The book cover for The Patriots by Sana Krasikov describes this novel as a “Dr. Zhivago for our times.” I would have called it, “The return of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. Pasternak’s love story about Zhivago and Lara has moments of beauty while Solzhenitsyn’s novel inside a Soviet gulag, like
The Patriots, is unrelenting Stalinism. But like all great Russian novels, these three share the density and weight that make Hemingway and Twain read like speed novels.
Dr. Zhivago covers the period from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution to create world Communism into the early 1920s when Stalin took over. The Patriots picks up the story in1932 as Marx’s “workers paradise” becomes Stalin’s slaughter of millions in gulags. Ivan Denisovich was one of those purged as an “enemy of the people” and sentenced to the gulag—think Auschwitz.
In the early 1930s, as with the Holocaust’s death camps, if there were rumors about the gulags, the world ignored them. Nobody could possibly believe that two civilized nations like Germany and Russia would ever commit genocide on their own people! Florence Fein, the main character in The Patriots, is one of those deniers—an idealistic Jewish intellectual from Brooklyn who buys the entire Community Party line. In 1932 Florence moves to the Soviet Union passionate about changing the corrupt world of capitalism. Her parents, who live in reality, tell her the USSR is run by “snakes” and beg her not to go.
But Florence sails off anyway, pulled by her faith in Marx’s “workers” paradise plus a secret lust for a dark-haired Russian named Sergey she’d met through her job at the Soviet Trade Mission. The darkness of this novel begins on her arrival when Sergey is no longer around and his friend Fyodor tells Florence to, “Get yourself a train ticket before your last pair of stockings runs.” While Florence is repeatedly told to go back to the USA by Russians who aren’t delusional about the Soviet system as she is, she digs in her naïve little heels.
But this on-arrival gut punch is a clear foreshadow of far worse to come for Florence. This novel skips back and forth from 1932 to 2008 when her son Julian comes back to Russian where he was born trying to find out why his mother disappeared. He knows his father Leon died in the Purge as an enemy of the people, but not how his mother died. Julian also has to deal with his rebellious son Lenny who’s emigrated to Moscow. So the complexity of this novel covering three generations puts it right smack in the tradition of layers-deep Russian literature.
And no wonder. The author was born in Russia where she grew up before emigrating to New York. And her Russian roots come through in specific details like kids collecting, and trading, propaganda lapel pins like American kids with baseball cards to the Russian word pokhoronka for the death notices sent to wives during WW II. It seems Sana could have written this novel in English or Russian!
If you read A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles, you’ll feel right at home with this author’s description of the Metropol Hotel where the aristocratic Gentleman Count Rostov lives under house arrest after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Hence Rostov and Florence overlap at the Metropol since she visits there at the same time he is living there. And while the Communists make the Count’s imprisonment as humiliating as possible, it’s beyond five stars compared to the gulag where Florence is headed.
In The Patriot, Krasikov describes the setting in A Gentleman, “The restaurant of the Metropol Hotel deserves a pace among the pantheon of the century’s great pleasure dens….its ornate brass carvings and red plush furnishings had, by the 1930s, already acquired an air of departed glory, a feel of slightly frayed and shopworn luxury that was of a piece with the gold-braided uniforms of its liveried waiters, some of whom had been around since the days of the tsar.” This is exactly where the Count meets his young friend Nina and later takes in Nina’s daughter Sofia.
Nina in A Gentleman in Moscow and Florence in The Patriots share the same optimism for the USSR. And they both end up in Stalin’s gulag. If you haven’t read Amor Towles novel, it’s not too late. These two books are connected in time, theme, and exquisite language. And if you think this blog touching on four Russian novels is too complicated, well, welcome to Russian literature. Nothing is simple.
Be grateful I didn’t throw in Fyodor Dostoevsky because he writes about the Tsar’s brutal prison camps in Siberia before the 1917 Revolution!