With the Winter Olympics currently happening in Sochi, Russia, it fits that my review of Maxim Shrayer’s memoir Leaving Russia just appeared in the Jewish Book World. Thanks to this book, I feel I’ve been to Sochi because Shrayer does such an excellent job of describing his expedition to that region as a soil science student back in the 1980s.
The only thing I didn’t like about this book is the cover photo, taken on that very expedition to the southern Caucacus. The cover does the book a disservice; I don’t think it signals that this book is about life as a Jewish refusnik in the former Soviet Union. “Refusnik” stands for people who applied to emigrate from the Soviet Union but whose request was refused, resulting in losing their careers and status, and a life in limbo for many years. Shrayer’s family was stuck in Moscow for nine years after applying for exit visas.
Not until I had read about the expedition (fairly late in the book), did I realize that, in the cover photo, the marking on his left arm is not a tattoo, but rather the shadow of one of the plants he sitting next to. And he looks emaciated not because he was a street kid, but because the expedition entailed daily physical labor and not enough food. The cover belies the diaphanous beauty of this memoir.
Apart from the cover, I loved this book. Shrayer has such talent for conjuring the world he grew up in. I got to go visit the Caucasus, spend summers at the Baltic Sea, and pick potatoes in mushy fields north of Moscow. Most often I got to wander the stark streets of Moscow, and hope, in vain, that the unforgiving system would give a Jewish kid a chance. I got to sit in the family’s Soviet bloc high-rise apartment and enjoy the salons his parents hosted for all those writers and artists who were banned from writing or performing by the Communist regime. When the family finally gets to leave, I was sad that the book was coming to an end, even though their emigration was a happy end.