When Sana Krasikov started to write The Patriots, her big and boldly imagined new novel about Russia and America, she could hardly have predicted how timely it would be. The relationship between the two countries will always be a central part of the Jewish story, because so many American Jews have roots in the former Czarist Empire. But the Cold War collision between the United States and the Soviet Union, which defined the history of both nations for 50 years, now feels like a thing of the distant past. The two countries seemed to have disentangled themselves from one another; and Krasikov’s novel, which is about three generations of a Jewish family tangled up in both, might have seemed like a strictly historical subject.
Since the presidential election, however, everything has changed, in the most improbable way. Thanks to Donald Trump, Russia is at the center of American politics once again—this time no longer as an ideological foe and superpower rival, but as the president’s best friend. As Trump threatens to undo the NATO alliance and cast his lot with Vladimir Putin—a dictator who assassinates his political opponents and invades neighboring countries—the question of what it means to be American and what it means to be Russian has become urgent once again. Do the two countries have profoundly different national characters and political cultures, so that any reconciliation between them is doomed to be fleeting? Or are the two identities more alike than we may suspect?
At such a moment, Soviet immigrant writers have insights and information we urgently need. The journalist Masha Gessen, for instance, has been one of the best guides to the Putin-Trump axis and what it portends for American politics. Krasikov is not a pundit, like Gessen, but in The Patriots she has given us a remarkable story about the fate of Americans in Russia, and of Russians who return to their homeland after becoming Americanized. That is Krasikov’s own story: Born in the Soviet Union and raised in the United States from the age of 8, she has lived as an adult in both Moscow and New York. Her first book, the story collection One More Year, won many accolades, including the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. And it is Jewishness—for Krasikov as for Gessen, Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, David Bezmozgis, and others—that offers the perfect oblique angle from which to observe the two cultures. At home in both and neither, the Jewish writer sees things about them that other observers might miss.
The title of Krasikov’s epic is ironic, for no one in The Patriots turns out to be a patriot in the simple sense of loving the country where he or she was born. Indeed, the book opens in 1934, with Florence Fein, its young, Brooklyn-born heroine, on board a steamship heading to Moscow, where she intends to make a new life. “Breaking your family’s heart was the price you paid for rescuing your own,” Florence reflects, little suspecting how much heartbreak her journey has in store for her. Her motives, we quickly learn, are a mixture of the personal and the ideological. She has fallen in love with Sergey, a Russian engineer whom she got to know when he visited America as part of a trade delegation. When he returns home and writes her a friendly letter, she chooses to interpret it as an invitation to join him in building Communism.
To Florence, as to many young American radicals at the depth of the Depression, Russia looks like the future. More, it looks like an escape from the dreariness of her own repressed and impoverished existence: “She would have done anything to escape Flatbush, gone anywhere to find a life of meaning and consequence that surely existed beyond the pale of Brooklyn—a territory that, like Ireland or Poland, was always doomed to lie in the shadow of a superior power.” In other words, Florence goes to Moscow in the same spirit that other Brooklyn Jews of her generation went to Manhattan: in the name of “making it,” to use Norman Podhoretz’s phrase. In her case, however, making it involves going back to the same place her own parents left behind.
Historically speaking, this makes her extremely exceptional—few American-born Jews made the reverse trip to the old country. But it makes sense as a premise for the story Krasikov wants to tell; for the oscillation between Russia and America will continue to define Florence’s family for the next two generations. The book alternates between several timeframes, telling the stories of Florence, from the 1930s to the 1950s; her son, Julian, who was born in Russia but came to America in the 1970s; and her grandson, Lenny, who has returned to Moscow in 2008 in pursuit of a big score in the casino of post-Soviet capitalism. Gradually, as these stories unfold, we come to understand how they fit together, and how the patterns in these three lives turn out to be eerily similar, despite their vastly different historical circumstances.
What is it like to do a deal with a Russian oligarch, or to attend a Fourth of July party at the American embassy in Moscow?
By setting her novel in the past and the present simultaneously, Krasikov takes on a double challenge; and it is her appetite for fictional challenges that makes The Patriots such an impressive book. She is writing the kind of historical epic that used to dominate the bestseller lists—Herman Wouk and James Michener are part of the book’s DNA, as well as Pasternak and Tolstoy—but that few writers take on anymore. The reader can sense her eagerness to imagine all kinds of subjects and characters. In addition to the Jews at the novel’s heart, Krasikov makes room for a fighter pilot from the American South, a Russian oil executive, an English journalist, an NKVD agent, a gulag commandant, and even a brief appearance by FDR. Likewise, she relishes the chance to explore iconic settings, from small-town America in the Depression, to Moscow during Stalin’s purges, to an Arctic labor camp.
A good deal of research has gone into The Patriots, not all of it thoroughly digested—an excursus about Solomon Mikhoels and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee seems dutifully reproduced from the history books. In general, however, Krasikov boldly faces down the obstacle posed by all historical fiction, which is that the writer can’t know any better than the reader “how it really was.” Writing about the past, the novelist has to make it seem plausible; but our expectations of plausibility are formed, for the most part, by other books, not by actual life. As a result, the more familiar you are with 20th-century Soviet history, the more familiar the itinerary of Florence Fein will seem. Inevitably, she is questioned by the NKVD, and spends time in a gulag.
But Krasikov handles each of these episodes well, with convincing detail and psychological truth. She is especially good at following the convolutions of logic and self-interest by which Florence, called in by the secret police, convinces herself that it is all right to inform on her best friend. For isn’t it possible that the friend informed on her first? How else would her interrogator know so much about her? This revelation, Krasikov deftly imagines, strikes Florence at first less as a personal betrayal than as a blow to her self-esteem: “An assumption so fleeting and vain that she had not even registered it as a thought—that she, Florence, had been singled out in some way for her insight and intelligence. Yes, a part of her had taken a depraved kind of pride in this venal, repellent work they forced her to do.”
When we reach the 21st century, and the stories of Florence’s son and grandson, the novel becomes more immediate and exciting. Here is news we don’t already know, and that Krasikov seems able to bring us: What is it like to do a deal with a Russian oligarch, or to attend a Fourth of July party at the American embassy in Moscow? But even though Communism has vanished, life in Russia, Krasikov suggests, is still shot through with corruption and moral compromise. Julian and Lenny are compelled to commit their own betrayals—less consequential than Florence’s, because they involve business deals rather than prison terms, but still sullying. And still Russian—for in Krasikov’s imagination, Russia is a place where it is impossible to keep your hands clean. The state, the economy, the culture all conspire to turn people against their own convictions. Very little of the story takes place in America, and there is no reason to think that Krasikov or any of her characters have an idealized view of American life. But compared to what she shows us of Russian life, it is inevitable that America comes to seem like a good place—a place where it is at least possible to be honest. Whether it will remain that way in the years to come is the great open question we now face.
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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.