Forget Russia: Tragically seeking hope in Russia

This first novel from Lisa Bordetsky-Williams, a professor of English and literary studies at Ramapo College in New Jersey, opens a window into precarious Jewish life in Russia of 1917.

LENIN STADIUM in 1980. The book explores Moscow from 1917-1980 (photo credit: REUTERS)
LENIN STADIUM in 1980. The book explores Moscow from 1917-1980
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This first novel from Lisa Bordetsky-Williams, a professor of English and literary studies at Ramapo College in New Jersey, opens a window into precarious Jewish life in the czarist/revolutionary Russia of 1917, the Stalinist Russia of pre-World War II and the Communist Soviet Union of 1980.
The protagonist, college student Anna, flies to Moscow to study Russian in the fall of 1980. It seems she is both pushed and pulled to this bleak city. Pushed by family circumstances including a stepfather with roaming hands, and pulled by her desire to confront the country in which her great-grandmother had been murdered in a pogrom and dumped in the Guilopyat River.
“I wanted to understand how her tragic, unspoken life had affected my own,” Anna explains. Furthermore, she was curious to see the place where her mother had spent nine miserable months of her childhood.
“My mother wanted to forget the past, and I had become obsessed with it. I longed to understand the family story – how my grandfather came here in 1909 from Minsk and dreamed of returning to his homeland after 1917. He was a carpenter who longed to build the revolution. And finally, in 1931, he brought to Leningrad my mother and aunt, two small girls then, and my grandmother, a young woman of twenty-four, who never wanted to go back to the country where her mother died so violently.”
Anna’s adventures in Soviet Russia include a date rape, encounters with KGB agents and black marketeers, a blossoming love interest with surprising ties to her own family, and above all a suffocating aura of secretiveness and despair.
Anna had naively expected Moscow to be preferable to New York. “I hated all the stores down Broadway – from Fairway to Zabar’s to Thom McAn Shoes. In Russia, I was sure people didn’t talk about money but instead spoke of the soul in half-lit, smoke-filled rooms.”
If people did not talk about money, it was only because they didn’t have any to speak of.
“When your parents separated, did they fight a lot about money?” Anna asks her boyfriend, Iosif.
“Money?” Iosif paused. “Why money? They didn’t have any to fight about. Why do you ask?”
“Because money was all my parents fought about.”
“What can I say? America is a sick place,” he replies.
The tragic stories of Anna’s great-grandmother and grandmother, likely based on many true occurrences, are particularly compelling.
Her great-grandparents, Zlata and Lazar Bermansky, lived “in a home built of wooden logs piled one on top of another.”
Lazar, a destitute tailor, left for America in 1915 with a promise to send tickets for Zlata and their daughter, Sarah. Sarah wouldn’t see Lazar again until 1921, when she landed at Ellis Island as a motherless 17-year-old. By that time, Lazar was renamed Louis and had a new wife and children.
Sarah’s unrelenting depression followed her through marriage and motherhood. In a well-meaning but disastrous attempt to lift her spirits, her husband took the family back to Russia in 1931. Change was in the wind and hopes – soon to be dashed – were high.
The author describes Sarah’s feelings on the journey: “She didn’t want to go back. He kept saying life would be better for all of them there – jobs for all, a good place to live. She knew it was nothing but lies.”
Fortunately for Anna’s mother, who nearly died of whooping cough, the family returned to Massachusetts before the year was out.
In the Moscow that Anna encounters, a new generation of Jewish dreamers is determined not to repeat the failures of their forebears.
“They were the grandchildren of the Bolsheviks. They were disappointed, betrayed, religious, and rebellious. They were outsiders, their ancestors were revolutionaries who had been murdered or sent to Siberia. So they studied Hebrew, came to the only synagogue for holidays, tried to leave the country if they could, and welcomed the American students to their homes.”
The endless onions, carrots and potatoes consumed by these struggling young adults permeates the bleak scenes painted by Bordetsky-Williams, scenes in which Anna tries to retain some optimism.
“So, Anna, what do you think of Moscow?” asks an underground Hebrew teacher named Adelanda as she’s peeling roots and tubers.
“I’ve seen so little,” responds Anna in hesitant Russian, “and yet it is a beautiful city with wide streets and then passageways to explore.”
“Yes, of course, but this city is a prison,” Adelanda replies as she continues chopping vegetables.
Anna achieves some measure of closure thanks to a visit with an elderly woman who’d known her grandmother and grandfather during their sojourn in the Soviet Union. We learn in an epilogue what happened to the main characters several years down the road.
My only criticism is the use of Russian words spelled in Cyrillic, which I assume most readers (like me) cannot decipher. Most of these words are translated or transliterated but some are not. Overall, the book is interesting, highly readable and informative. 
FORGET RUSSIA, by L. Bordetsky-Williams, Tailwinds Press, 296 pages, $14