THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, journalist Alex Halberstadt has followed his voracious curiosity down a wide-ranging series of rabbit holes. For publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Saveur, and The Paris Review, he has covered everything from zoo animals to Rodney Dangerfield, Buddhist cuisine to a queer commune in Tennessee. Halberstadt’s range is astonishing not least because, as a Soviet-born, Jewish-American writer in this time of heightened focus on Russia, Halberstadt has shied away from mining his own personal story. That is, until now.
“There comes a point in a person’s life, usually in one’s mid-30s,” Halberstadt told me, “when suddenly you need to know who you are and where you came from.” For Halberstadt, that moment came in 2004, when he discovered a shocking secret about his grandfather. Soon thereafter, breakthroughs in the study of epigenetics made Halberstadt wonder if his severe anxiety symptoms were related, via nature and nurture, to his family history.
Alex Halberstadt’s Young Heroes of the Soviet Union is a rich bone broth of flavors familiar enough to draw in any garden-variety neurotic, and exotic enough to captivate the curious. Part memoir, part journalistic foray, part historical investigation, part sociopolitical analysis, Young Heroes plumbs all-too-relevant modern Russian history through the lens of Halberstadt’s family history, written in Halberstadt’s trademark compelling style.
Halberstadt and I spoke over the phone for this, his first pre-publication interview about his first memoir.
MEREDITH MARAN: Your book has the drama and the sweeping scope of a Russian novel. Did its span grow as you were writing, or did you know what you were getting into from the start?
ALEX HALBERSTADT: It’s probably good I didn’t know! My 2007 book contract stipulated that I finish the book in 18 months. I actually thought I could force myself to write it that fast. [Laughs.]
The basic blueprint of the book — a historical ensemble piece, built around a cast of characters tasked with taking us through that history — remained the same over the 11 years. At first, I was mostly trying to make sense of my own story — what it meant for my family and me to come to America as immigrants from a traumatizing and traumatized country. But over time, it became more about the relationship between personal and collective history and psychology, which turn out to be more intertwined than I’d previously imagined.
How did you evolve from a guy who knew nothing about his paternal family history to the author of a book about it?
When I was nine, my mother, her parents, and I moved to New York from the former Soviet Union. My parents were divorced. My father and his family remained in Moscow. He and I spoke on the phone maybe once or twice a year until I was 19. That’s when it became possible for me to visit Russia as a tourist, and I started traveling to Moscow to see him. But as a child, his side of the family was mostly unknown to me. And though I lived with my maternal grandparents, I knew far too little about them, too. I’d heard that they were among the few members of their families to have survived the Holocaust, and that they’d fled their homes hours before the Nazis arrived. But those early years in America were about assimilation and getting by. There wasn’t much time for family stories.
Then, in 2004, when I was in my mid-30s, I learned that that my paternal grandfather, Vassily, whom I assumed had died long ago, was 93 and living in Ukraine. I also learned that he was most likely Stalin’s last living bodyguard. For more than 20 years, he’d been a professional killer who had tortured prisoners, carried out executions, and participated in genocide.
In that moment, my past came charging out of the closet. Suddenly I needed to know who I was, and where I came from, and what it all meant for my family. We were connected personally to these horrific events. Who did that make us? What did that make me? What does it mean to be descended from someone like that?
I told a journalist friend what I’d just learned. He said, “Any magazine would pay you to write that story.” The next day, his editor at GQ called and offered to send me to Ukraine to look for my grandfather. Of course I said yes. I couldn’t have afforded that trip on my own. I knew I needed to meet my grandfather before he died. And I knew that in meeting him, I’d meet parts of myself that I’d hidden.
Getting to know Vassily turned out to be momentous for me. For one thing, it made me understand why my father had been such a miserable parent and husband. My grandfather’s legacy broke him. He could never get past it.
For me the question became, could I get past it?
How did the article morph into a book?
After my visit to Ukraine, I began thinking of the story as a book. There were two elements that presented themselves to me. One was about how we transmit historical trauma. The other was exploring the past 75 years of Soviet history.
I think the most compelling approach to writing about history is always to personalize it, and I thought my family’s story would be a good way to do that. I wanted to write an intimate book about a big subject, a book that was personal and dramatic, not just a recitation of familiar historic events.
How did your personal book become more political?
I’d always assumed that families were about an interplay of personalities. After I met Vassily, I realized my family’s story wasn’t about individual relationships. It was about the history with which those relationships happened to coincide.
Over the past three generations of my father’s family, none of the sons grew up knowing their fathers. That’s a personal detail. But the pattern was the result of larger forces and events: the first World War, Collectivization, the Great Terror, decades of official antisemitism. Vassily and my father, and then my father and me, were separated by calamities larger than our personal issues.
When I realized the extent to which this history had shaped our relationships, and our personalities, my focus shifted to a more political, sociological look at the way historic events make families what they are — not just at a given moment in time, but for generations.
You write a lot about epigenetics, the relatively new discovery that trauma can be passed down in the DNA from parent to child.
I was six years into the book when the Emory University epigenetics study came out in 2013, laying out evidence that trauma alters genetic expression across generations. That study, which focused on mice, was followed by studies of families of Holocaust survivors and other human subjects. They showed that the children of trauma survivors suffer from post-traumatic symptoms — like anxiety, nightmares, hypervigilance, relationship problems — not because they grew up hearing scary stories about Auschwitz, but because they were born that way.
The idea that the past lives on in our bodies, that history is transmitted physiologically, became my book’s organizing metaphor. I began to think about how epigenetics may have played a role not only in me becoming the person I am, but in Russia becoming the country it is. When entire societies carry epigenetic markers, what does that mean about the ways these societies are built, their children educated, their leaders elected?
A society like Russia that’s been shaped by centuries of war, famine, mass imprisonment, and extermination is primed for totalitarian rule. Generations of people expect and fear the worst, because they know their history and also because they’ve literally inherited it. They’re anxious at the cellular level. Their primary demand of their government isn’t transparency or an expansion of civil liberties. Like most victims of trauma, their first priority is to be saved from disaster. They want a government that will keep society from imploding.
That’s why many Russians today say, sure, Putin is corrupt and authoritarian, but I’m getting my pension. There’s food in the stores. He may be meddling in US elections, but he’s doing it to keep the United States from destroying us. And, to a more limited extent, we’re seeing this now in the rhetoric of our president, particularly in the fear-mongering narratives about invading waves of lawless immigrants, economic calamities, and Islamic terrorism.
Of the many craft challenges you faced in writing Young Heroes, which were most interesting?
The qualities that generally serve me well in magazine writing — tonal shifts, flashy jumps, antic humor, and other forms of showing off — were of no use to me with this project, both because of its length and subject matter. I had to develop a different register for the book. Eventually I wrote it in a style that was much more straightforward and restrained, because I needed the story to take precedence over the style.
That also meant using an approach that combined personal, historical, and essay writing with reporting and photography. For me, these kinds of braided narratives are always the most exciting to write and to read, because they exploit the incredible versatility of nonfiction.
Meredith Maran is the author of a dozen books including The New Old Me and Why We Write. She’s a contributor to The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications.