In March 1953, the Russian people could breathe a sigh of relief with the death of Joseph Stalin. From 1929 to 1953 roughly 15 million people were exiled to what Alexander Solzhenitsyn framed as the Gulag Archipelago and another 7-8 million were sent to other parts of the Soviet Union resulting in the deaths of countless millions. Stalin’s paranoid motivation was to seek scapegoats for starvation caused by forced collectivization and the purges and show trials that followed during the course of the 1930s. The Great Patriotic War against the Nazis produced another 20 million casualties and following its conclusion Stalin’s paranoia visa vie the west heightened resulting in the increase in internal deportations to the Gulag sweeping up hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions more. At the time of his death Stalin had organized an antisemitic campaign known as the Doctor’s Plot. In 1951–1953, a group of predominantly Jewish doctors from Moscow were accused of a conspiracy to assassinate Soviet leaders resulting the arrests of numerous Jews and possibly laying the groundwork for a massive pogrom of Russia’s Jewish population. Once Stalin died in early March 1953 the “collective leadership” instituted an amnesty that led to the release of hundreds of thousands of exiled prisoners.
The tension, fears, and horrors of the Stalinist system as well as life in Russia under Vladimir Putin are accurately portrayed with compassion by Sara Krasikov in her novel THE PATRIOTS. In her opening scene we meet Florence Fein as she arrives at the train station in Saratov having just been released from exile after seven years. Her twelve-year-old son Julian is present to meet her, but he hardly recognized her and chose to return to his orphanage. From this point Krasikov dives into the lives of her main characters, a number of which represent a dysfunctional American family who will acquire a Russian branch when Florence Fein decides to move to Russia to volunteer her service for the Soviet regime. Fein is the main protagonist as we follow her idealistic journey to Stalin’s planned city of Magnitogorsk past the Ural Mountains. Jewish from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn she had grown dissatisfied with the inequalities of American life during the depression. Bored and tired of her daily routine she had no idea what forces would be unleashed and what evils she would witness and come to accept in acts of expediency to her idealistic vision for the Soviet system.
(Stalin visiting an area of the Gulag)
Krasikov will develop the dysfunctional family she has created decade by decade alternating lives and experiences of family members in segmented chapters. There is Florence Fein and her husband Leon Brink, who had been born in New York, abandoned by his father he would become a journalist for a foreign outlet of the Russian news agency TASS. Their son Julian, also known as Yulik born near the Volga River in 1979 would return to America and become an engineer who had expertise in “ice breakers.” He would travel to Russia for his company as oil is discovered in the Russian Artic. While in Russia he sought to convince his own son Lenny who had been working for nine years at a Russian equity firm before he was let go to return to the United States. Numerous other characters appear as Krasikov takes the reader through the 1930s and post war period and what it was like to live under Stalin. She shifts to the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union and focuses on Putin’s plutocracy and the difficulties it posed for the lives of ordinary Russians. Throughout the novel the issue of moral clarity continuously emerges. Decisions that characters must make are up against conforming to Soviet principles or doing what is ethically correct no matter what the psychological and physical price that must be paid.
Among the other characters Krasikov develops is Grigory Gregorevitch Timofeyev, Florence’s boss at the Soviet State Bank who taught her how to achieve proletariat respectability. Comrade Subotin, the typical NKVD functionary will entrap Florence to observe her colleagues at the Institute of Philosophy, History, and Literature and betray her friend by giving false testimony to be used in Stalin’s Show Trials. Ivan (Vanya) Kablukov head of corporate security at L-Pet will try and blackmail Julian to support his companies shipping bid as a means to procure millions in kickbacks under the Putinist system. Alyosha “Alcoholic” a friend of Lenny who reflects the decadence of Putin’s Russia. Seldon Parker, Leon’s friend who along with Florence worked at the Jewish anti-Fascist Committee, and later would become a target of the secret police. Essie Frank, Florence’s close friend who she met on the ship carrying them across the Atlantic on their voyage to Russia, later she would betray her to the NKVD. Captain Henry Robbins, an American Air Force pilot shot down over Korea and imprisoned in the Gulag would become Florence’s savior. There are many other important characters on display who allow the author to delve into the intricacies of the two time periods of Russian history she explores.
Krasikov’s mastery of history is on full display no matter what events she chronicles. For example, the murder of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad Party Secretary on December 1, 1934. His popularity was seen by Stalin as a threat to his leadership and after a Cheka investigation it was found that Kirov “camouflaged enemies in the employ of foreign intelligence.” All the historical evidence points to a NKVD hit ordered by Stalin which touched off the Show Trials of the late 1930s as Stalin needed a scapegoat for the millions who succumbed to starvation during collectivization. The dialogue reflects Soviet revolutionary verbiage throughout as does the descriptions of employment, the distribution of living space, and access to commodities.
Another historical example is the visit of the new Israeli Foreign Minister, Golda Meyerson (Meir) to Moscow in 1949 and its implications for Florence, Leon, and a number of other characters. In many cases Krasikov’s language emits sarcasm and humor, but in most cases, it is dark reflecting the plight of her characters. These traits are on full display as Florence has difficulties understanding all the people “unmasked” as enemies of the state that appeared daily in newspapers. Russia supposedly suffered “from a collective muteness that permeated the nation” as “wreckers and saboteurs” were responsible for industrial accidents and not meeting the quotas set by state five-year plans.
Krasikov’s historical analysis embedded within the novel is clear and accurate. Her description of Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies reflects the tools of a historian as she develops his views and relationship to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her commentary on pre-war and post-war events and their impact on the Soviet Union and the United States is top notch. Insights into the behavior of historical figures be it Stalin’s or Putin’s lackeys is eve opening. The amount of historical research that Krasikov engaged in creates a sound infrastructure for the entire fictional account that rings of truth.
The novel engages in a number of storylines that seem interchangeable. The key one that brings everything full circle revolves around Julian’s frustration and attempts to understand why his mother acted the way she did and clung to her idealistic beliefs when the evidence that should have shattered them did not move her. Further, he could not comprehend why his parents hid the fact that they were trying to leave the Soviet Union right before they were arrested. In addition, he could not fathom why his mother survived and his father did not. Part of the reason Julian travels to the Soviet Union on business in 2008 is to get a hold of the KGB dossier on his parents to try and learn the truth in Putin’s Russia where everyone seems out to extort you.
Sretenka Street in Moscow, 1930
Nathaniel Rich writes in his review entitled “The Patriots’ Charts a Family’s Reverse Journey From Brooklyn to the Gulag,” New York Times, January 24, 2017 that THE PATRIOTS is a historical romance in the old style: multigenerational, multinarrative, intercontinental, laden with back stories and historical research, moving between scrupulous detail and sweeping panoramas, the first person voice and a kaleidoscopic third, melodrama and satire, Cleveland in 1933 and Moscow in 2008. It contains a wartime romance, a gulag redemption story, a kleptocratic comedy of manners, a family saga.” Who could ask for anything more? This is a superb novel that stays with you long after you put it down. Explore and enjoy as this is a work of literature that warns us about authoritarian tendencies actions, and its ultimate danger – its insidiousness that traps the lives of its citizens under the weight of its boot.
(It would be an understatement to describe the gulags as hellacious. Inmates would toil on large-scale construction, industrial, and mining projects for at least 14 hours per day in the harsh subzero winter conditions of Eastern Europe. Without any safety equipment, prisoners were expected to chop down trees, dig up dirt, and pick through the frozen ground with rudimentary and ineffective tools and their bare hands.)