Forget Russia: A Review
By L. Bordetsky-Williams (Tailwinds Press)
In her debut novel, poet and memoirist L. Bordetsky-Williams mines her own family history to present the little-known story of reverse migration—the tens of thousands of Americans, immigrants or descendants of immigrants who fled the Great Depression for the nascent Soviet Union and the dream of helping build a new Communist state. Bordetsky-Williams’s multigenerational saga follows one such Jewish immigrant family: Sarah and Leon Vitsky and their descendants.
The novel is told from two alternating points of view—Sarah, who emigrated from Russia to the United States only to briefly return a decade later, and her American granddaughter Anna, who yearns to find out more about the country where her grandmother was born. Sarah’s story opens with a vivid scene of the brutal rape and murder of her mother in 1920, when Jews were caught in the shifting tides of the Russian Revolution. Sarah flees to America alone, finding shelter in a quick marriage to Leon, another Russian immigrant. However, she carries the sadness of her tragic loss, keeping it a secret from her family through two difficult childbirths and the Great Depression. In 1931, Leon brings his family to Leningrad with hopes of escaping the economic downturn and curing his wife’s melancholy as well as with enthusiasm for the Communist state. “At least in the Soviet Union, everything’s getting better and better, even if it’s happening slowly,” he says. Within a year, his hopes are dashed, and the family is lucky to escape back to America before the Soviet doors lock shut.
About 50 years later, in 1980, Anna decides to leave her comfortable American college for a semester in Cold War Moscow. “Your problem is you have a Russian soul,” Anna’s mother tells her, disapproving of her choice. Anna plans to study the Russian language, search for her family’s roots and perhaps understand the cause of her grandmother’s lifelong sadness. On a visit to Moscow’s only synagogue, Anna connects with a group of refuseniks who shared her grandparents’ dreams of a better life but have given up hope of creating that better life on Russian soil.
Both Sarah and Anna find disappointment in Mother Russia—not just in the broken promises of freedom and prosperity for all, but also in its antisemitism, poverty, hunger and fear. Anna’s discovery of information about her own background during her time in Moscow feels a bit contrived, enabling Bordetsky-Williams to tie up loose ends. Nevertheless, Forget Russia enthralls in its exploration of Jewish ties to the country that so many once called home.
Elizabeth Edelglass is a fiction writer, book reviewer and poet living in Connecticut.