As a “newbie” in the blog world and an independent author, I was excited when L. Bordetsky-Williams contacted me for the purpose of marketing her new book; but I have to admit, I vacillated before going forward. Why? In all honesty, it was because the scope of the author’s work differs greatly with the theme of my site. While the premise for my blog is Jewish Historical Fiction, this novel cannot be considered light reading and it certainly is not Austenesque. I therefore need to alert sensitive readers to the darker subjects discussed in the interview. Now that I’ve done my due diligence, allow me to introduce today’s guest!
L. Bordetsky-Williams is the author of the newly released historical novel, Forget Russia (Tailwinds Press), the memoir, Letters to Virginia Woolf (Hamilton Books, 2005, http://www.letterstovirginiawoolf.com); The Artist as Outside in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf (Greenwood Press, 2000); and three poetry chapbooks: The Eighth Phrase (Porkbelly Press 2014), Sky Studies (Finishing Line Press 2014), and In the Early Morning Calling (Finishing Line Press, 2018). She is a Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey and lives in New York City.
Host: It’s an honor to host such a prolific author and educator. The world of Jewish fiction encompasses a diverse field of narratives. Please tell us all about your current release.
Guest: Forget Russia tells the story of three generations of Russian Jews, journeying back and forth from America to Russia, during the twentieth century, as they search for a home. From before the 1917 Revolution to Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, this is a tale of unlikely heroes and the loss of innocence. It is a story of love, murder, revolution, and betrayal. The novel is set to be published by Tailwinds Press on December 1, 2020.
Host: My own ancestors were fortunate to escape Imperial Russia prior to the revolution. What was your motivation in writing about this time period?
Guest: I wanted to understand the lives of my ancestors and how their lives intersected and influenced my own. My great-grandmother was raped and murdered in a pogrom in a small Ukrainian shtetl by Cossacks shortly after the Civil War between the Red and White armies ended. When the Red army finally was able to take over the Ukraine from the White and Ukrainian Nationalists, the retreating and defeated armies went into the Jewish shtetls and killed many Jews, who they equated with the Bolsheviks. I wanted to understand how this initial trauma affected the subsequent generations of women in the family. My grandmother came to America in 1921 after losing her mother in such a tragic and violent way. She settled in Roxbury, where her father, who had deserted the family years ago now lived with a new wife and children. It is not surprising that shortly after arriving, at the age of seventeen, she married a man approximately eighteen years her senior.
Then, in 1931, she and my grandfather actually returned to the Soviet Union with my mother and aunt, ages five and three. My grandfather, a carpenter, had come to America before the Revolution and had radicalized here. Life became incredibly difficult here during the Depression. It had always been a dream of his to return to the Soviet Union, the land of his birth, and build the revolution. While much has been written about Jewish Eastern European immigrants coming to this country, the experience of those American Russian Jews who returned to the Soviet Union to build the revolution in the early 30’s has been relatively unexamined.
Host: That certainly holds true for me. I have not read much about Russian Jews returning after the revolution. My paternal grandfather, zeide Manuel, always insisted the family supported the White Russians. My understanding was there had been hope for a democratic monarchy prior to the Bolshevik uprising. Childhood memories can only recall my grandparents’ gratitude for having been able to immigrate. Have you had the opportunity to visit the area yourself?
Guest: Yes, I was a Russian language student in Moscow in 1980 at the Pushkin Institute. When I was there, I had the opportunity to meet the Soviet Jewish grandchildren of the Bolsheviks. Many of their ancestors had been imprisoned, killed, or exiled to labor camps by Stalin. It was heartbreaking to see how their ancestors’ dreams for a better, more equal society had been betrayed during Stalin’s purges. I also, for the first time, saw first-hand, how anti-Semitic Soviet society was. On Rosh Hashanah Eve, we went to the only functioning synagogue in Moscow, and a car dashed across the cobble-stoned streets in an effort to intimidate and frighten the Jews gathered there.
My trip as a student to the Soviet Union truly changed my life. I spent three and a half months there, and from the moment I returned, I struggled to find the right form to express the ways that journey changed me. Finally, I realized the novel form would give me the freedom to intertwine the three generations’ stories. I also wanted to weave in a love story with an epic, historical setting, so the novel was the best form for that as well.
Host: Did any particular character resonate more than others in your novel?
Guest: My character Iosif, a young Soviet Jew, who has a photograph of Leo Tolstoy hanging in his room. He is a true intellectual within a distinctly Russian and Soviet context. While he hates the absence of freedoms in his own country, he sees America as a sick and decadent place and imagines Americans only talk about business. For him, America is soul-less in its materialism, and yet the Soviet Union is as he calls it a nightmare where nothing works, and everyone worries that life will get even worse after Brezhnev dies.
Host: Iosif sounds like a troubled soul, grieving for his country and mourning for humanity. As the granddaughter of Russian Jews, and a second-generation Argentine, I recently commemorated Thanksgiving Day by acknowledging my gratitude for living in the United States of America. Such a day gives one pause to reflect on the meaning of the words: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Had my ancestors remained in Russia, they would have had to suffer through the revolution and the tumultuous period thereafter. If they survived Lenin and the Bolsheviks, they would have faced the Nazis. The horror is unimaginable. And so, I gave thanks that my ancestors fled their homeland and that my parents had the wherewithal to leave behind the corruption— and destruction— of Peron’s Argentina. The courage that our ancestors demonstrated in their pursuit to survive is astounding. But I seem to have taken over your interview. Before I go off on a tangent again, let me take this opportunity to thank you for sharing your story with us.
I understand you have an excerpt from Forget Russia. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Guest: Thank you, Mirta. Here are the links to my social media and website:
Forget Russia website: https://www.forgetrussia.com/
Forget Russia Book trailer:
It was only five hours from Heathrow to Sheremetyevo. We flew through more than time zones. Outside the clouds obscured the sunrise. It seemed we were descending into a new realm, perhaps to seek advice on how to reach our destination. But before I knew it, the plane started to arrive, to dip down until I saw the trees through the small window—Russian trees, thickets of pine. The plane bumped down noisily onto the runway.
The doors opened and I stepped out of the plane into a dim, flickering passageway. I moved into a gray darkness. Military men in brown uniforms were everywhere in the Sheremetyevo airport, their rifles slung across their chests. The American students nodded wordlessly or else walked very close together, speaking in half-whispers.
The first stop was a glass partition where another man in brown sat and asked for my visa. He looked first at the picture stapled to the document and then at me, his eyes inspecting every aspect of my visa; he stared at my face and then the visa photograph over and over again. Just when I was expecting the military men to escort me somewhere, he nodded and returned the visa to me, so I could proceed with my suitcase to customs. I looked backward and saw the American students standing in a line, one by one, as they approached the glass divider, our first greeting in the Soviet Union.
In the USA, the group leaders had said: The Soviets may search your bags. Don’t bring in a Bible. Don’t bring in Time magazine. Don’t write addresses of Russian friends in a book that is easily read. The customs official only opened one of my two suitcases and looked quickly inside before closing it up. But one student, Barry Moskowitz, had all his clothes dumped in a heap for him to refold and squash back inside. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I wanted to help Barry repack, but we were kept moving in a line. No one dared speak above a whisper.
The driver of the yellow school bus waited for the American students outside the airport. Two by two we entered. It should be morning, my body told me, but I entered evening and when the bus began to move all I could see was highway and cement pavement.
I had come back to the land where my great-grandmother died, thrown off a boat into the Guilopyat River. Her spirit, it seemed, was in the cracks of cement, in the wide streets and lights rising in the evening, in the thin branches of trees visible before we entered the highway. I wanted somehow to find her.
Darkness was falling on the outskirts of Moscow. I peered across the highway into the center of the city, where Cyrillic letters glittered across the tops of buildings, Power to the Revolution. As the bus ambled along, I saw a poster of a man in a dark suit, a torch raised high in his hand, a red hammer and a sickle behind him and the words, XXVI Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union above his arm. Then another one of Brezhnev—his slicked-back hair emphasized his widow’s peak, his wide face, and glasses; the circular hammer and sickle with a star hung above him and printed below, Following Lenin’s Course. There were no advertisements anywhere, no rugged Marlboro man, no Let Your Fingers Do the Talking, no Light My Lady Cigarette, no Coca-Cola Pepsi feuds or Minute Rice. I was relieved to get a break from all the flashy slogans everywhere in the USA, and yet the city looked so stark and austere without them.
I glanced up at the Hotel Rossiya, a rectangular building; its name lit up in all that darkness.