by L. Bordetsky-Williams
Tailwinds Press, 310 pp.
Reviewed by Katherine E. Young
“I went to the underworld to find dead ancestors, to find a path homeward” reads a short introductory passage to L. Bordetsky-Williams’ Forget Russia. Bordetsky-Williams’ novel tells the story of four generations of Jewish women navigating two of the twentieth century’s most complicated and dangerous places: the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Characters endure pogroms, civil war, hunger, purges, and anti-Semitism of all stripes; several experience rape and/or murder. Even when they make their way to America, their suffering continues; Bordetsky-Williams also explores the emotional minefield of emigration and its attendant feelings of displacement and grief.
Anna, the novel’s narrator, is an American-born college “co-ed” with a few scars of her own. Against the advice of her mother, Anna chooses to study abroad in Moscow in 1980, hoping to discover a better sense of herself by learning more about the land her family left fifty years previously. Anna doesn’t have any specific plans to trace her family history, though; more an observer than an actor, she drifts from foreign adventure to foreign adventure, seemingly content just to scratch the surface of a life so different from her own—an attitude that may or may not be a way of numbing herself to the physical and emotional trauma she experiences both before she leaves the US and after she arrives in the USSR.
Bordetsky-Williams does a good job of highlighting the gaps in culture and life experience that sometimes yawn between Anna and her Soviet contemporaries, particularly the younger members of Moscow’s Jewish community whom Anna befriends. Some of the novel’s most striking writing about place can be found in several short passages from Anna’s travel diary—one wishes that Forget Russia contained even more of them. Passing descriptions of a fartsovshchik—a young man scheming to obtain banned books that he can sell on the black market—and an inquisitive older couple who are likely KGB agents feel authentic to that time and place. The real-life Pushkin Russian Language Institute dormitory on ulitsa Volgina and its classroom building in downtown Moscow are presented accurately; descriptions of everyday life in Moscow, from long lines to empty grocery stores to the ubiquitous ice cream vendors, resonate. Every foreigner who was there at the time will recall searching, like Anna, for a pay phone less likely to be tapped.
While Anna’s journey provides the book’s main narrative, it’s framed by the stories of her grandmother, Sarah, and to a lesser degree her mother, Susan. Sarah grows up in what appears to be a typical shtetl in the early part of the twentieth century in what is now Ukraine. Her handsome, ambitious father leaves his wife and young daughter for a better life in America, promising to send for them when he has found success. What he finds, however, is a new wife; he abandons Sarah and her mother to the horrors of the civil war that rages in Ukraine after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. When Sarah eventually arrives in the US, her new stepmother and step-siblings do little to make her feel welcome. After she marries the much older Leon, an immigrant from what is now Belarus, Sarah sinks into depression, further complicated by post-partum depression. Leon struggles with Sarah’s mental health issues and finally resolves to pack up his wife and two young daughters to move to the young Soviet Union, where he dreams of building communism and where—he hopes—Sarah will recover.
Despite its fascinating subject matter—Depression-era Americans traveling to the Soviet Union to help build a communist utopia—the period Leon and Sarah spend in Leningrad in 1931 with their young daughters (one of whom, Susan, grows up to be Anna’s mother) doesn’t feel as fully integrated into the novel as Sarah’s youth in the shtetl or Anna’s student experience in Moscow. We skip directly from Roxbury, Massachusetts, where Sarah’s depression has rendered her nearly catatonic, to the family’s arrival several weeks later in Leningrad, where Sarah is immediately thrust into a physically and emotionally draining struggle to survive. Bordetsky-Williams pays special attention to the endless, backbreaking work women are expected to perform in the “workers’ paradise”: Sarah must hold down a factory job, shop constantly in a time of severe shortages, pick up her daughters at daycare, prepare meals largely limited to bread and cabbage, and participate in the social circle of the communal apartment. She argues angrily with her husband in the family’s filthy, bedbug-infested room; it is Sarah who sees the shortcomings of the Soviet Union most clearly and who articulates the danger to her family. For a person suffering from profound depression, one who never wanted to travel to Leningrad in the first place, Sarah’s instantaneous recovery once she arrives there feels improbable.
Bordetsky-Williams makes a number of minor factual missteps in Forget Russia, including mistakes in both written Russian and its transliteration into English. There appear to be several miscalculations of distance, such as when a horse and wagon travel over 80 kilometers in rural Ukraine before sunrise. Martial law was declared in Poland in 1981, not 1980. More troubling, though, are two plot points that threaten to derail the novel. In one instance, Bordetsky-Williams appropriates the well-known history of Osip Mandelstam reciting his anti-Stalin poem, disguising it only slightly to serve her story. Another plot twist connects various strands of the novel so neatly as to almost defy belief: a chance acquaintance among Moscow’s hundreds of thousands of Jews turns out to be the one person in the world who can solve solve a fifty-year-old mystery dating from the family’s time in Leningrad.
The real power of Forget Russia lies in Bordetsky-Williams’ portrayal of four generations of survivors. The women’s frailties are perhaps even more interesting than their strengths. The book’s title, Forget Russia, comes from a remark made by Susan, Anna’s mother, who lives briefly in Leningrad as a child and nearly dies there of hunger and disease. “Why do you always have to look backward?” she asks Anna, a question that reveals a great deal about Susan’s own response to suffering. In a diary entry from a quick trip to Leningrad in 1980, Anna seems to have gained some appreciation of her mother’s pain:
I think of my mother and long for her to hold me. I long to tell her of my journey here—my
journey to the city where she lived when she was just five years old. When I return, I want to
spend days and days with her, just speaking of all I have seen here, learned here, speaking
beyond so many silences between us.
Silence is one of the major themes of Forget Russia, including the profound silence of secrecy that Anna imbibes from her family long before she sets out for Moscow. It’s also the silence of forgetting, familiar to generations of American Jews whose relatives survived the twentieth century's traumas. When Anna asks her grandmother about her experiences during the Bolshevik Revolution, Sarah cannot string together a coherent answer, perhaps because of the ravages of age, perhaps for some other reason; soon thereafter, the old woman begins calling for her long-deceased mother. As Anna departs for the USSR, Susan tells her, “My parents in all those years afterwards never once spoke about our time in Leningrad. There’s a reason for that.” In Brezhnev’s Moscow, Anna experiences silence not just a means of burying the past, but an important form of self-defense in the present:
I understood now that beneath the snow on the thin branches of trees, beneath the night
covering the city and its drab apartment buildings, beneath all the whisperings, the
vodka-soaked Sabbath celebrations—fear invaded every moment, defined all conversations.
Can a person identify as both Jewish and Russian? For much of the novel, Anna—like many American Jews a generation or two removed from Eastern Europe—appears unwilling or unable to distinguish among the terms “Russian,” “Soviet,” and “Jewish.” Her Jewish friends in Moscow, some waiting for permission to emigrate that may never arrive, attempt to set her straight. Eventually, Anna takes their point: “I finally understood a Jew could never be a Russian." By novel’s end, it’s clear that studying in the Soviet Union has indeed given Anna greater insight into the women from whom she is descended, although she can’t quite bring herself to take their advice to forget everything connected with Russia: “I still see them in a kitchen in Moscow; we are drinking hot chai in a glass, the tea leaves rising to the top” she writes in a short epilogue. Bordetsky-Williams has dedicated her novel of “the underworld” to her own great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother. Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, her book offers a wrenching portrait of yet another twentieth-century society that viewed Jewish young people—especially young women—as disposable. It’s hard to look away.
Katherine E. Young studied at Moscow’s Pushkin Russian Language Institute and lived in Russia and the Soviet Union on and off from 1981 through 1996; she interned at Cable News Network’s Moscow bureau, served as a traveling US diplomat, and ran a joint venture that performed genealogical searches for Jewish Americans in the former Jewish Pale of Settlement. Young is the author of Woman Drinking Absinthe and Day of the Border Guards and editor of Written in Arlington. She is the translator of Anna Starobinets, Akram Aylisli, and numerous Russophone poets; she was named a 2020 Arlington County Individual Artist Grant recipient, a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellow, and a 2015 Hawthornden Fellow (Scotland). From 2016-2018, she served as the inaugural poet laureate for Arlington, Virginia.