It’s appropriate that Alex Halberstadt’s new memoir, “Young Heroes of the Soviet Union,” is shaped in many ways by the labor of its characters.
One of his grandfathers was a bodyguard to Joseph Stalin; the other spent his life in laboratories dissecting small animals to try and learn about how they worked. His mother sold nearly everything she owned in order to move the two of them out of a Moscow housing block and to a three-room walk-up in Long Island City; his paternal grandmother designed dresses that she could spot being worn by the Soviet elite on television; and his father sold black market rock records, Wrangler jeans and other smuggled Americana to his capitalism-curious countrymen.
It’s a lot of work, being alive, and it’s a lot of work to stay alive, too. Sometimes your labor kills you through no fault of your own, and sometimes it sustains you, regardless of your own will. You might wake up one day, Halberstadt seems to say, and realize that your survival was an accident of history. Then what do you do?
His answer is more labor. In his case, it’s the labor that Halberstadt, a journalist, understands how to do: Build a long, complicated story, encompassing the life and death of countries, regimes and families. He builds with memory.
Memory being, of course, some pretty fickle material to work with.
Over and over again, family lore and well-established facts of history are both exposed as constructions of convenience or discretion. His Jewish grandfather, Semyon, is convinced of the evil of the number 19 by a series of horrible misfortunes involving it and, as a result, switches his birthday from 10/9 to 11/15. His Russian grandfather, Vassily, is able to see Stalin’s smallpox scars up close, the ones that were airbrushed out of official images (he sees his boss’ similarly suppressed behavior up close, too). Memory is constructed by the state as well as by the individual, Halberstadt learns and relearns, in the name of self-preservation.
The book is broken into three parts. Halberstadt begins with his investigation of his Russian father’s family in the first section, and then conducts another one into his Jewish mother’s family. In the final section, he recounts his journey from the Soviet Union to New York City, where he struggles to construct a complicated identity. He’s Jewish enough to be accepted as a charity case at Jewish schools, but not Jewish enough to feel quite at home in them; he’s not American enough for his peers, and he’s too American for his family. He comes to realize that he’s gay as well, which adds another layer of complication.
Halberstadt is at his best when he is describing the private battles fought by his family members, at any scale. His descriptions of his KGB agent grandfather’s struggle with his own culpability in torture, repression and potentially genocide is given no more weight than that of his mother nearly bleeding out during an at-home abortion, performed without her philandering husband’s knowledge. He brings maximum empathy to those who have often withheld it.
There are times when his onslaught of detail stops working as an agent of verisimilitude and becomes a slog to read, but thankfully, those occasions are few and far between. Most of the time, Halberstadt is able to successfully build his scenes with well-observed details; I was delighted when he noticed a sign for “Afrobraids” on the renamed “50th Anniversary of the Victory over Fascism Street” in the city of Vinnytsia.
Toward the end of the second section, Halberstadt delivers the scene that describes his whole project. It’s an early summer morning in Vilnius, and Halberstadt is 8, tip-toeing around his sleeping parents and maternal grandparents. He looks at his entwined mother and father, during the last summer they all spent together as a family; he considers the gas range that his grandmother will use to singe a plucked hen later that day, and the scientist’s tools of his grandfather’s home laboratory. He picks up a jar, quiet as can be, and empties the contents into his hand: a frog, bound for his grandfather’s scalpel.
In that scene, as in the whole book, Halberstadt goes through his family’s belongings, the inheritance he is going to receive, whether he likes it or not. He does so with respect, a little bit of fear, tenderness, skepticism and love. After he considers the frog, he places it gently back into the jar.
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