MY MOTHER swore she knew the way to the ocean. She and I had just arrived in Ladispoli, a depressed seaside town 35 km from Rome where she, my father, and my older sister had lived 25 years ago while waiting for American entry visas. The view of the sprawling town from the train station was unfamiliar. As Soviet émigrés, my mother and father had always taken the bus, not the train, into town — the bus was cheaper, and stopped elsewhere. We lingered uncertainly in front of the station, watching fellow passengers scurry off into dilapidated apartment buildings on the other side of the tracks. The hesitation was deliberate: neither of us could articulate what had brought us to this place, a forgotten town seemingly overlooked by tourists and locals alike. Why bother returning here, a place she barely remembered, to a life left behind so long ago? We’d come here with American trappings — my mother in Tevas and Bermuda shorts, I in an undergraduate’s plaid sundress — and looked painfully out of place.
Ladispoli is still an immigrant town, but these days its asylum-seekers come from the south and east, not the north. The gelato shops where Russian immigrants once illegally sought work are still in business, but now it’s locals who staff the counters. The fountain at the center of town is still a mecca; gleeful toddlers and sleepy pensioners permanently flank its edge. We soon found the ocean, and strolled down the boardwalk. My mother at one time had promised herself that one day she’d “come back with money,” and treat herself to a long, indulgent lunch at a nice restaurant. Once there, it quickly became clear there would be no such triumphant lunch. In fact, there were hardly any restaurants of which to speak; of those that existed, none were open. We found a cheap bar on the beach where we split a pair of slimy cheese sandwiches and syrupy cocktails.
Over this modest fare, my mother told me how they used to spend their days looking for work and watching Italian soap operas, and how she once, in an effort to circumvent greedy Russian middlemen, had walked around town with a sign hanging from her chest that read, “Looking for an apartment to rent.” Indeed, the Italian phrase for “For Rent” — affittasi — was one of the few she still remembered. I had never heard her speak of that intermediate phase of their immigration in such detail, but I also never felt that I needed to be told. I had spent so many years absorbing the residual memories of my family members, hearing tales of their life in the Soviet Union and the immigration that followed at every Jewish holiday, and flipping through photo albums of their recent past. I was already so steeped in their stories that I could recount them to others as if they were my own.
It’s a skill that came in handy when, a few weeks later in Kiev, I gathered for drinks with a group of young journalists, some locals and some expats like myself. The question was posed: what, if anything, did we remember of the Soviet Union? A Ukrainian friend shared that one of his earliest memories was from Christmas Day, 1991. His parents were throwing a party at their home in the southern Ukrainian region of Zaporizhia, and the television was tuned to the address of the Soviet Union’s then-president, Mikhail Gorbachev. The guests hadn’t yet realized they were watching Gorbachev’s resignation speech, which would in turn herald the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In his parting words, Gorbachev said he was “concerned about the fact that the people in this country are ceasing to become citizens of a great power, and the consequences may be very difficult for all of us to deal with.” We journalists all agreed: they seemed prophetic words.
The young people of the Soviet Union were made a particular set of promises: In exchange for party loyalty, they would be employed, housed, and, most of the time, fed. If all went well, they might one day ascend the ranks of the party or of their university faculty. After 1991, those promises were discarded and replaced with a looser set of assurances: capitalism and, supposedly, democracy. It was an abrupt switch, one that ultimately proved Gorbachev’s prediction right; the former territory of the Soviet Union is no longer home to a great power, as the Obama administration has been quick to remind. And for the better part of 2014, the world has been watching bemused as Russia has alternately denied, then racheted up, its invasion of Ukraine. Bemused is the only way to describe the Western reaction to the conflict: it’s as if the world forgot that when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the landmass it occupied did not vanish along with it. But the USSR, with its brutalist architecture and forward-looking Lenins, lives on not only in the dilapidated urban landscapes of Kiev, Minsk, and Moscow, but also in those of us who carry residual memories of its waning years. It’s a particular variety of traumatic inheritance, the source material for the thin strings that unite the children of the fourth wave of Soviet émigrés — those who fled the USSR in the midst of its collapse.
I was born a few months too late to know the Soviet Union firsthand. My family had recently emigrated from Riga, Latvia, and settled in a mega-suburb full of unnaturally green lawns and fake stucco homes outside of LA. My secondhand memory of the Soviet Union is composed of photographs from my mother’s Young Pioneer camp, my sister’s Russian school books, and the dilapidated apartment building my family shared in Riga. Soon after my mother and father arrived in southern California, a slew of close relatives followed until soon only a handful of cousins and aunts remained in the old world, in Latvia, Ukraine, and Russia. As I grew up, we called and visited these relatives occasionally, but every time we spoke it was as if they were addressing us from the recent past, from a part of the world that had been largely dismissed — a region that, despite years of economic decay and a dwindling population, stubbornly insisted on clinging to the optimism of the early post-Soviet years. Why did they remain there? And what if anything do I, a descendent, owe them? A spate of Russian-American novelists have attempted answers to these intractable questions over the past several years. In his second novel, The Betrayers, David Bezmozgis investigates why their answers are so difficult to come by.
To the small community of Latvian Jewish émigrés in the US, Bezmozgis is a literary saint. My family’s shelves have always been filled with multiple copies of his books (extras for giving away to dinner guests). His first novel, The Free World, describes the experience of a Latvian Jewish family living in Italy while waiting for exit visas to Canada, a situation not so different from my own family’s story. The Betrayers, set in Crimea, tells the story of Baruch Kotler, a Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician who suffers a disgrace when his affair with a much younger woman is exposed in the press. The novel has been called a “moral thriller,” but what is most thrilling about it is its obsession with the elliptical, asymmetrical transmission of morality and memory from generation to generation, a process the novel methodically tracks. It will be deservingly lauded for the dramatic confrontation it stages between Kotler, who is loosely based on the life of the Soviet dissident Anatoly Sharansky, and his betrayer, Vladimir Tankilevich, the man who ratted out Kotler to the KGB and sentenced him to over a decade in prison. But the real genius of the novel lies elsewhere — “As is often the case in life, one imagines an opera and gets an operetta,” Bezmozgis writes — in the quietly unraveling affair between Kotler and his young mistress, Leora, a former student, and also in his increasingly strained relationship with his children, both Leora’s age. Their ties to one another are defined by the workings of postmemory, that is, the transfer of memory from one generation to the next.
The term, coined by the theorist Marianne Hirsch, is meant to “describ[e] the relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before, experiences that they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up.” Postmemory emerged as a way of conveying the relationship that the second, “hinge generation” of Jews who grew up after World War II have to the Holocaust, the singular trauma of their parents’ lives. As Hirsch writes, “Postmemory is not a movement, method, or idea; I see it, rather, as a structure of inter- and trans-generational transmission of traumatic knowledge and experience. It is a consequence of traumatic recall but (unlike post-traumatic stress disorder) at a generational remove.” It is less frequently applied to the Soviet case, perhaps because only in the past several years has the so-called “hinge generation,” children born immediately prior to or following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, like myself, come of age.
Now the “hinge generation” has begun writing about its inheritance. Many of the reporters, novelists, and analysts writing about Ukraine and Russia today belong to this cohort, my Ukrainian friend, Bezmozgis, and I among them.
Postmemory is a deeply familial phenomenon: “The language of family, the language of the body: nonverbal and noncognitive acts of transfer occur most clearly within a familial space, often in the form of symptoms,” Hirsch writes. “Family life, even in its most intimate moments, is entrenched in a collective imaginary shaped by public, generational structures of fantasy and projection and by a shared archive of stories and images that inflect the transmission of individual and familial remembrance.” So it is appropriate that the family, and all the complications it attends, is a focus of The Betrayers; it is also part of what designates Bezmozgis a literary heir to Philip Roth, master of all things elliptical, awkward, familiar. Writing about the family is its own form of betrayal, as Adam Phillips writes in a critique of Roth’s Patrimony. “The jokes and the continual telling of family stories. It is the inheritance that [the father and son] are both possessed by, and obsessed with. The difference is that for the father […] the telling of family history is a way of consolidating the family, while for the son it is, and always has been, potentially a betrayal.”
Memory is one of the simplest forms of betrayal; it helps ensure that the sins of the past will be recognized if and when they recur. Its bearers become judges, unwitting arbiters of “what is the past and what is the future.”
The young people of The Betrayers, fittingly, are cast as judges not only of Kotler and Tankilevich, but also the places where their narrative plays out — Crimea, Moscow, Tel Aviv — places intimately acquainted with ministries of propaganda, places where “having all the facts” is eternally improbable. As much is evident, when, one evening in Yalta, Tankilevich “The Betrayer” turns on the nightly news. “There were no words for the newscast. Every lie starched and ironed,” Bezmozgis writes.
The pomp of a new agreement between Russia and Western corporations to drill for oil in the North Pole. Which everyone knew meant billions of dollars to the same crooks […] A clash between authorities and violent demonstrators in Moscow. Which meant the criminal regime stifling dissent. This was Moscow, Russia, and he was in Yalta, Ukraine. But it mattered little. Moscow, Kiev, or Minsk. The same methods prevailed.
Discovering that sameness has been the lesson of the post-Soviet generation, a generation fed “first the Soviet sham, then the capitalist.” The Betrayers is a novel about watching those shams unravel, about asking, as Leora does, “Who is the real victim? Who is the real perpetrator? Who gets to sit in judgment? Who? Everyone. And only a child or a simpleton bemoans it. Who ever sat in judgment with all the facts? Facts were imposed by those who had the power to impose them.”
Typical of the post-Soviet “hinge generation,” Leora, growing up in Moscow, listened to the stories of her Soviet dissident parents, and the stories of “her parents’ gallery of heroes, some of whom passed through their doors, others imprisoned, their photographs cut from newspapers and kept in a scrapbook. Baruch’s photograph among them, given pride of place.” Before embarking on her affair, she had been close with Kotler’s children, Dafna and Benzion, who are also, of course, intimately familiar with the history of their father’s generation. “I know about your experience, Papa. Everybody knows,” Dafna tells Kotler. This secondhand knowing is the stuff of postmemory: “Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated,” Hirsch writes. The very premise of postmemory is a predicament: even as it transfers memory from one generation to the next, it displaces, even evacuates, the memories of those whom it acts upon; the dislocation that results is why, as Hirsch writes, “None of us ever knows the world of our parents.” But, oh, how we try.
Postmemory is also an inheritance uneasily worn, as Leora, Dafna, and Benzion remind us. Leora’s bitterness in being cast in the role of witness and judge is typical, as is Dafna’s weary irritation. By the close of the novel, they all bear wounds from their battle against Kotler’s ever-encroaching past, having failed to evade its entry into their own lives: Leora heartbroken, Dafna disappointed, Benzion physically injured (by his own hand). Their experiences are at least in part a result of the fact that, as Phillips writes, “In an increasingly secularized world ‘suffering and failure’ became a ‘theme.’ The catastrophe of the Second World War made the disowning of history, or the appropriation of other traditions, or even the invention of that most improbable figure, a Jewish Emersonian, particularly tempting for the children of immigrants.”
The Betrayers is an argument against the invention of that variety of Emersonian, a sort of postmodern Wandering Jew, consciously divorced from his own history in order to try on that of others. The novel repeatedly convinces its young people that the history taking place before them is no one’s but theirs. “This coincidence is not mine alone. It is ours together. If we stay, what happens will include you. You will be part of it. As I believe you are meant to be. As I would like you to be. Because if greater forces have conspired, they have seen fit to include you. What brought you to me started 4o years ago between me and this man,” Kotler tells Leora. “I haven’t been wronged. I have nothing to forgive,” Leora tells Tankilevich’s wife, Svetlana.
“It is still yours,” is the response she gets.
The dangerous thing about postmemory is that it can be kept at arm’s length, just close enough to be recalled when necessary, and just far enough to be ignored when it becomes too inconvenient — a perpetual sort of half-remembrance. It was with this blasé attitude that I viewed my own family’s recent past for most of my life; I would have passed well for one of the “young American Jews, carefree, heedless, and a little dim, cushioned from history and entrusted with too much,” who accompany Kotler and Leora on their flight back to Tel Aviv. But as The Betrayers implores, one can only keep up that Emersonian sham for so long — history will inevitably be in the way. This year, I have watched from afar as the surreptitious Russian invasion of Ukraine has crept ever closer to the cities and towns where my family lived, and where that last handful of relatives still passes their days: Kharkiv, Rostov, and even Riga. Why did they remain there? Because they were promised their own Zion, a Zion that was inhabitable even if it was little more than an illusion of a capitalist, democratic future somewhat better than their Soviet past.
All of a sudden, though, that past is hurtling back, mobilized as a cri de coeur for an army that looks all too familiar. Postmemory is a powerful thing to deploy against that mobilization: the transmission of memory helps to ensure that one will recognize the past if and when it recurs. The young Russian soldiers surreptitiously sent to Ukraine have been ordered to fight for an empire their parents watched disintegrate; the young Ukrainians who greet them rightly understand this incursion as a sort of rehabilitation of Soviet imperialism. Should postmemory fail, those rehabilitated methods will continue to prevail in Kiev, Minsk, and Moscow. “Those who had Soviet experience were aware of the TV fibs, but not the 20-year-olds,” Peter Pomerantsev wrote of some of Russia’s young adults. But that doesn’t go for all of the 20-year-olds born out of the USSR. One of the things postmemory begets, after all, is a generation primed to point fingers. It is an unwieldy inheritance, and an inescapable one.