jewish women by KGB thugs in plain sight of the ordinary Soviet people who looked the other way.

In Leaving Russia, I wanted to convey the sense of growing up with a constant sense of both belonging and non-belonging — which is the way most Jews felt in the Soviet Union. I wanted to capture how a young Jewish child first learns the grammar of living a double life, and how this double life affects one, both negatively and positively. Finally, I wanted to explain how it is possible to feel so strongly attached to a place (as many Jews felt attached to Russia), and yet to be resolute in one’s desire to leave it (as Jewish refuseniks felt when they fought for their right to freedom). A paradox?

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