Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, St. Petersburg, Russia

Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, St. Petersburg, Russia, 2011

One of the mythic hero’s most important tasks is to travel to a strange new land and come back enlightened or bewildered. One of the quest’s most familiar destinations is the world of ancestors. And one of the consequences of the post-1960s tribalization of America is the proliferation of “return narratives,” in which unfulfilled seekers travel to the old country in search of “race and inheritance,” as Barack Obama put it. “Would this trip to Kenya finally fill that emptiness?” he wonders as he sets off for his father’s birthplace. “The folks back in Chicago thought so.”

Africa is “a new promised land, full of ancient traditions and sweeping vistas.” The same is true of China, Korea, Ireland, Italy, Norway, and most other lost homes. Some pilgrims come back disappointed (“they come here looking for the authentic,” a Kenyan history professor tells Obama, and “that is bound to disappoint a person”), but most realize that disappointment is a path to wisdom. The land of forefathers contains many regions, and some are much darker than others. Only those traveling to the deepest pits of hell abandon all hope before entering.

Most American Jews who travel to Eastern Europe are in no doubt that they are heading for the inferno (“holocaust” means “burnt completely”). Their goal is to meet the ghosts of their slain ancestors and perhaps those of the executioners. Occasionally, they run into witting or unwitting fellow travelers whose ancestors are the executioners. The Chicago-born journalist Silvia Foti traveled to Lithuania to write an admiring biography of her grandfather, a war hero. The book she ended up writing is called The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather Was a War Criminal (expected in 2021). The Lithuanian writer Rūta Vanagaitė and Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, cowrote a book conceived as a collaboration between a relative of the perpetrators and a relative of the victims. It is called Our People.

Alex Halberstadt, born in Moscow in 1970, can do it all himself. His mother comes from a family of Lithuanian Jews; his paternal grandfather, an ethnic Ukrainian, was a bodyguard for Stalin. Young Heroes of the Soviet Union is a journey to the underworld posing as a memoir. The characters are real people; the narrator seems indistinguishable from the author; the countries he describes can be found on the map but not on earth.

Growing up, Alex suffered from recurrent nightmares. In 1979 he, his mother, and her parents emigrated from the USSR to the US and settled in New York City (his father stayed behind). The nightmares grew more insistent and began to invade his waking life. He became “obsessively fearful first of strangers’ footsteps in the hallway, then of noise coming through the bedroom walls from neighbors’ apartments, then of the neighbors themselves.” In 2004 his father phoned from Moscow and mentioned in passing that his own estranged father, Vassily Chernopisky, was still alive. Alex realized that his father’s call was a summons for the questing hero and that his grandfather’s existence was a thread that might lead him to the source of his curse. “Despite entirely reasonable doubts,” he contacted his grandfather and bought a ticket to Moscow. His mother had warned him that, for her, Moscow “signified little except state-sponsored discrimination against Jews, consumer deficits, appalling architecture, months-long stretches of uninterrupted sleet and snow, and an overabundance of synthetic fibers.” What he found proved more terrifying.

As the plane began to descend, Alex saw some “low cabins standing in puddles of pea-green grass, a pond and a sluiceway and some obsolete factory buildings dreaming in pastureland.” Suddenly, “fog rolled in from somewhere below,” and he found himself in hell’s imitation of an airport, “a linoleum labyrinth lit dimly by fluorescents.” Deprived of the liberties he “hadn’t questioned the previous morning,” Alex was gripped by the fear typical of “Soviet immigrants returning to the motherland: the worry that the gates won’t open again when it’s time to leave.” But it was too late to turn back: the demon wearing the uniform of a passport-control inspector contorted his face into “a foreshadowing of a grin” and welcomed him “home.”

In Moscow Alex has several awkward and inconclusive conversations with his father, watches a man sitting on the sidewalk eat out of a can of dog food, and attends a mass at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The singing is “almost unbearably beautiful,” but the mood is dark. A man in a patched suit jacket and felt boots, tears streaming down his face, gets off his knees and shouts, “The kikes trampled Russia!” Readers struck by the author’s good fortune in witnessing such a scene on a brief visit to Moscow should prepare themselves for more: Alex has Dante’s ability to be in the right place at the right time.

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On the way to Vinnytsia, “a drab industrial city near Ukraine’s center,” Alex’s train stops at Sukhinichi, southwest of Moscow. The employees of the local toy factory have lined up along the platform, holding enormous stuffed animals, “their hard plastic eyes glittering in the moonlight.” The passengers file off the train to shop or marvel; Alex joins them but “decline[s] to buy a canoe-size panther” and hurries “past a mermaid and a leering humanoid mushroom to the train’s metal steps.” At the Ukrainian border a guard threatens to detain Alex in an unheated shed but is satisfied with a twenty-dollar bribe. Finally, the countryside

transform[ed] into the wreckage of a medium-size city. The train passed the shells of buildings of indeterminate age, warehouses and waterworks, their bricks scattered along the tracks; young, soot-darkened trees sprouted randomly among dandelions and crabgrass. The Vinnytsia train station, a concrete bunker under a corrugated-metal roof, waited amid the detritus.

Vassily, at ninety-three, proved welcoming but not forthcoming:

He answered questions about his time in the OGPU and NKVD [two incarnations of the secret police] in the middle and late 1930s by relating vague episodes about following foreigners to restaurants and eavesdropping on their conversations, about surveillance and stakeouts, about filing reports.

His account of his time as Stalin’s bodyguard is equally vague. Alex retells only two stories in some detail. On November 8, 1932, Vassily, a twenty-one-year-old cadet at the OGPU Academy, attended a post–Revolution Day dinner in Defense Commissar Kliment Voroshilov’s Kremlin apartment:

He was the youngest person in the room. He sat woodenly and studied the faces of the guests, some of whom he recognized from the pages of newspapers. The country’s leadership was gathered around the table: the squat, punctilious premier, Molotov; strapping Voroshilov in an ornate uniform; the old revolutionary cavalryman Budyonny, who twisted the ends of his walrus mustache with tobacco-stained fingers; and moonfaced Yagoda, soon to be OGPU chief and his boss.

Stalin drank to “the destruction of the enemies of the state” and flirted with “a slim young woman.” His wife got upset and stormed out. The next day she committed suicide.

On another occasion, “Vassily was riding in the back of a black limousine, one of the armored Packards that Stalin lavished on his deputies,” when the driver, in a colonel’s uniform, slowed down, leaned out of the window, and called to a girl of about sixteen or seventeen. She approached shyly and peered into the dark interior:

The man inside the car who studied her with the most interest was bald and pale; he wore a nondescript uniform and a pince-nez over acute, intelligent eyes. Not yet a full-fledged member of the Politburo, First Deputy Lavrenty Beria—commissar general of state security and warden of the prison system known by the acronym GULAG—was nonetheless the most feared person in the country.

As the girl backed away, “a three-hundred-pound Georgian who had gotten out of the limousine—a deputy of Beria’s named Kobulov—enfolded her. He lifted her off her feet and tossed her headfirst into the car as easily as if she were a bundle of firewood.” At a mansion on Malaya Nikitskaya Street, “servants had laid out a Georgian feast.” The girl was forced to do a striptease (“the Georgians jeering and laughing”) before being carried upstairs to Beria’s bedroom. “Vassily knew the girl wouldn’t return home or be seen again.”

Did he? In most accounts of Beria’s predations, the victim returns home. Was Vassily even there? Alex acknowledges that both scenes recall the most popular and frequently rehearsed episodes in Soviet history. So how much of this did Vassily witness and how much comes from newspaper stories he has seen? And how much does Alex add from his own imagination and the books he has read? The “squat, punctilious” Molotov? The “three-hundred-pound Georgian”? Alex does not trust Vassily, but can we trust Alex? “I’d traveled five thousand miles to meet this man,” he writes:

I imagined decoding his roles as perpetrator and victim, trying to piece together and weigh his motives, charting his involvement in decades-old events. I realized how naive I’d been. His culpability was an immense, unknowable continent filled with indecipherable ambiguities.

So he writes Vassily’s story as best he can, adding some background and filling the landscape with monsters of his own invention.

We almost never hear from Vassily directly. What we get is an omniscient narrator’s third-person account of what Vassily did or thought (or may have done or thought). The sole direct confession—about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944—gets the same treatment, with no follow-up questions:

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Vassily described watching families beaten and turned out of their homes, watching a mass rape, then described how he himself herded women and children into unheated cattle cars and wrapped wire around the door handles.

Added to these stories of crimes real or inferred are third-person recollections of Vassily’s second wife and Alex’s grandmother, Tamara, who left Vassily because “his emptiness…occupied the apartment like an odor” and went on to marry “a taciturn, disapproving man who dressed cadavers at a morgue.”

Framing and supporting these accounts are historical facts of unknown provenance and questionable veracity. The “three-hundred-pound Georgian” was, in fact, an Armenian; the city of Ufa is in the southern Urals, not the Far East; and Alex’s great-grandfather Anany was not named “after Onan, the Old Testament masturbator” (Onan and Ananias/Hananiah have different Hebrew roots). Scholars use footnotes; newspapers and magazines employ fact-checkers; the author of Young Heroes of the Soviet Union moves from sheer nightmare to straightforward “history” in a way that makes the myth pedestrian and history suspect.

“Vassily’s name,” writes Alex, with the benefit of “weeks in libraries” after his return to New York, “appeared nowhere on lists of the NKVD’s top-ranking officers, nor of that organization’s recipients of important medals and orders, nor of its deputies to party conventions and congresses.” But why should a low-ranking bodyguard appear on lists of top-ranking officers or congress delegates?

A quick look at the database of Memorial (the Moscow-based human rights organization and archive) reveals the NKVD personnel record of Vassily Ananievich Chernopisky, including two decorations, the Order of the Red Star in February 1945 (“for serving at the Yalta Conference”) and the Order of the Patriotic War, Second Class, in September 1945 (“for successfully completing a special Government assignment,” probably work at the Potsdam Conference). There is plenty of archival information on both events, including, quite possibly, the special government assignment of Captain Vassily Chernopisky. But Alex does not go to the archives, has no clue about the time and place he dreams about, and does not ask Vassily any specific questions (from what we can tell).

Instead, we learn that “between 1935 and 1941, nineteen million Soviet citizens were arrested, and seven million executed, many by quota” (the actual numbers are approximately 2.3 million and 800,000, respectively); that every morning, lines formed outside local NKVD offices “as people waited patiently…to denounce neighbors, colleagues, family” (try to imagine large public gatherings of secret informers, some of them neighbors and friends chatting as they wait); and that in the late 1940s,

ninety percent of Moscow’s apartments had no heat, and nearly half had no plumbing or running water; in winter, people going out for water carried axes along with their buckets, to hack through the ice that grew around the public water pumps; workers stacked firewood brought from the countryside on street corners in piles that sometimes grew taller than a building; siblings went to school on alternate days because they shared a single pair of shoes.

Perhaps he meant Leningrad during the war, not Moscow several years later. And he forgot the bears. When a foreigner asks a Russian whether it is true that in Russia bears walk the streets, the Russian is supposed to respond, “What are ‘streets’?”

On his way back from the Underworld, Alex returns to Moscow, a city famous for its lack of a coherent design. “What distinguishes Moscow from other European cities,” he writes, “is the extent to which the needs of its residents didn’t figure in its design. More than any other place I’ve been to, it’s a city of monuments.” Perhaps he means St. Petersburg, or has never been to Washington, D.C. What is remarkable is that, as a New Yorker, he does not realize that “the apotheosis of Stalinist architecture,” the tower of the Moscow State University, was modeled on the Woolworth and the Manhattan Municipal Buildings in New York City. His mother languished in that tower as a student:

I thought of her stories about cramped dorm rooms where listening devices were hidden in the closets, about ventilation so bad that the smell of cabbage boiled on the floor below by exchange students from Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam permeated her room, about the thirty-three kilometers of dark corridors, about unexplained sounds in the night, about suicides. Many believed the building was haunted.

Gothic tales are close relatives of mythic descents to the Underworld.

Alex’s last day in Russia provides a perfect bookend to the trip (which was paid for by GQ magazine). On his walk through the center of Moscow, he gets swept up in a march of mostly elderly people celebrating Revolution Day:

Under a granite monument to Karl Marx, a strikingly tall woman stood on another truck bed, her chest covered with gold- and silver-colored medals. In a booming voice, she intoned a speech about an empire that once blanketed half the globe, about squandered wealth and military might, about encroaching decadence and Westernization. “These criminals sold our nation!” a woman in a rabbit-fur hat shouted beside me, shaking her fist in the direction of the Kremlin’s tomato-soup-colored battlements.

It was time to flee.

Alex’s second journey is to Lithuania, the land of his mother’s family. The trajectory is similar: the growing anxiety, the irresistible urge to reenter the nightmare, the plunge (marked, in this case, by brief self-isolation in the “concrete bunker” of Vilnius’s municipal archive), and the subterranean journey consisting of a historical introduction, two meditative travelogues, and a family history centered on the attractive and vividly drawn character of Grandfather Semyon. The introduction is in Lonely Planet style, with an occasional detour into personal discovery:

The early Litvaks (as the Lithuanian Jews called themselves) whom I encountered in histories turned out to be unlike the famous secular Jews in Semyon’s stories: Horowitz, Wittgenstein, Freud and the Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics…. In their insularity from and apparent indifference to the gentile society in which they lived, these eastern European small-town Jews reminded me of the Lubavitcher Hasidim I came to know in Brooklyn.

The travelogues are mostly about Jewish homes occupied by oblivious strangers and crumbling tombstones with fading Hebrew letters. The family history culminates in the Holocaust and—once again—combines third-person biographical narratives with the macrohistorical summaries the reader has grown used to. But there is a difference. In the chapter on Vassily, the narrator is surrounded by “indecipherable ambiguities” and qualifies most statements with “Vassily described” and “Tamara said.” In the Lithuanian chapter, the inner state of the characters is entirely transparent to the narrator: “Semyon’s friends marveled at his absence of meanness and bitterness,” “he was lost in conflicted thoughts,” and “he dreamed most often about his mother and, especially, about his brother. Shy, dark-eyed Roma looked up at him accusingly, and Semyon woke with a start, his heart heaving in his chest.”

The unease the reader feels over such novelistic passages is made more acute by the obvious implausibility of some elements of the background. Did the Soviets really write “Traitors to the Homeland” in white paint on the sides of the train cars filled with deportees in June 1941 (it was a secret operation, and no such designation was used in deportation decrees)? Did Red Army soldiers in the streets of Kaunas really offer chocolate bars to children in return for promises to renounce parochial superstitions? (“‘Did Jesus give you this chocolate bar, or did I?’ they asked.”) In the flow of Semyon’s colorful and not always reliable reminiscence, such an episode might have made sense; as part of the historical narrative, it does not. When locating hell in countries with names, pasts, and flesh-and-blood inhabitants, writers—especially memoirists—are expected to set limits to their imagination.

The asymmetry between perpetrator and victim stories is perhaps understandable: one is about uncovering the truth, the other, preserving the memory. But what is the relationship between them? In what way are the two journeys and two families connected, other than by the figure of the troubled narrator? Whose nightmares has he inherited? Alex disapproves of the Lithuanians’ inability to come to terms with the legacy of the Holocaust, but what would he like to see them do, besides caring for graves and updating museum displays? On a visit to the Žaliakalnis Jewish cemetery in Kaunas, he spots a small group of neatly dressed teenagers:

A boy in a ski jacket read something in German from a handheld device, and when he finished, the others clapped. I walked over to ask who they were. The teacher, a tall, blondish man in clear-plastic spectacles, told me in English that they were a high school class on a field trip from Berlin. They came to the cemetery to “learn about the darker aspects of our country’s history.” These students chose to come here, the teacher assured me; the remainder of the class went to Morocco. I thanked him, and he shook my hand a touch too firmly, telegraphing his solidarity. Then he blinked away the tears in his eyes.

In his capacity as a descendant of the victims, Alex accepts—indeed, welcomes—an act of penance by a descendant of the perpetrators. So what should he do—he asks himself—as the grandson of a man “who took part in arrests, interrogations, disappearances and, in Crimea, what amounted to a genocide?”

The question turns out to be rhetorical. The idea of a pilgrimage to Crimea (where a memorial to the Tatar victims of the deportation is currently under construction) does not occur to the narrator. Instead, he brings his two halves together in a chapter about his parents’ courtship and his own unhappy childhood. Each unhappy childhood is unhappy in its own way. Here, the sickly, sensitive boy and his aloof father and sad, hard-working mother live in a ghostly city where the interiors of bakeries and furniture stores are “plastered ceiling to floor with identical group portraits of the Politburo,” the audiences at New Year’s variety shows on TV are “party nomenklatura in black suits and ties,” textbooks about young heroes instruct seven-year-olds “how to halt a train laden with Nazi munitions by throwing yourself under its wheels,” student rock bands are fronted “mainly by sons of party officials and diplomats,” and secret-police informers posing as neighbors

assume that where there was new children’s furniture, there must also be a stack of samizdat verse or a pornographic magazine or maybe even a shortwave radio used to tune in to the bourgeois propaganda on Voice of America.

Every one of these observations is inaccurate. Covering store walls with Politburo portraits would have been interpreted as subversion; party nomenklatura members would not have jeopardized their dignity at New Year’s variety shows (the guests—who drank champagne, sang songs, and told jokes—included actors, dancers, athletes, scientists, cosmonauts, and an occasional award-winning worker); no collection of stories about young heroes would have been assigned as a textbook (as opposed to extracurricular reading); no textbook would have instructed children how to throw themselves under trains (any more than children attending Catholic schools would be instructed to throw themselves to the lions); and some of my best nonparty friends in the 1970s played in rock bands (and bought beds for their children).

None of this would have mattered in a book called Alex in Wonderland, but the author claims to have written “a memoir and a reckoning,” and keeps making historical judgments. Or does he? “In Russia,” he declares, “appearances always mattered more than reality.” So perhaps he does describe a “curious dream” after all. Readers can make what they will of a “Moscow” without love, friendship, laughter, or engrossing conversations. “The bunker-like building” of Alex’s kindergarten “sat low in an earthen depression”; the grocery store next to his apartment was “a poured-concrete bunker that sold vodka and Moroccan port” (he means Algerian dry red); and next to a supermarket that may or may not have looked like a bunker, men in groups of three huddled around trash cans “passing around 750 milliliters of vodka” (they would have been sharing half a liter, a tradition that goes back to the days of my childhood when three rubles—one per person—could buy you a bottle). The attendance of Alex’s mother at the top school in Vilnius (“among children of local party officials and the well connected”) and Alex’s own at the best school in Moscow (“for the children of diplomats and the well connected”) are mentioned without comment. Perhaps they too are appearances, not reality.

Finally, the Halberstadts (Alex, his mother, Grandfather Semyon, and Grandmother Raisa) emigrated to New York City, and Alex found a home. Semyon died in August 2001. After seeing him for the last time, Alex hailed a cab and headed for the Brooklyn Bridge:

The city teemed with life and motion…. Semyon once told me that New York was the happy ending to the twentieth century, and it never looked more so than on that night, with Manhattan’s megawatt landscape set against a moonless sky. I took out my phone and called my boyfriend. “I’m coming home,” I said.

But he didn’t really. The nightmares continued, the bunkers beckoned, and T magazine was willing to pay. In 2007 Alex traveled to the confluence of the Volga and the Akhtuba near the Caspian Sea to join his father on one of his annual fishing expeditions. The train station “appeared to be sculpted out of mud. Several bulbs dangled from a wire, casting eerie aureoles on the packed dirt beside the train tracks.” Just beyond was “a row of single-story cinder-block bunkers.” Alex was back in the Underworld, armed with new questions, but his father would not respond. A short car trip to Old Sarai, the site of the vanished capital of the Golden Horde and Russia’s “formative trauma,” provided the explanation:

In psychic terms, nearly a millennium ago this place became the wellspring of an unstoppable chain reaction—a multigenerational transmission of fear, suspicion, grief, melancholy and rage that, in turn, curdled into new historical calamities, new traumas to pass on to the young.

Russian history, Alex decides, is “a cyclical drama of victimization and submission,” from the Mongols, who came like Gog and Magog, to the peasants, who “proudly showed off bumps on their foreheads that rose from bowing to their betters,” to the many “seemingly novel features of Soviet totalitarianism.”

The curse could not be lifted: “Some of the Russians’ peculiarities that gall and mystify Westerners also date back centuries, sometimes all the way back to the Tatar occupation.” One of them is

the conviction, voiced so often in Russia, that foreigners and certain internal outsiders schemed to undermine the country and were to blame for its problems. At various times, these foreign and domestic antagonists included Swedes, Lithuanians, Turks, Japanese, Germans, Masons, Jews, Chechens, Americans, Protestants and, more recently, Chinese, Estonians, Georgians, Ukrainians and LGBT people.

Even “the trope of ‘the decadent West,’” Alex claims, came to the Russians “from the Muslim culture of their conquerors” (not true, but that is not the point).

On the night Alex finally understood that his father “wouldn’t, or couldn’t, give me the answers I’d come for,” he had one of his recurring nightmares. When he woke “with a yell in his throat,” his father told him that Vassily used to scream in his sleep, too, and that Alex sounded just like him. He is not Orpheus, in other words, but Eurydice. He will never fully wake up, never escape the multigenerational transmission of fear, never return home to a happy land where people do not believe that foreigners and certain internal outsiders scheme to undermine their country.

The book begins with an account of a lab experiment in which a team of researchers at Emory University administered electric shocks to the feet of baby mice enjoying the scent of cherry blossoms. Eventually, the mice began to tremble with fear whenever they smelled cherry blossoms. “The surprising part, though, came after they had babies of their own. When exposed to the scent, the second generation also trembled, though they had never been shocked.” Studies of human subjects done by other researchers seemed to confirm these findings: the children of Holocaust survivors and of pregnant mothers who were near the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, “showed changes to the genes that determined how they responded to stress—changes identical to those found in their parents.”

But what constitutes trauma? Alex’s examples refer to cataclysmic public events, but his narrative suggests a broader definition. One interpretation he seems to favor is that Russia, perhaps uniquely, is “a nation of individuals fearful of foreigners, each other and the prospect of greater freedom, a people trembling seemingly without cause, like the lab mice at Emory.” Alex may be doomed by his connection to his grandfather (who is Ukrainian, but never mind) and a succession of peasants with bumps on their foreheads, but others might not be so unlucky. In Rome, his mother “caught the first glimpses of what felt to her like authentic freedom,” and in New York, “the tread of history pointed to the future instead of the past.” And the future, everyone knows, is above the past:

In Moscow, the metro ran below the streets, and the stations doubled as bomb shelters; in parts of New York, the subway ran on girders high above the sidewalks, up near the billboards, neon and postmodern pediments.

The other interpretation, inescapable in the book and in most of today’s America, is that trauma lurks behind every corner, history’s tread spares no one, and most subway tracks begin and end underground. Add to that the misadventures of our ancestors, and Alex can relax. We all live in hell.