Books: Taunting Stalin on stage

The Yid: A Novel is based on speculation that, in 1953, Stalin was planning a definitive resolution of Russia’s Jewish Question: A pogrom that would “forever rid of 2.2. million Jewish vermin."

Taunting Stalin on stage  (photo credit: ILLUSTRATION)
Taunting Stalin on stage
(photo credit: ILLUSTRATION)
Paul Goldberg’s debut novel brings together a ragtag group of Russian Jews ready to exact imagined revenge Paul Goldberg’s debut novel – set in the post-World War II Soviet Union – is seriously funny, absurd and violent.
The Yid: A Novel is based on speculation that, in 1953, Josef Stalin was planning a definitive resolution of Russia’s Jewish Question: A pogrom that would “forever rid the Motherland of 2.2. million Jewish vermin.” In January of that year, dozens of Soviet doctors – virtually all of them Jewish – were arrested and charged with killing leading political and military figures in the Soviet Union as part of a plot hatched by intelligence agencies in the United States and Great Britain. It seems the mass deportation and murder was abandoned when Stalin died, suddenly and mysteriously, on March 1, 1953.
The Yid begins with the attempted arrest of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, a journeyman actor from the now defunct Moscow State Jewish Theater, by three uniformed agents of state security.
Executing a brilliant pirouette, which he first performed at the end of the second act of Bar-Kokhba, Levinson slits the throats of his would-be captors with two Finnish daggers. In short order, Levinson, a soldier in World War II who was “at his best in a detachment of fighters he knew, fighters he had learned to trust,” enlists his friends (Aleksandr Kogan, a machine gunner turned pacifist – and a brilliant surgeon; Frederich Lewis, an African-American engineer who came to the USSR in search of a proletariat free of race prejudice, only to learn that he had escaped Jim Crow “to become a trained baboon of World Revolution”; and Kima Petrova, whose parents were murdered in an earlier purge) in disposing of the bodies, hiding their Black Maria, the signature state security mode of urban transport, and hatches a mad but inspired scheme, more improvisational than scripted, to assassinate Stalin.
Goldberg plays – at times inventively – with the venerable theme that “all the world’s a stage.” In the theater, and perhaps in real life, Levinson has learned, dialogue “brings victory to the person who controls it.” Onstage, but maybe not always off-stage, Levinson realizes “the line between reality and imagination is perilously porous.” That said, he will blind his enemies with a story.
“If all goes well,” he tells his comrades, “we will remain unseen and unseen we will leave.”
And “history will get another chance to get it right,” Kogan replies.
“Or f*** it up,” says Lewis.
A debut novel, The Yid is not without flaws. In commenting on the action or in explaining the inner thoughts of characters, Goldberg’s narrator tends to belabor the obvious. Three examples should suffice.
Hitler killed three times the number of Jews living in the Soviet Union in 1953, Goldberg tells us.
“Of course, he did this over seven years, building an infrastructure for transportation and liquidation.”
Asked what he thinks of blood rituals, Lewis quips that “they are pleasant.”
The narrator adds, “An idiotic question deserves an idiotic answer.”
Toward the end of the novel, after two more thugs have been dispatched, Lewis stares down at their bodies.
“This is his moment of reflection upon their death, upon his life,” Goldberg writes. “He can still feel. Or can he?” Throughout the novel, however, Goldberg manages to highlight his themes.
“If you are able to feel and laugh,” declares Dr. Kogan, and embrace the absurdity of existence, “you’ve beaten history at its game.”
Shaped intellectually and spiritually by the poems of Anna Akhmatova and The Trial by Franz Kafka, Kogan thinks, when he hears a knock on his door at 4:39 a.m., “Could this be a mistake?” And then, “Should I remain in my pajamas? Should I put on street clothes? Has my valise been packed?” Most important, perhaps, Goldberg appears intent on undermining the narrative of Jewish passivity.
Much later in the novel, Kogan reads from Levinson’s script: “It’s said that every generation, and every man, must find his freedom from his Egypt.”
Levinson holds up a bullet and says, “We killed a man,” and Kogan adds, “Our freedom is won in battle.”
Asked what killing a madman – like Stalin – is called, the crazy old actor improvises: “Meshugeside, let’s say!” As the friends act on their aspiration to move “from mourning to festivity, from darkness to light, from servitude to redemption,” with or without God, in “the first Blood Seder history has ever known,” they do not, they cannot, really know where they’re headed.
“Next Year in Jerusalem?” asks Kogan.
“Is that the conclusion here?” “This is my play, you fool,” shrieks Levinson, “I am at home! No! Forever here!” Could there be a world without Stalin, Kogan wonders? “This cannot happen because it cannot happen – ever!” It can and it can’t, of course. And so Goldberg leaves us in Moscow in 1993.
“The city lives, the earth is turning,” he writes, “and we are on it still.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.