Book Review: Post-Soviet transformation story

Lev Golinkin looks back on the anti-Semitism he experienced in Ukraine through boyish eyes.

Lev Golinkin looks back on the anti-Semitism he experienced in Ukraine through boyish eyes (photo credit: DIANA P. LANG)
Lev Golinkin looks back on the anti-Semitism he experienced in Ukraine through boyish eyes
(photo credit: DIANA P. LANG)
Lev Golinkin was about nine years old when he left his childhood home in Kharkov, Ukraine, in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Although he and his family had no plans beyond reaching a Vienna train station, Lev always remembered the day he left his hometown as the happiest of his life.
Seventeen years later, Golinkin – an adult citizen of the United States of America who answered “New Jersey” when asked where he was from – decided to retrace his steps and examine the childhood he had tried so hard to forget.
After four years at Boston College, he flew across the ocean to search for the people who had helped him and his family on their path to freedom, and to look for the child he had once been. The result was the closing of a circle for Golinkin, a deeper understanding of himself – and a book.
A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is a story of transformation. It is the story of a Jewish child living in the Soviet Union who was beaten at school because he was a Jew. It is also the story of an American man struggling with his past in order to find his future. In Backpack, Golinkin takes the reader on two journeys: his childhood journey from Kharkov to the US via Vienna, and his adult journey back to the Austrian capital 17 years later.
As he gains insight into his own personal journey, Golinkin begins to comprehend that he and his family were part of a much greater movement– the mass departure of Jews from the Soviet Union. His story is not only his own, but also that of numerous other children who left at the same time.
First grade in Kharkov meant indoctrination into Communism from day one.
The kids in Golinkin’s class automatically became members of the Communist children’s movement, and had baby Lenin pins pinned to their shirts.
One of Golinkin’s only memories from those early years was the day he and his classmates strapped on ill-fitting gas masks and ran through the halls of the school, with the teacher saying something about the capitalists and how it was important to be prepared in case they attacked.
The real reason that day stood out in Golinkin’s memory was because of the beating he received later, from kids who pinned him down and called him “zhid,” the slur for “Jew,” shoving dirty toilet paper in his face while their teacher calmly reminded them it was time for class.
That was the first of a series of beatings he had to endure during his first years at school. Not surprisingly, he preferred to stay home as much as he could get away with.
Golinkin had no idea what it meant to be a Jew, but he did know he did not want to be one. Even his friend Oleg, who lived next door, asked him one day if he was a zhid, and when Golinkin answered he didn’t know, Oleg looked at him and said, “You are a zhid. I know you are. You have the ass of a zhid, the face of a zhid.… We learned how to look for them in school.”
In Kharkov, Golinkin’s family lived in a world where slogans saying, “Crush the Jews, save Russia” were commonly scribbled in alleyways. While the remnants of Jewish religion and culture had been outlawed in the Soviet Union since their grandparents’ generation, anti-Semitism was rampant.
In the late 1980s, the seeds of change began slowly taking root in the Soviet Union. The trickle of Jews who had been allowed to emigrate earlier became a flood. Golinkin and his family left Kharkov in December 1989, only days before the date America was expected to close its borders.
In moving and insightful language, Golinkin shares his early memories of life in Kharkov, of the months his family spent in Vienna, and his arrival in America, where he lived in Indiana before moving to New Jersey. He openly reveals his longing to overcome the deeply felt pain and lack of self-confidence left over from his childhood, and shares how his journey back to Vienna helped him do this.
A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is a well-written narrative of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, told through the eyes of an imaginative and sensitive little boy who didn’t know where he was going – but knew it had to be better than where he was. That little boy became a mature and perceptive man, who is able to look back at his past and appreciate how his experiences have shaped his life.