A for­got­ten piece of his­tory Writer Sana Krasikov

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - INTERVIEW JEN­NIFER LIP­MAN ‘The Pa­tri­ots’ is pub­lished by Granta.

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

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