JANUARY 20, 2020
PERCHED ATOP the world-famous Potemkin Stairs in Odessa is a statue of the 19th-century statesman the Duc de Richelieu, the city’s first governor. He is dressed anachronistically in a toga, his right hand gesturing in a vague, noncommittal way either toward the coast of the Black Sea, only recently conquered by the Russian Empire at the time of his term, or perhaps to the lands beyond it. In the 1970s, the embankment at the bottom of the stairs was part of the land border of the USSR, and what lay beyond the sea represented freedom for the millions of Soviet Jews who wanted to escape the country’s state-sponsored antisemitism by emigrating to the West. Taking their cue from the statue of the Duc and its mysterious, ambivalent gesture, most of these hopeful emigrants had only a vague sense of what they would encounter in emigration. Those going to Israel faced a fairly short trip to the land of their ancestors. But, as if predestined by their beloved Duc’s incongruous Roman attire, those bound elsewhere had to pass first through the Eternal City, where they were forced to wait as stateless refugees in immigrant purgatory until some Western nation deigned to grant them a visa.
Emil Draitser’s Farewell, Mama Odessa deals with these misplaced people, caught between the unfortunate land of their birth and the promised land of their immigrant dreams in what seemed like the eternal limbo of Rome. As much history lesson and ethnographic study as fictional narrative, the novel paints a collective portrait of Soviet Jewish émigrés in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel’s shocking defeat of the USSR’s Arab allies caused an uptick in Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda and, accordingly, broad discrimination against Jews. As such, Draitser’s writing often takes on a pedagogic tone, as he uses his characters’ anxieties about Soviet oppression and emigration to explain to the reader the rationale of the “refuseniks” (those “refused” a Soviet exit visa and forced to remain in the USSR) and the history of the Soviet Jewry Movement (which raised global awareness of their plight). While this provides useful information for those who are unfamiliar with the novel’s political backstory, it sometimes slows the momentum of the plot, especially in the early chapters, when it is unclear what connection the disparate narrative threads have to one another. Luckily, this didacticism is ameliorated by Draitser’s overriding commitment to crafting a comic ode to his fellow Soviet Jewish émigrés, setting their often trifling trials and tribulations against one of the most important political and demographic shifts of the last half-century.
The work is divided roughly between two narrative threads about different Odessans that only come together in emigration at novel’s end. One concerns the budding journalist Boris Shuster, an Odessan working in Moscow. Boris has an older cousin, Ilya, who has already immigrated to America and with whom he corresponds throughout the novel. The other concerns Yurik and Lyubka Bumshtein, a divorced couple living apart in Odessa who decide to remarry to improve their chances of emigrating. Making Boris a writer like himself gives Draitser the opportunity to pepper the novel with references both overt and parodic to Russian and Soviet literature, especially its Jewish and Odessan variants. The hapless schmendricks, savvy blackmarketeers, charming hucksters, and petty gangsters among the Odessans both at home and abroad recall the works of classic Odessan writers like Isaac Babel, Ilya Ilf, Evgeny Petrov, and Yuri Olesha. The novel’s divided narrative seems to be a parodic reference to Anna Karenina, another tale split between the romantic follies of an estranged couple and the philosophical musings of a bachelor intellectual. In an example of classic Jewish Odessan irreverence, Draitser thumbs his nose at the Russian tradition by turning Tolstoy’s aristocratic protagonists into Jews who barely make enough money to maintain themselves in their squalid shared apartments. Countess Anna Karenina becomes the seamstress Lyubka; Count Vronsky, a cavalry officer, becomes the accordionist Arkady; Count Karenin, a senior statesman, becomes the failed blackmarket cobbler Yurik; and Levin, a wealthy landowner, becomes the lowly freelance journalist Boris. Draitser, a Professor Emeritus of Russian and Slavic Languages at Hunter College in New York City, takes special relish deflating such sacred cows of Russian and Soviet culture. In another episode, a Jewish émigré smuggles an anti-Soviet novel out of the country by disguising it as a copy of Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered, a classic of Soviet socialist realism. Humiliated and persecuted at every turn by Soviet authorities, from grade school to border control at the moment of his final departure from the country, Draitser takes his revenge here by mocking and exposing the lies and propaganda that propped up the Soviet regime. This same satirical deflation is aimed by extension at those nostalgic for the communist empire on both sides of the former Iron Curtain.
In the foreword, Draitser notes that he divided his autobiographical details between Boris and Ilya, which enables him to comment in the novel both on the hardships of life in the USSR and emigration as well as on the humorous misunderstandings and eventual triumphs of living as an immigrant in the United States. While this narrative device somewhat dampens the plot’s suspense, as Boris’s ultimate success in immigrating to America is never in doubt, the epistles provide insight into the hopes and (mis)information that drew Soviet Jews to the West, as it had their coreligionists before them in previous decades. Ilya’s letters allow Draitser to comment on the superiority of American over Soviet life while simultaneously criticizing personality traits ingrained in Soviet Jews by the grotesque nature of existence in the USSR. Ilya notes that the racism, mistrust of authorities, fear of speaking out, and overdependence on the government bred by Soviet existence would need to be rooted out upon arrival in America. While letters sent home from Rome by earlier emigrants helped those about to embark in practical matters like knowing what to bring with them to sell at Italian flea markets, Ilya’s letters make it clear that nothing, not even American movies and Odessa’s “Americana” foreign goods market, could prepare them for their new life in America.
While Ilya provides tantalizing morsels of the good life awaiting immigrants in America, Boris provides a useful account of the everyday, low-level antisemitism that permeated every aspect of existence in the USSR. As many elements of this ubiquitous prejudice usually went unremarked, Draitser makes sure to spell them out for the reader. Since Jews were often barred from employment in sensitive ideological fields like journalism, Boris writes under the more Russian-sounding nom de plume of Boris Markov. Despite being the most popular freelance writer at the various Moscow publications that sporadically employ him, Boris is told, “C’mon, man, you know all too well why,” when he asks one of the editors why he won’t hire him full-time. Draitser compares this unspoken, systematic antisemitism to its infinitely milder American counterpart, as portrayed in the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement. In America, society is willing to address its antisemitism head-on in widely distributed works of popular cinema. In the USSR, on the hand, Stalin’s post–World War II antisemitic purges, where leading Soviet Jewish figures were forced from their professions and universities and, in many cases, even murdered, were swept under the rug by the Khrushchev government and subsequent regimes. As if the Soviet antisemitism of the past and present weren’t enough, Draitser describes in painful detail the final humiliation that Boris and his fellow emigrants experienced at the hands of the government just to be able to emigrate, in case they had any lingering doubts about leaving. From exorbitant emigration fees to arbitrary exit visa denials and the debasing customs inspections at the border, where the emigrants’ luggage was eviscerated and their belongings often arbitrarily confiscated by agents without recourse, Draitser shows us that the Jewish future in the USSR looked just as bleak as the past at that moment.
Importantly, though it deals with émigrés fleeing a nation that no longer exists almost half a century ago, the novel addresses many of the concerns facing America and the world today. Drawing on his experience as a journalist in the USSR, Draitser reminds us that the Soviet government long ago perfected the art of inventing negative news stories about its internal and external enemies, especially the United States and Israel. Boris relates how the government, in an effort to use propaganda to thwart the Soviet Jewry movement, forced one of his Jewish journalist friends to write an article about an imaginary Jewish family in Riga that is purportedly outraged by a letter they receive from Israel inviting them to emigrate from the USSR. In a similar vein, Draitser relates the fate of Colonel General David Dragunsky, the most decorated Jew in the Soviet army, who led Soviet propaganda missions around the world to counter the efforts of the Soviet Jewry Movement, only to be stymied by rumors spread by American Jewish student activists to the effect that he himself was planning to defect to the West. Once his superiors in the Kremlin found out about this, he was relieved of his duties, despite his protestations. By exposing these Jewish stooges of an antisemitic regime and the ways in which they were thwarted, Draitser seems to be pointing a wary finger at those Jews today providing similar cover for Jew-haters on the right and the left.
But the author ultimately leaves the reader with a more direct lesson. Speaking through Ilya, Draitser warns that the slavish mentality Soviet Jews brought from the USSR would eventually cause them to vote for “some rabid racist running for high office.” Like the ancient Israelites wandering the desert for 40 years after escaping Egypt, Ilya predicts it will take two generations for Soviet Jews to outgrow the slavish mentality they developed under the Red Pharaohs. And yet, despite his best effort to say farewell to his Soviet captivity, Draitser can’t help but portray the nostalgia that he and his fellow Odessan émigrés carry with them for the city known as the Pearl of the Black Sea, which is fated to follow them wherever their exile takes them.