“The Patriots” by Sana Krasikov

ARC books are given before publication to professional the-patriotsreviewers for free in exchange for an honest review.  I missed the publication deadline on “The Patriots,” and did not remember I owned the book until I saw a review of it in the NYT (which I did not read for fear of influencing my own review). I do hope my review, being written after publication, will still assist with this book’s sales, for this is historical fiction at its finest. The story revolves around a Jewish girl, from Brooklyn who lived in Russia from 1933 to 1979. The author, Sana Krasiko, moved between voices and decades. The story is linear except for the prologue, which takes place in the 1950s. After that the story of the mother, which is told chronologically and in the third person, begins. However, her story is punctuated by the first-person voice of her 60-year old son, who narrates in the year 2008. I enjoyed this writing style— it kept the prose fresh while showing the different views of the times. Both mother and son lived in Russia for parts of their lives. In the 1930s, when most were immigrating to the US, our heroine was leaving New York for the Old World. She remained trapped there under Lenin and Stalin’s rule. She was sent to a prison camp. The son was forced to live in orphanages until his mother was released in the 1950s. But before all this happened, she was romanticizing the possibilities of creating a better life in Russia. Looking at today’s news, this book could hardly feel more relevant to this reviewer. I shyly admit that I did not know that Putin was once a KGB officer.

In this novel, our Russian bound teen originally wanted to go to an elite American Women’s College. However, the family finances stood in the way, as her father’s business suffered from the Depression. She thus entered the co-ed world of NYC’s free public college education. It was here that she discovered other Jewish students arguing Marxism-Leninism and Communism vs. Capitalism. Her desire for pearls was replaced with a passion for political activism favoring socialized states. Think Barbara Streisand in “The Way We Were.” She graduated, and in her first job met and fell in love with a Russian man who was in the US for only a few months. To the horror of her family, she booked passage on a steamliner to Russia. She told her family that she was off to pursue her dream job and that she would be gone for one year, maybe two. In reality, she was really going to meet up with her Russian lover. Once she arrived and finally located her man, he rejected her. It appears that he was worldlier than she was, informing her to go home for she was in way over her head and that the USSR does not at all resemble a US college campus. Her pride would not let her return home. Besides, “Purges and politics aside, there was plenty of fun to be had in Moscow in 1934.” (One of the nice things about reviewing after publication is that I now can use quotes, unlike pre-publication.)

Eventually, she met a new young man. They married and had a child. Ironically, her husband was also a New Yorker who sympathized in Communist theories. In the early days of her marriage, her American passport was confiscated, which she demanded be returned to her. This was the beginning of her troubles with the secret police. Her confusion and fear during interrogations were shown when she informed on her best friend, another American girl that she met on the steamliner to Russia. Between non-stop questions with little time to think, she betrayed her friend in order to save her own family. In the long run she fails at this too. Despite her efforts to keep her family safe, her husband was shot, and she was imprisoned as a spy in a Holocaust-like concentration camp (think Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice”), being worked to death while covered with scabs from scurvy among other deadly ailments. These scenes were very hard to read. But, what was even harder, for me, was reading how her own US Embassy would not let her through the gates. It seems the US considered Americans in Russia as “pinko” traitors.

Still, before her imprisonment, she appeared happy to live in an apartment that held 12 people, with a common outhouse and a common kitchen where one had to hide their food for fear of stealing. These so-called apartments had no privacy or any conveniences at all. Even the light bulb in the entrance way was stolen so frequently that the residents were perpetually in the dark. While reading about the living conditions in “Patriots,” I had images of when the book and movie character “Dr. Yuri Zhivago” returned after the war to learn that his once-grand Moscow house had been divided into tenements. Her contentment to live in this manner left her son, as well as this American reviewer, very confused about how easily she adjusted when “She had grown up on the elm-lined streets of Flat-bush, Brooklyn, debated… at Erasmus Hall High, studied mathematics among the first emancipated coeds at Brooklyn College, tuned in to Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, and watched Cagney kiss Harlow on the projection screen at the Paramount.” How and why did this phenomenon happen?

Even in 1979, she refused to leave Russia to come to the US with her now grown son and his young family. She insisted that her life was in Russia, and that this was the country where she belonged. Mother and son had many issues around this subject. The reader knows that the real problem was as a 6-year old boy, her son, had no understanding that his mother didn’t abandon him, but was forcibly taken away from him. To make matters worse, the grown son was furious when he explained this to her and she replied that Russia takes care of their children.

Ultimately, she does leave for America with her son, most likely to be with her grandson who she adored. Sill, mother and son never got along. Until her last breath, she wished she stayed in Russia. “Maybe I would have been less hard on my mother had she been another ordinary Russian afflicted with that national form of Stockholm syndrome they call patriotism. But she wasn’t. She was, like I am now, an American….What I could not abide was her unwillingness to condemn the very system that had destroyed our family.” Sadly, what the son didn’t know was that when Stalin’s purges began, she decided it was time to go home. But, by then it was way too late.

Dare I say that this multi-generational saga will become a classic? The reader will go through the history of the pre-Cold War, Cold War, and post-Cold War told as a mother-son story. Once I finished the book, I wondered how the author’s own roots influenced her writing. Krasiko is a Jewish woman who was born in Ukraine and grew up in the former Soviet republic of Georgia before coming to New York. Her character of the mother was so complex that I couldn’t help but wonder if she was a real person. Or maybe, my thoughts are due to the author’s talent?

The book ends with the mother’s younger brother giving her now almost senior citizen son possible clarity on his Mom’s stubbornness, finally answering the how and why of the phenomenon of a typical Brooklyn girl becoming a loyal Communist party member. Maybe it had nothing to do with Russia at all but rather her guilt. In her decision to leave for the USSR she had hurt all those that she loved. It began with her family back in Brooklyn. Then it ended the life of her best friend, another 20-year old Brooklyn girl who also had dreams of a better world, as well as ending the life of her husband. And clearly hurting her son in all stages of his life. Unfortunately, her youthful optimism backfired on her. The uncle suggested that just maybe, his sister felt as if she didn’t deserve the comforts of America or a good life anymore? She was a living epitome of a sad Russian poem. Before Stalin became a Bolshevik revolutionary he was a poet. This book makes it clear that although Stalin is long dead his cruelty lives on.

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

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