A forgotten piece of history Writer Sana Krasikov
AT 560 pages, Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots isn’t quite as long as War and Peace but, in true Russian literary tradition, it’s a sweeping epic covering 70 years of Russian, Jewish and American history.
Seven years in the making, the seeds for the book were planted following a conversation with a family friend. Like her, he was a Jewish Soviet immigrant (Krasikov was born in Ukraine and grew up in Georgia, moving to the US at the age of eight when Gorbachev opened the doors). But to her astonishment, both his parents were Americanborn, having emigrated to Russia in the 1930s.
“They went because the Soviet Union was kind of the Paris of the ’30s… a shining beacon of progress at a time when people thought Marxist predictions were coming true,” she explains in her soft New York accent, which retains a slight Russian lilt.
Having arrived a refugee and bought into the American dream, Krasikov was fascinated by a story that was a total reversal of her own.
Krasikov, who won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Fiction for her story collection One More Year, began reading up on similar cases, seeking to understand “how an American mindset transformed into a Soviet one”. Her research led her to the “Night of the Murdered Poets”. A precursor to the “Doctors’ Plot” in 1952 when Stalin ordered the execution of 13 well-known Soviet Jews, including the renowned Yiddish writers David Bergelson and Peretz Markish. All had been part of the Anti-Fascist Committee, a Soviet propaganda machine whereby Jewish Russians toured western countries to raise money and support for the fight against the Nazis. Their loyalty could not save them.
“I’d been a recipient of Jewish activism on behalf of Jewish refu- gees and here was the most famous Jewish fundraising campaign that nobody had ever heard of,” she tells me. “You had the lights of the Yiddish literary world and for the first time in 20 years they were allowed — out of political necessity — to encourage a Jewish national and spiritual identity. They wrote these reportages and plays and articles that were translated and published in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, so that Jews of the West would open their purses to help their brothers who were being persecuted by Hitler.”
The fervour culminated in the future Israeli leader Golda Meir arriving in Moscow as ambassador, and being welcomed by tens of thousands of Jews. “You had this grassroots movement of a national identity,” she says. “Of course, Stalin was not having any of it. Their words were used against them, and all this immense literary talent was obliterated.”
This forms the backdrop for The Patriots, which follows Brooklynborn Florence, who boards a steamer in 1934, buoyed by a fervent belief in Soviet ideology. In 2008, we meet her son Julian who grew up in an orphanage while Florence was incarcerated in Siberia, and is now a proud American working in the oil industry, and her grandson Lenny, an American trying his luck in the post-Soviet economy. The central mystery is what led to Florence’s arrest and how she survived when so many didn’t.
It is a story of parent-child relationships but also of antisemitism and the dark side of political ideology. Through Florence’s experiences as a foreigner, and her employment on the outskirts of the Anti-Fascist Committee, we have a window on to a forgotten piece of history. As she works to produce propaganda, we see how easily the truth is manipulated for political goals — something Krasikov admits feels rather timely.
“There’s a lot in the book to resonate with the questions we are asking ourselves now about what is patriotism, what is being a citizen, what is loyalty,” she says. “Also, it’s startling for me to see the parallels between the uncritical friendship between FDR and Stalin, as we are seeing with Putin and Trump.”
She rubbishes the idea that she is prescient — though she did start writing it in 2008, as the financial crisis developed, and noticed eerie parallels with the era she was writing about, not least in terms of the rise of populism and class war.
“In the 1930s, you had these demagogues using a popular medium, the radio, like Father Coughlin and Huey Long. The things that came out of their mouth could have been dead ringers for things that came out of Trump’s mouth or even Bernie Sanders’s,” she says.
The complicated relationship between the two superpowers “that we’re still navigating today” was something Krasikov wanted to illuminate, hence her choice as narrator — an American locked out of America, watching from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
The Jewish element augments Florence’s outsider perspective. “She is an American forced to live a Soviet life, permitted for a short time to let her Jewish identity blossom and then have it used against her,” says Krasikov. “This was the trauma of Russian Jews — not only to live through that reversal, but to be forced to be complicit in it.”
Now living in the Hudson Valley, among plenty of Jews, Krasikov came to her own Jewish identity via a process of self-discovery. “It was never shoved down my throat — I grew up in this place where our teachers lectured us about there being no God.” But it is integral to her writing. “Jews have a perfect angle, an oblique lens through which to observe history. We are simultaneously insiders and outsiders,” she says.
Equally, writing The Patriots and reading dossiers on Soviet Jews has broadened Krasikov’s understanding of her community. “‘The Night of the Murdered Poets’ was a seminal trauma of Soviet Jewry; it helped me understand the secretive nature of a lot of people that I know, that things can just turn on you,” she says. “That moment was seared into collective memory.”
Krasikov’s main hope is that — despite the orphanages and gulags — it won’t be written off as another depressing Russian novel. “It’s really about this woman’s story and her survival and finding a way to use the system to her advantage,” she says.
As for her friend, whose mother’s story was her starting point, he has had nothing but praise. “He said he really recognised his mother in it. That was tremendous, because I was sort of writing it for him.”
The writers’ words were used against them
Sana Krasikov: observer of history