Forget Russia by L. Bordetsky-Williams

I became somewhat obsessed with Russia many years ago when I first read The Bronze Horseman.  It’s a crush that’s grown and grown since then, to the point where Russia has become one of the few topics I actively seek-out non fiction books to read, not just fiction novels. So when I spotted @elspells13 review of Forget Russia, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

Deep, moving and elegantly written, the book is a beautiful tribute to the interwovenness of human lives across time, space, generations.
Maarja Kadajane, co-founder of the Constructive Journalism Institute

what it says on the cover …

“Your problem is you have a Russian soul,” Anna’s mother tells her. In 1980, Anna is a naïve UConn senior studying abroad in Moscow at the height of the Cold War—and a second-generation Russian Jew raised on a calamitous family history of abandonment, Czarist-era pogroms, and Soviet-style terror. As Anna dodges date rapists, KGB agents, and smooth-talking black marketeers while navigating an alien culture for the first time, she must come to terms with the aspects of the past that haunt her own life. With its intricate insight into the everyday rhythms of an almost forgotten way of life in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, Forget Russia is a disquieting multi-generational epic about coming of age, forgotten history, and the loss of innocence in all of its forms. 

PUBLISHED: 1st December 2020
SHELF: fiction | historical fiction | cultural
AUTHOR: L. Bordetsky-Williams
PUBLISHER: Tailwinds Press
FORMATS: Paperback

‘Americans and Russians are very similar, I believe … We’re both a friendly people, a warm people. If it weren’t for our governments, I’m sure we’d be great friends.’

my review

First, take a moment to watch this …

Forget Russia spans three generations of one Jewish family, and their lives during some of the most pivotal moments in the modern history of this enigmatic nation.  The story unfolds in two timelines as Anna embarks on a trip to Russia where she hopes to learn more about her family’s home country and the lives they lived here.  Anna’s chapters are set in the autumn of 1980 – during Brezhnev’s rule over the Soviet Union – and are interspersed with chapters that follow her grandmother, Sarah’s, life through the brutal and bloody years of the Russian Revolution, and the equally terrifying years of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

In a narrative that reads like a memoir, I found myself being quietly drawn in by the stories Anna and Sarah had to tell.  Despite many decades having elapsed between the two women’s stories, they are breathtakingly similar in their undercurrents of deprivation, fear and distrust. Government control over food, wealth, movement of people, interment and enforcement – the country’s leader may have a different face, but the collective mindset is terrifyingly consistent.

Sarah’s chapters shed a light on an important theme in early soviet history that I wasn’t so familiar with – the return of Russian citizens to their homeland, drawn by the promise of a better life.  The very idea of this now sounds utterly inconceivable, but the author brings to life a repatriation of Russian Jews who’d fled their anti-Semitic homeland in the early 1920s for countries such as the USA.  With the Great Depression wreaking an unbearable toll on these marginalised expats, Stalin’s triumphalist propaganda is an irresistible draw, enticing thousands to return to help build the Bolshevik Revolution.  

I was struck by the focus of the female storyline.  In part this is due to the two female narrators, but it’s deeply affecting to read of the toll the unimaginably hard lives took on soviet women.  Through Sarah’s eyes we witness the relentless, exhausting days of physically demanding factory work, hours of queuing for the most basic food provisions every evening after work, before returning home to cook, clean up, sleep on lice-infested beds in cramped, communal towers, before starting the same routine again the next day.  The lasting impact on the women is palpable and enduring, affecting their physical and mental health beyond repair – there are several occurrences where the age of women is remarked upon as being completely at odds with their physical appearance.  

Anna’s experiences of the ‘modern’ soviet union were no less shocking, perhaps more so in some ways as almost fifty years have passed.  Secrecy and distrust are as rife during this period as they were during the ‘30s, as is deprivation and poor health.  Whilst Stalin’s murderous purges may have been consigned to the past, the government continues to rule with a culture of fear and manipulation, enforcing cruel restrictions on any families applying to leave the country, and controlling the daily lives of its citizens through the ominously watchful presence of the KGB.

Whilst I didn’t really warm to any of the book’s characters, the stories they shared had my full attention.  The writing style gave the book the feeling of a documentary, recounting events at a bit of a remove.  But nevertheless I was hooked on the details, soaking up the historic events and daily lives through the passing generations.  

There were two aspects of the book I struggled with.  The first point is one of the characters – Miloz – who adds no context or direction to the story.  He’s one of the group of students Anna is travelling with from America to Russia, yet he only features in the story during a jarringly odd scene where he rapes Anna very early in the book. I couldn’t understand the reason why this scene was written into the book, or what purpose it was meant to serve.  My second point is the inclusion of some words and short phrases written in the Cyrillic alphabet; at times these are included with translation, but there are instances without this benefit, where I couldn’t understand what was being said, and the context didn’t give me any clues either.  On the one hand they do add a nice authenticity to the narrative, but I would have enjoyed this personal touch more if they were always supported with a translation in some way.

Given the immense depth and breadth of documented events from the author’s three chosen eras it’s an astounding feat to have covered them all in one, 296-page book.  In some ways I felt the book wasn’t quite given the free-rein to really get under the skin of these events – this could quite easily, and enjoyably, become a trilogy to grant each era a more expansive stage to tell its story.  In her initial email to me, the author mentioned she’s researched this book for twenty years before writing it, and I’ve no doubt she has the material and the talent to bring us more novels from this fascinating, secretive country. 

The final chapters of the book are the ones that resonated most deeply with me. They felt more intimate, as if Anna was beginning to open up more about her feelings. The harsh reality of the characters being trapped and unable to leave the country during relatively modern, supposedly enlightened, times was pretty shocking … it’s something I was aware of during Stalin’s reign but I hadn’t considered it was still the case so many decades later. The story ends with the following passage, which summed up how I felt about the book as I closed the pages; “I never did forget any of them – that autumn of 1980 remains in my memory.  It invisibly defines the way light falls on pavement, or how the wind wraps itself round streets at night, making a mournful sound as I wander easily back into the past.

After the acknowledgements is a list of suggested of books for further reading.  Already, a few of them have made their way into my Russian TBR list. 

If Russia is a bit of a ‘thing’ for you too, then you will really enjoy this book, as will fans of historical fiction.  And if you enjoy reading Forget Russia, I wholeheartedly recommend you check out Simon Sebag Montefiore’s books, particularly the Sashenka trilogy … they are a massive treat.  You might also rather enjoy Martin Cruz Smith’s iconic novel, Gorky Park, and not forgetting The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons – that’s the book that first ignited my obsession.

my rating

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Thank you to Lisa Bordetsky-Williams for sending me an complimentary copy of Forget Russia in return for an honest, impartial review.

lisa bordetsky-williams

Lisa is the author of Forget Russia, published by Tailwinds Press in December, 2020. She has also published The Artist in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf,  a book of creative nonfiction, Letters to Virginia Woolf, and three poetry chapbooks.

Forget Russia has been twenty years in the making, reflecting a breathtaking amount of research, chronicling, and transcribing.

In 1980, she studied in Moscow at the Pushkin Institute. She is a Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey and lives in New York City.

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