Idealism and Nationalism in a Russian-Jewish Epic
The Patriots by Sana Krasikov (Spiegel & Grau, 538 pp. $28)
The Patriots, Sana Krasikov’s compelling multigenerational saga, explores what idealism, nationalism and loyalty meant to a family of Russian-born Jews who immigrated to the United States at the end of the 19th century. It explores their American-born daughter’s sympathies for the communist ideals of equality and freedom that led her to return to Eastern Europe and pledge allegiance to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the 1930s. Krasikov also looks at the Soviet-born son who seeks to understand his Russian heritage and to reconcile the utopian dreams of his parents with the horrors of reality. Then there is the American-born grandson who is trying to figure out where he belongs in the 21st century.
An epic that spans 75 years, The Patriots is historically rich, deeply moving and suspenseful. It is also structurally challenging: Certain facts are delayed as the plot moves back and forth in time and place and chapters alternate first-person and third-person points of view.
The story follows the trials of Krasikov’s main characters: Depression-era, Brooklyn-born émigré to Russia Florence Fein, the book’s tragic heroine, and her son, Julian Brink, who reversed his mother’s journey when he came to America in the 1970s. Julian wants to understand why his mother initially moved to Russia, what she did there as a translator and Russian partisan, what she endured under Stalin and why she remained there for 50 years when she was permitted to come home to the United States sooner. He also wants to persuade Lenny—his American-born businessman son who is working and living in Russia—to leave the country.
The book begins in 1956 with a prologue that introduces Julian as a young boy in Russia, who has been living in an orphanage. He is being taken to reunite with his near-dead mother, recently released from Lubyanka prison. The novel then moves to the past, looking at Florence’s life in Brooklyn, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., in America and in various Russian villages, Moscow and the Gulag. The narrative shifts might prove confusing were it not for government-stamp graphics that serve as chapter heads signaling time and place.
The book’s theme of the search for identity and truth grows complex: Why did Florence and so many other talented young Jewish intellectuals believe so deeply in Marxist-Leninist ideals? And why, after World War II, as corruption mounted and anti-Semitism intensified in Russia—due in large measure to Stalin’s perception of Israel as a threat to Soviet interests—did Florence never denounce the system that almost killed her and that murdered so many Jews? These include real-life Russian artists who make cameos in the book—Solomon Mikhoels, a celebrated actor and the director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater; the novelist David Bergelson; avant-garde poet Peretz Markish; prominent journalists such as Ilya Ehrenberg and children’s writer Leyb Kvitko. How ironic, Julian thinks, that his son, Lenny, has become “part of the confused breed of expats whose families return, salmon-like, to dip their heads into the fecal pool of a newly democratic Russia.” The italics are Krasikov’s, one of many instances of the author’s sardonic humor.
The diverse and detailed lore in the book is impressive, and Krasikov has done her research—in engineering, shipbuilding, steel mills, international finance, Yiddish and Russian folk idioms, steam baths, prison bureaucracy, Russian theater and literature of all kinds. This is a big book, with a huge cast of characters—how Russian!—but it’s worth the read.
Joan Baum, a retired academic, writes for several publications and is the book reviewer for WSHU, the Connecticut-based NPR station.
For more insight into the writing of The Patriots, read Joan Baum’s Q&A with author.