Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Emotional Baggage Is Always the Heaviest a Sober Reminder of What It Took for Soviet Migrs to Get to America

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Emotional Baggage Is Always the Heaviest a Sober Reminder of What It Took for Soviet Migrs to Get to America

Article excerpt

"A BACKPACK, A BEAR AND EIGHT CRATES OF VODKA"

By Lev Golinkin.

Doubleday ($25.95).

I often tell audiences that I wrote my first novel about a Russian defector because "Brezhnevite Moscow is my Paris in the '20s." This professed love for a decidedly unromantic era is a quirky admission, and I usually give a sorry-not sorry shrug when I wax poetic about communal apartments, Siberian punk rock and the 1980 summer Olympics.

But occasionally, I am reminded that comparing the Soviet Union in its twilight to a tyrannical uncle who has mellowed with age might not sit well with those who actually lived under the sclerotic police state.

Lev Golinkin's "A Backpack, a Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka" is one such reminder. Mr. Golinkin's memoir traces his path from Kharkov to a permanent home in New Jersey.

His was a 16-month journey ending in April 1991. But a secondary journey of introspection continued for another 15 years. This cathartic memoir is about both journeys.

Hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews emigrated in the final decades of the 20th century. Most suffered economic and professional discrimination at home. They acknowledged that life elsewhere afforded better opportunities.

The Golinkins' situation, as recalled by the much bullied 9- year-old Lev, was more harrowing. It was something akin to a flight for survival.

"My beatings at school had escalated, and the extended absence notes were no longer accepted," he writes about the final straw. Then, departure underway: "Fear gnawed at my mind, fear permeated the bus, and the farther west we drove, the stronger it grew."

If this sometimes overly dramatic tone draws unfavorable comparison with the plight of children made refugees by famine, expulsion and war, it fares better in the context of contemporary reports issuing from the same eastern Ukrainian frontier.

There are those in Kharkov today for whom exiting a nation that has declared whole populations an ethnic threat can indeed be called "escape. …

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