TW: rape and sexual assault
Forget Russia is a fictional novel by L. Bordetsky Williams, Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey. It is the author’s first prose fiction piece outside of poetry chapbooks, essays, and academic texts. Although technically a novel of historical fiction, Bordetsky-Williams has borrowed very heavily from her own family’s past.
The novel is set primarily in Soviet Russia, dancing to and from the years 1931 and 1980. Our narrator and main character, Anna, is a young college student of Russian heritage, visiting her ancestral homeland in 1980 with a group of her peers to study Russian language at the Institut Imeni Pushkina in Moscow. Although she is in the cosmopolitan capital for only four months, she encounters a kaleidoscope of experiences and events—lust, love, family trauma, and assault. In addition to learning Russian, she learns more about her family and how life and love may be more complex than they initially appear.
Anna is in Russia following in the footsteps of her maternal grandmother, Sarah, or Sarochka, who was originally born in the Ukraine, and immigrated to New York when she was a young woman. After marrying Leon, a fellow immigrant, they relocated with their young family to Leningrad (now Saint. Petersburg) in the early 1930s for just a few short months, before returning to the States. Their timing was immaculate. Had they waited any longer they would have been forbidden to leave the Soviet Union, and their position as expatriates would surely have placed them as subjects of suspicion during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-38 and beyond.
At first our Anna is not yet a fully realised character; she is too bland and not quite filled in. This seems to be an intentional sketch; in the preface the author informs us that she herself travelled to Russia in 1980, referring to her then twenty-two year old self as ‘so unsettled into a self that had not formed yet.’ This is a classic tale of a young woman trying to “find herself.” She already has an outline, her mother often tells her that she has a “Russian soul,” but Anna’s odyssey is to reconcile that Russian soul with an American cultural upbringing. She immediately notes the absence of advertisements anywhere, ‘no rugged Marlboro man...no Coca-Cola Pepsi feuds. 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.’ History will attest that the Soviet Union possessed all of the destructive features it denounced in western capitalism, just stripped back to the bare minimum.
There’s a real sense of intergenerational trauma permeating the novel. The reader is informed of Anna’s great-grandmother, Zlata (grandmother Sarochka’s mother), who was brutally raped and murdered by the White Army during a pogrom in a Jewish shtetl in what is now modern-day Ukraine. One cannot help but find parallels with Anna’s own ordeal. Early on in her Soviet sojourn, Anna is raped by Miloz, a fellow traveller in her group. Even before this, Anna reveals to the reader that her mother’s boyfriend, Mort, had kissed her without her consent, admitting that he had wanted to do much more as long as he’d known her.
Anna’s Jewish identity is very important throughout the novel. There are many allusions to anti-semitism throughout the novel but the author never really “goes there” and I feel like she missed a good opportunity. The reader cannot help but feel immense sorrow for Russian Jews of the early 1930s who were led to believe that anti-semitism in their nation was a problem relegated to the past. This was not the case. Even during Anna’s visit in the 1980s, there is the perception that one could be Russian or Jewish, but one could never be both.
I found this novel very easy to read, and some of the characters were better realised than others. I appreciated the point that was reiterated throughout the novel that a nation should not be judged by their government. Simply put, people are not their government. This point is reiterated in relation to both the Soviet and U.S governments. The phrase “every country has the government it deserves” (Joseph de Maistre) is not quite the truism that it’s thrown around as—we know that public representatives (or wannabe ones) can lie easily to gain votes; votes can be stolen, manipulated, staged. People can be duped, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re stupid, or that they deserve whatever suffering comes at the hands of the rulers they voted in, whether under duress or not. Following the Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy in 1917, regular Russian citizens could have never predicted that their lives would become even more fraught and deprived as it did under whatever warped interpretation of communism their new leaders staged for the next seven decades.
In the Moscow 1930s sections, the only people perceived to have benefitted from the revolution in Russia were men. Yes, the point is made by Anna’s grandfather, Leon, that women were no longer confined to the home. However, they were still oppressed in low-wage, demeaning work, and had to queue for hours and hours to buy whatever scraps of food were available, then to collect the children from daycare, where they are reared by strangers for 10 hours a day. Then the second shift at home began, cooking and cleaning and putting the children to bed. Women were economically coerced into waged work, and it was advertised as freedom.
I feel like this is a particularly niche novel, for want of a better word. I didn’t fully appreciate the subject matter of Forget Russia until I further explored the history of the Soviet Union after finishing the novel. There is mention of American citizens who immigrated to the USSR following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. As the new socialist republic boasted of being a ‘worker’s paradise’ with jobs for everyone, regular Americans used their last dollars to pay for their fare to make the long journey by sea to what they hoped would be a better life. Sadly, this was not the case, and for many it was too late before they realised this. What I found most interesting is that this fascinating exodus of Americans to Soviet Russia is virtually absent from cultural memory.
Overall, Forget Russia is a compelling read that offers something for everyone—the history nerd, the hopeless romantic, the thrill-seeker. The reader will find it difficult to forget the vigorous and penetrating Russia illustrated in this novel.
By L. Bordetsky-Williams
213 pages. 2020.
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