The Difficult Process of Leaving a Place of Non-Belonging: Maxim D. Shrayer’s Memoir, Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story
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The Difficult Process of Leaving a Place of Non-Belonging:
Maxim D. Shrayer’s Memoir, Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story

Maxim Shrayer titled his memoir Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story. The main title signals that this is a memoir of quitting, departing, taking leave of a country and its society. The subtitle indicates that this is also a story of a more permanent identity—an identity that is intertwined with the first part of the title, yet unaffected by the experience of rupture and departure. The striking title picture of a young Maxim Shrayer, writing at a simple wooden table with flowers whose shadows paint a tattoo of blossoms on his muscular arms, his eyes lowered with a pensive, yet defiant look on his face indicates that this is also a story of youth. A Jewish youth spent in the years of late socialism.1

And yet, despite the many clues carefully assembled on the front page, the title only tells half of the story. This is not only a memoir of leaving Russia. It is also a memoir of living in the Soviet Union (and the distinction between Russia and the Soviet Union is quite pertinent to Shrayer’s story.) It is a memoir of growing up in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, yet not knowing that it was the twilight years. It is a memoir of being Jewish, but it is also a memoir of finding Jewishness, and in particular Soviet Jewishness. It is a memoir of the realities of life in the late Soviet project, but also a memoir of writing this life. It is both particular, by virtue of Shrayer’s experience of being the son of prominent refusenik parents and himself active in the refusenik community, and general because of Shrayer’s existence as a student, young poet, and citizen of the Soviet Union.2 And given that it was written twenty years after the fact, in a suburb of Boston, it is also a story of those parts of his Soviet adolescence that Shrayer took with him, and that continued to shape him long after he had left the country of his birth, to which he never felt he quite belonged.

This article does not aim to be a definitive account of Jewish adolescence in the late Soviet Union. Neither does it wish to be a review of Shrayer’s book. Rather, it will use his memoir as a guide to understanding what it meant to be a refusenik youth in the late Soviet Union. It will look at the way in which this identity was formed and by what means young people decided to express this identity in public or private settings. It will further examine various stages of “escape,” how they were achieved, and how the newly created mental and [End Page 189] physical bolt-holes minted new communities and/or re-enforced old ones. It will become obvious that young refuseniks and other Jewish activists did not live in a vacuum, but rather were—both by choice and necessity—deeply embedded in the realities of late socialist life. Nonetheless, the ultimate relationship of a young refusenik to his or her country of birth was one that culminated in departure. This parting was more often than not a process of secession that had started long before the actual physical departure. Its prolonged build up was a survival mechanism. Indeed Shrayer’s title pays tribute to that: “leaving” was a way of “living.” Or more accurately, the long process of estrangement was both a voluntary and an enforced response to the realities of late Soviet life.3

Alienation

I was born on 5 June 1967, and my father’s first impulse was to name me ‘Israel’ as he rejoiced over Israel’s spectacular victory over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria during the Six-Day War. A first name like that would have doubtless rendered me an even more obvious target of anti-Semitism, and instead the name Maxim was chosen.4

Unlike many Jews of his parents’ generation, Shrayer was born into a family that had found a new, definitively Jewish identity, which had been lost to so...