Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, Maxim Shrayer’s nuanced memoir of his youth in the Soviet Union, reads less like the nonfiction account that it is, and more like a literary work.
Instead of the linear plotline a reader might expect — moving from repression to liberation — Shrayer tarries over the landscapes he loves, the many attitudes toward Jews and being Jewish he experienced, the meaning of coming of age as a refusenik during the waning days of the Soviet Union, and his own complex and even counterintuitive emotions about being both Russian and Jewish.
“The general question I grapple with in this book is how is it that Russian Jews had such strong roots, were so attached, that they loved the land and the culture but still decided to uproot themselves en masse,” said Shrayer, who will talk about his memoir at [words] bookstore in Maplewood on March 29.
A professor of Russian, English, and Jewish studies in the Department of Slavic & Eastern Languages and Literatures at Boston College, Shrayer spoke with NJJN about the book, his goal in writing it, and what he hopes people will take from it.
Shrayer was born in Moscow in 1967 and immigrated to the United States in 1987. In Leaving Russia, he focuses on the double life he lived as a youth — student during the day, refusenik at home at night — and points out the ways in which his life, and by extension that of many Jews in the former Soviet Union, echoed that lived by Jews in post-Enlightenment Germany.
“They said a Jew should be German in the street and a Jew at home,” Shrayer said. “A peculiar version of this ended up taking place in the Soviet Union post-World War II for very different reasons. I grew up with a strong sense of Judaism, if not religious, then historical, spiritual, and cultural. But in the street, I appeared as a regular Soviet youth.”
As a member of a family of refusneniks, he was kept from graduating high school with the gold medal he deserved. He attended Moscow University’s School of Soil Science rather than enrolling in the literature program he would have preferred in a strategic move to avoid being drafted.
Still, he loves his homeland, he told NJJN, and the sentiment is captured in his book. Describing a trip through Russia’s rural heartland with a student group from the university, he writes that he felt at home in the landscape, even as he read Isaac Bashevis Singer, secretly, through the trip. His identity, he said, “is just not a simple set of binary oppositions.”
Throughout the book, he describes the beauty of the Estonian landscape where his family vacationed every summer, and portrays his family’s relationship with the artist Jurri Arrak and his wife in idyllic terms. It was only as an adult that he learned that Estonia was declared free of Jews as early as 1942.
At times in his memoir he takes a much more aggressive attitude toward anti-Semitism, perhaps nowhere more so than in his description of classmates who had harassed him for being Jewish. Later, he relates, they invited him to a reunion. He wrote back describing how cruel they had been to him. “It’s 2004 and they decide to hold this 20th reunion and I’ve just finished this chapter. It would have been disingenuous to make small talk…,” he said. “I decided to unburden myself. It was good to be in touch, but I wanted to let them know that I remember things this way.”
Not surprisingly, most did not write back again. “Imagine: I spent six days a week with these kids and I was marred by a sense of not quite belonging,” Shrayer said.
By now, the author has lived more of his life in the United States than in Russia. He almost never writes in his native tongue. “I am stylistically more a product of American culture,” he said, adding, “And my audience is here.”
Shrayer acknowledged that he wrote the book at least in part for his two young daughters, whom he has taken to Russia several times. “They are bicultural. They have a strong awareness of that…,” he said.