A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka

 A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir, by Lev Golinkin

Here's my last Russian title for 2020!  It paired very well with the book I read earlier this year, When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone, which was about the effort to get persecuted Soviet Jews out of the USSR.  Lev Golinkin was a persecuted Soviet Jew who wanted desperately to get out, though he was only a child.

So: back in the 1980s, as the USSR was teetering on the brink of collapse -- though no one realized it -- the Golinkin family lived in Kharkov, in the eastern end of Ukraine (it's now known as Kharkiv).  They were Jewish, and that meant that they were publicly despised: the USSR proclaimed the brotherhood of all men, but they still required that your ID card state your ethnicity, and having "Jewish" on that line meant that you were subject to random quota limits and routine persecution.  Lina, the elder daughter, wanted to get into medical school, but the most stellar achievements wouldn't get her in when the powers that were didn't want any more Jewish doctors.  Lev went to the most Jewish-friendly school in town, and was routinely beaten up as his teacher looked the other way.  "Crush the Jews, Save Russia" was a common slogan.

Leaving the USSR was tricky, though; the Soviets didn't want Jews, but they also wouldn't let them leave.  Applying to leave required careful timing and a willingness to lose your job.  The Golinkins applied and were able to leave as refugees in 1988 - 89, and were part of a large wave of Jewish emigration, which meant that the usual refugee channels were overwhelmed.

Lev's story of leaving, the entire refugee process, the eventual landing in Indiana, and the rest of his life is fascinating.  He was only about ten years old when they left, and he was thrilled to go, but as he grew up, he struggled desperately with ingrained self-hatred.  Being a rootless refugee was great; building a life with roots and a future was nearly beyond him, and required another long journey back along his history -- thus the memoir.

A really gripping account of his own journey, but also an explanation of what it was like to be a Soviet Jew, and how the refugee system worked.  Very good reading.


And with that, let's wind up this stinker of a year and hope for better things to come.  At the very least, I hope that 2021 will bring us all a lot of good books to read!

Edited to add: I forgot to put in the quotations I wanted to put in!  So here they are:

How could thousands of years of tradition—Jewish, Christian, Muslim—vanish overnight? What had become of them, the believers, the martyrs, defenders of the faith? The answer is chillingly simple: the martyrs, they were martyred. They were martyred by the millions. The first thing the Communists did upon attaining power was to exterminate the intelligentsia. They killed the priests, they killed the rabbis, they killed the teachers, they killed the judges, they killed anyone and everyone who was a source of knowledge and inspiration. Artists and writers were taken because they distracted the workers; engineers because there were power outages. Farming elders were killed because of food shortages, which led to more food shortages, which led to more dead farmers. They killed with diligence, they killed with pride, they killed and they killed until there wasn’t a man left who could recite so much as a damned nursery rhyme, and with the leaders dead, their memories banned, the books burned, the relics confiscated (and sold to the West to purchase more bullets), the sanctuaries torn down and refurbished into gyms and Pioneer youth centers, the souls of the people left bare and trembling, the Communists’ goal had been accomplished. The Bolsheviks knew: eradicate the culture, and the rest will wither accordingly.

I realized that I would never again walk through the parks, see Mom and Dad’s friends and relatives, take the tram downtown, or quietly read in the bedroom. I also knew we were about to lose ourselves in the world, had no set destination, no friends, no rubles, and no plans beyond Vienna.  I realized it all; that’s why I was happy.

 A familiar image of grim, frozen Russia is the babushka, the old woman, hunched and determined, head wrapped in a scarf. Her gnarled face stares out from old Ellis Island photographs and modern cable specials, and never fails to elicit awwws from concerned Westerners who’d love nothing more than to hug poor, helpless Granny and tell her that everything’s going to be all right. That is misguided, and potentially hazardous. Women who had survived long enough to become grandmothers by the 1980s were Russia’s rocks. Their generation had a hard life, even by the unforgiving standards of Mother Russia. Forged from the crucible of wars, famines, and purges, the babushki had witnessed entire populations of husbands and sons vanish into the grave. These women were instilled with a fierce matriarchal instinct, the notion that they were responsible for the welfare of all society, not just their kin, and underneath their kerchiefs the babushki watched, and listened, and remembered, and commanded.


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