Salvaging a Soviet Jewish Literary Culture: On Marat Grinberg’s “The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf”

By Yelena FurmanAugust 29, 2023

Salvaging a Soviet Jewish Literary Culture: On Marat Grinberg’s “The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf”

The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf: Jewish Culture and Identity Between the Lines by Marat Grinberg

REPRESENTATION IN LITERATURE is a subject of fierce discussion in the contemporary United States. Minority, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ writers have continuously stressed the need for works of fiction to represent identities marginalized by a white, native-born, heteronormative society, and for publishers to make such works widely available to readers, who want to see their own communities in these books. At the same time, culturally conservative politicians attempting to stop what they perceive as liberal bias run amok have introduced measures, such as Florida’s bill controlling materials in school libraries, to prevent narratives running counter to their vision of the world from being heard. As unconscionable as book bans are, there are nevertheless remedies for such actions in the United States. The public outcry that followed a Tennessee school board’s banning of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986), the Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, including a book-buying spree that put the novel on bestseller lists decades after its publication, shows a general understanding of the wrongs of censorship and the need for all kinds of stories in the public realm.

The national support for a novel about the Holocaust, and Jewish experience more broadly, is precisely the opposite of the situation discussed in The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf: Jewish Culture and Identity Between the Lines by Marat Grinberg, a professor of Russian and humanities at Reed College. The prohibition on religion and systemic antisemitism in the Soviet Union meant rigid restrictions on the expression of Jewish identity and culture. Soviet censors, carrying out the regime’s orders, were immune to public opinion or financial considerations, leaving Soviet Jews powerless to affect the public sphere. Grinberg’s thought-provoking claim is that they circumvented this state of affairs privately, through a calculated approach to the books they read and collected for their home libraries. In chapters moving from the Stalinist 1930s to the late Soviet period (1970s–1980s), Grinberg demonstrates how, despite the heavy censorship of Jewish content and the difficulty of procuring books by Jewish writers, Soviet Jews consciously built up Soviet Jewish bookshelves, maintaining their Jewish identity through their “reading practices” that, in an atmosphere of repression, often hinged on reading between the lines. In a novel approach to identity, Grinberg proposes “the Soviet Jewish bookshelf as the basis of Soviet Jews’ improbably defiant and necessarily makeshift Jewish heritage and knowledge.”

Acquiring this knowledge from books was an active attempt to resist the regime’s repression of Jewishness. Seizing power following the 1917 revolution and the consequent Civil War, the Bolsheviks instituted a policy of state atheism, outlawing religious practice for Jews and non-Jews alike. In the Jewish case, this meant the breakup of the Pale of Settlement, a restricted area in which Jews were permitted to live in the Russian Empire, as the Soviets attempted to turn them, along with everyone else, into model Soviet citizens. Accelerating under Stalin, the dismantling of Jewish religious and cultural life produced several generations of secularized Jews with little awareness of or connection to past traditions. At the same time, they very much identified as Jews, in part due to the antisemitism directed at them, and sought what information they could in books about their place in the larger Jewish whole.

Thus, for example, translations of historical novels by the German Jewish Lion Feuchtwanger functioned as “the primary source of Jewish historical, literary, and mythological knowledge.” A complicated person, Feuchtwanger met with and publicly praised Stalin, including his assimilationist drive to make Jews into Soviets; yet he remained committed to a specifically Jewish identity and “Jewish nationalism,” ideas abounding in his works, such as his famous Josephus trilogy (1932–1942) about the Jewish historian valiantly battling Rome. One of the many Russian-language Jewish writers Grinberg discusses is Ilya Ehrenburg, a key literary figure during both the repressive Stalinist period and Khrushchev’s more liberal Thaw. Despite having survived and deplored Stalin, Ehrenburg remained staunchly pro–Soviet Union, and unlike Feuchtwanger, he advocated a Soviet identity rather than a specifically Jewish one. Nevertheless, his Thaw-era memoir People, Years, Life (1960) provided Soviet Jews with “a plethora of Jewish historical, cultural, and religious material.” In an atmosphere of repression and anti-Jewish sentiment that alternated with changes in leadership but never went away, he often relied on “Aesopian techniques”—i.e., veiled inferences and hints employed by Soviet writers to circumvent the censors, with Jewish readers reading between the lines to pick up on them.

Some texts offered Soviet Jews ways of seeing themselves that went against the common idea of being perpetual victims. Describing the pogroms in his memoir The Story of a Life (1964–74), one of the few works by a non-Jewish writer integral to the Soviet Jewish bookshelf, Konstantin Paustovsky expressed praise for “Jewish militancy as a response to antisemitism,” offering images of Jews actively resisting rather than being crushed by violence. As Grinberg observes, to “read about it in an officially published work by a celebrated Soviet author was both shocking and eye-opening, but also gave it an aura of legitimacy.” Isaac Babel, associated with Odesa, Ukraine, the most famous locus of Soviet Jewish literary life (which as of this writing has been under bombardment from Russian forces), performed a similar service in fiction. Executed under Stalin, Babel reentered the Soviet canon during the Thaw with the posthumous publication of his collected works. Here, there was no need to read between the lines for Jewish content, with Odessa Stories (1931) in particular providing Soviet Jewish readers with “liberating” images of a Jewish gangster, written in “the distinct Odesan Jewish idiom.”

An often overlooked and thus valuable aspect of The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf is Grinberg’s discussion of children’s and young adult literature, given its importance in early self-image formation. Notably, he highlights Alexandra Brushtein, whose autobiographical trilogy The Road Runs Ahead (1956–63), about a Jewish girl coming of age in turn-of-the-century Vilna, was a seminal text for generations of Soviet Jewish women (and not only). Brushtein’s emphasis on a completely secularized yet very Jewish sense of self “validate[s] the existence and experience of Soviet Jewishness,” allowing both young and older readers to see themselves in her text. Noting its continued popularity, he locates its relevance for post-Soviet Jewish readers in their “search for a usable Soviet Jewish past,” which is arguably similar to the way Soviet Jews sought continuity with pre-Soviet Jewish life.

The aftermath of World War II and the “Holocaust by bullets” (a term used in reference to the Nazi mass shootings of Soviet Jews) saw Soviet Jewish readers turning to books as one of the few spaces that allowed them to preserve and mourn their experiences. After the war, the authorities prohibited public discussions of the specifically Jewish extermination, speaking instead of collective Soviet losses at the hands of the Nazis. In this atmosphere, the works that were published, often in censored form, helped to resist the regime’s silencing: “[T]he Soviet Jewish bookshelf carried the bulk of Holocaust memory.” Grinberg’s volume is particularly notable for including lesser-known but important works, such as Russian-language Holocaust poetry; Maria Rolnikaite’s I Must Tell (1964), a diary of her time in the Vilna ghetto, originally written in Lithuanian; and Anatoly Rybakov’s Heavy Sand (1979), from the late-Soviet period. Addressing Holocaust literature in a somewhat different way, he discusses the science-fiction duo of brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1970s–1980s). These writers presented an extreme instance of having to read between the lines because Jewishness was highly coded in their works. Nevertheless, while SF novels by definition do not deal with realist themes, Grinberg makes a convincing case that Soviet Jewish readers were attuned to the fact that the Strugatskys’ plots and characterizations often “allegoriz[ed] the Holocaust”—which, decades after the event, provided another occasion to preserve its memory. Moreover, Grinberg illustrates how, in Soviet Jews’ reading of Holocaust literature, “Nazism ‘screens’ Stalinism and vice versa, opening up the lines of communication and intersection between the two,” with Soviet Jews “trained in making sense of” the double burden that shaped their lives because they were both Jewish and Soviet.

In contrast, works by Yiddish-language writers did not leave much of a mark. Largely exterminated by Stalin, Soviet Yiddish-language writers were rehabilitated during the Thaw—due to efforts by Ehrenburg, among others—and Russian translations of their works became available, along with those by non-Soviet Yiddish writers. Soviet Jewish readers valued these works “as primers in basic Jewish knowledge, because they were often equipped with commentaries and appendices.” Given their typical subject matter of life in the shtetl, however, these works did not represent the experiences of “assimilated Russian-speaking Soviet Jews.” Similar to contemporary desires to have one’s identity reflected in literature, Soviet Jews wanted to read about a Jewishness that aligned with their particular sense of self, underscoring the massive shift toward a secularized Jewish identity in the Soviet era.

On the other hand, the few available translations of Hebrew-language Israeli literature were highly valued by Soviet Jews, shaping their understanding of being linked to a Jewish homeland outside Soviet borders. In the wake of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War (1967), and given Soviet alignment with Arab nations, these works were disallowed; but while “Hebrew and anything Israeli was derided and maligned by the regime, [this] only intensified the sweeping feeling of solidarity Soviet Jews felt toward the Jewish state.” Indeed, Grinberg argues that the connection was so strong that Soviet Jews read even the antisemitic and anti-Zionist propaganda that was readily available in the Soviet Union, reading between the lines to extract the opposite meaning from what the regime intended and being “drawn to Jewish history, Israel, and Zionism via it.” (Without disputing this claim, one has to wonder to what extent people had the stomachs for such material.) The feeling of being connected to a country other than the one in which they were born, and one that offered possibilities their birthplace denied, found expression in the first massive wave of Soviet Jewish emigration in the 1970s, when several hundred thousand Soviet Jews left for Israel and North America.

Jewish emigration intensified, eventually reaching over a million and a half, as Gorbachev lifted restrictions during perestroika and then as the Soviet Union collapsed. Grinberg discusses these changes in a short epilogue touching on the transformations in the lives and identities of formerly Soviet Jews, with many Soviet Jewish bookshelves literally transported to new countries. Several Soviet Jewish immigrants became writers in the United States (as well as other places), such as Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar, whose work Grinberg mentions. One can dispute his contention that this writing “hollows out” Soviet Jewishness and the Soviet Jewish bookshelf: while Shteyngart’s one-note satire by definition hollows everything out, Soviet Jewish identity and literature are central to Vapnyar’s fiction, just as they are central to the work of other ex-Soviet Jewish immigrant writers.

This is, however, one small quibble with an informative, engagingly written work that, unusually for an academic monograph but fitting given the subject matter, pairs thorough research with the personal reading experiences of the author and those close to him, all of whom are part of the Soviet Jewish readership the book discusses. The personal aspect extends to the mention of the war in Ukraine, Grinberg’s birthplace, which was attacked by Russia while he was writing this book. As he says in his acknowledgments, given the destruction Russia is leveling at Ukraine, “I dare hope that this book about preservation of one’s identity in the face of the overwhelming desire to squash and efface it has not lost its relevance, and perhaps even gained some.” Although under completely different circumstances, the story of resistance to such erasure has continued relevance in the United States as well, where various voices continue fighting valiantly to be heard.


Yelena Furman teaches Russian language and literature at UCLA. Her research interests include contemporary Russian women’s literature, Russian American literature, and Anton Chekhov.

LARB Contributor

Yelena Furman teaches Russian language and literature at UCLA. Her research interests include contemporary Russian women’s literature, Russian American literature, and Anton Chekhov.


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