Originally hailing from Moscow, Anya Ulinich has written a debut novel that capture both the absurdity and tragedy of life in the Soviet Union, post-Soviet Russia and among the Russian speaking “Jewish” immigrant communities in the US. In Petropolis, published earlier this year by Viking, she traces the life of Sasha Goldberg, a quarter Black woman from the small Siberian town of Asbestos 2.
Despite her name, Goldberg’s Jewish identity is entirely psychological and impressed upon her by her parents to draw the attention of other people away from her obvious African ancestry. She identifies herself as Jewish despite having no religion and knowing nothing about Judaism until after she leaves Russia. It is only in the US that she learns for the first time about matzos, kosher kitchens and Jewish holidays. Even by the loosest racialist definition she is not Jewish. Her mother was a Russian gentile and her father the son of a Russian gentile woman and an African father. The name Goldberg comes from the couple that adopted her father. Other than their name these people retained no traces of Jewish religion or culture. Yet because of her name and presumably line five on her internal passport Sasha Goldberg considers herself to be Jewish rather than Russian or Black.
This is the first of many absurdities depicted in the book that accurately reflects the legacy of Soviet rule. Soviet nationality policy classified an untold number of culturally Russian atheists with gentile mothers as Jews based solely upon their father’s surname. Under Jewish religious law the child of a gentile mother and Jewish father is not Jewish by virtue of his or her parentage. This is only the case if the child’s mother is Jewish. Yet Soviet nationality policy pretended that atheists who spoke only Russian and knew only a Sovietized Russian culture belonged to the same ethnic culture as the Yiddish speaking enclaves that used to exist in the Pale of Settlement. US refugee policy and Israel’s Law of Return have replicated this absurdity. All three states adopted a legal definition of who is a Jew almost identical to the racial definition used by the Nazis.
Sasha Goldberg leaves the dreary and ultimately hopeless town of Asbestos 2 for Moscow and then America. In the US she encounters more Soviet inspired absurdities as she runs the gamut of the stereotypical experiences of Russian speaking immigrants. She starts out as a mail order bride in Phoenix and makes her way to Chicago and finally New York. She is a sympathetic if unlikely protagonist. Most of the people she encounters during this journey including her own father are in contrast quite repulsive. The Russian speaking “Jewish” immigrants have maintained many of the social pathologies that marred life in the old Soviet Union years and even decades after arriving in the US. The native born American characters have their own set of undesirable traits. The one outstanding exception to these unsavory people that Sasha Goldberg keeps encountering is Jake Tarakan. A young man afflicted with cerebral palsy, Jake is one of the few characters in the book that is not emotionally or morally stunted. His illness is instead merely physical. The interactions between Jake and Sasha are especially well done. These two characters complement each other very well.
Petropolis is a highly entertaining and quirky novel. It depicts the experience of Russian speaking “Jewish” immigrants and their descendants in the US in an unusual light. She does not reduce them to nothing more than the totally innocent victims of perpetual anti-Semitism as have a great number of American born writers. Instead Ulinich portrays them in a more sophisticated and less positive manner. Sasha Goldberg in particularly is developed as a fully human character. While such an approach is extremely politically incorrect in America today it does make for interesting reading. I hope Ulinich’s next novel is as good as her first one. If you are looking for something a little bit offbeat to read go check it out.