Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin

If you are in your 40s, you probably remember the end of the Cold War quite well.  Before that, the Soviet Union was portrayed by the media (and pretty close to reality) as a brutal enemy, a bastion of Communism, with hints of the Siberian Gulags that preceded it.  We had the Doomsday Clock and WWIII was always present.  We even had school practice drills in case of nuclear war (yes, getting under a desk was deemed sufficient protection).  Younger than that, you may not realize how different the Soviet era was from present day Russia, although Putin seems to be taking it a step backward.

In any case, from Glasnost to when smaller nations broke free from the USSR and gained independence, many changes took place that leaves the actual Soviet era somewhat forgotten. And nothing is drier than reading about it in an old history book.  Breshnev and Gorbachav are almost caricatures today.

A better way to read the history is through this memoir.  Lev Golinkin is like David Sedaris, funny and irreverent, with an amused eye that reveals the smaller details that ultimately mean the most in understanding the history.  He recounts, from his adopted American perspective, how it was that he came to America and why he wanted to go back.

He grew up in the Ukraine and it's helpful to see, given this last year's actions with Russia and the Ukraine, how timely his writing is.  I felt like I got a better understanding of the people and the place and why there is a difference between a Ukrainian citizen versus a Russian one.

Many people helped Golinkin escape to America, and his appreciation for them is great. It's wonderful to think he wanted to revisit them to thank them and also to better understand where he came from.  As a Russian Jew, his story has another dimension given the prejudice to the Jews by many.

Russia has always been my favorite place to read about, and this ranks with other books about the period (some of which are fiction but still reveal much about the land and history and peoples).  Vasily Grossman's "Everything Flows", Martin Amis' "House of Meetings" and Rasskazy, a collection of Russian stories, can really fill out your knowledge of Russia.  With this memoir, you get even more from the latter period that is often ignored in favor of the Gulag era.

Just for kicks, the books of Andrew Kurkov, "Death and the Penguin" and "Penguin Lost", as well as "The Case of the General's Thumb" also deal with Ukrainian lore but in a crime novel genre.

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