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Leaving Russia

A Jewish Story

by Maxim D. Shrayer

Publication Year: 2013

A memoir of coming of age and struggling to leave the USSR. Shrayer chronicles the triumphs and humiliations of a Soviet childhood and expresses the dreams and fears of a Jewish family that never gave up its hopes for a better life. Narrated in the tradition of Tolstoy’s confessional trilogy and Nabokov’s autobiography, this is a searing account of the KGB’s persecution of refuseniks, a poet’s rebellion against totalitarian culture, and Soviet fantasies of the West during the Cold War.

Published by: Syracuse University Press

Series: Library of Modern Jewish Literature

Front Flap, Title Page, Other Works in the Series, Copyright, About the Author, Dedication

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pp. 2-10


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

Early portions of this book were written at the Rockefeller Founda-tion?s Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy, and at the Bogliasco Foundation?s Liguria Study Center for the Arts and Humanities, and I thank both foundations for their support. The bulk of the book was com-posed during a leave made possible by the Boston College Faculty Fel-...

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pp. xv-xxii

...?We just got a call from the Of fi ce of Visas .?.?.?,? said my mother?s voice. And then it stopped, choking on the unpronounceable words. ?I The black receiver of the street payphone felt cold and heavy in my hands. On my left, Moscow?s midday traffi c fl owed down Leninsky Pros-pect, one side of it forging ahead to the city center, the other moving in the ...

Part One: The End of Childhood

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pp. 1-28

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1. Of Goat Milk and Marble Lions

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pp. 3-11

Sometime in the middl e 2000s I had a double dream, in which my father taught me poetry and fi shing. Although the dream was about my Russian childhood, it was spoken in English. I was in our house in Chest-nut Hill, where Karen and I lived from 2001 to 2011. It was in the spring, and defi nitely before Karen?s fi rst pregnancy and the birth of Mira....

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2. Different

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pp. 12-29

Once during a l iterature l esson in seventh grade a note was passed to me from the back of the classroom. It was a sheet of paper ripped from a lined copybook and folded in half. ?To the Jew from the Russians!? (?evreiu ot russkikh!?), was scribbled in Russian on the front of the folded sheet. And inside was a short note: ?You Shrayer Juboy son of a beach etc.? ...

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3. Becoming Refuseniks

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pp. 30-52

In 1978, after several years of brooding, my parents decided to leave the Soviet Union for good. In early January of 1979, as the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan thickened, we formally requested permission to emigrate to Israel. My parents? decision to uproot themselves had been a long and Despite the discrimination they encountered as Jews, my mother and ...

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Interlude: Dunes of Happiness

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pp. 53-75

Estonia, a refuge from refusenik living. The source of my happiest youthful memories. When I add up all the summer vacations, I realize that between the ages of fi ve and twenty I spent a total of three years in Estonia. P?rnu, the Estonian resort where we summered, sits on the West Coast of Estonia, about a two hour drive south from Tallinn, the Estonian ...

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4. Cavalier of the Gold Medal

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pp. 76-97

My life as a young refusenik was a fi ght, a Jewish boy?s desperate ascent. Between the ages of ten and eighteen I didn?t attempt a single line of poetry. My main interests were in the natural sciences, especially in biology and medicine. First it was anything about fi sh that I could lay my hands on. I bought books on ichthyology in Czech and German that ...

Part Two: The Expedition

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pp. 99-126

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5. Moscow State

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pp. 101-117

The main campus of Moscow State University sits atop an elevated area on the right bank of the Moskva River. Once lying outside Moscow?s city limits, this picturesque area used to be known as Vorobyovy (?Sparrow?) Hills until 1935, when it was renamed Lenin Hills. The Lenin Hills campus with its main tower, once the tallest building in Europe, owes its erection ...

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Interlude: Summertime

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pp. 118-125

...semester fi nals but two months later, at the beginning of August. After the fi rst year, all students at the School of Soil Science were required to do a summer semester at a research and study facility in Chashnikovo, about thirty miles north of Moscow. Although considered a ?small town? (selo) because it had a school (and had earlier had a church), it was really a ...

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6. Poetry, Love, Persecution

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pp. 126-154

...undertook to renovate our apartment, which hadn?t been upgraded since we moved there in 1971. Decent wallpaper and tile had been procured for double the offi cial prices, and an enterprising contractor who ran a virtu-ally private business on the side was hired to do the work. Upon returning home at the end of July 1985, I found our place completely redone from ...

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Interlude: Facts and Arguments

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pp. 155-161

My position at th e School of Soil Science remained shaky, espe-cially following my failed defection to art history. Throughout the autumn of 1985, as poetry-writing, Lyuba, and my parents? persecution had all taken center stage, I had been neglecting my studies. Something had to change in the new semester, or else I would face more problems. ...

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7. Across the Steppe and into the Black Sea

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pp. 163-214

One of th e very firs t thin gs I learned, back in high school, when I made inquiries about the School of Soil Science, was that it prided itself on its zonalka. Students from other schools within Moscow University, includ-ing the snobs from Law and Journalism, usually knew about the zonalka and envied the would-be soil scientists. Zonalka is a casual abbreviation of ...

Part Three: The Short Goodbye

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pp. 215-242

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8. Last Autumn

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pp. 217-237

Stil l in the car riding back from Chashnikovo to Moscow, one of the fi rst things I learned from my parents was that the Soviet chess magazine 64 had just printed an excerpt from Drugie berega (Other Shores), a Russian version of Vladimir Nabokov?s autobiography, best known in the West as Speak, Memory. The excerpt, in which Nabokov discusses chess problems, ...

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Interlude: Readers’ Reports

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pp. 238-247

Whil e pursuing publ icat ion of my poems in periodicals, I also attempted a more wholesale approach. I had assembled a typescript of a poetry collection. It was originally called End of August, but I later retitled it Herd above the Meadow, after the title poem about horses and the steppe. The logical fi rst choice was the publishing conglomerate Molodaya gvard-...

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9. Purim-shpil

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pp. 248-271

Dispassionat e stat istics now tell us that throughout the entire calendar year 1986, only about 900 Jews were allowed to emigrate from the entire Soviet Union. We didn?t know the exact number at the time, but we knew that Jewish emigration had stood at a near standstill. Unlike some of the dissident activists who wanted to ameliorate or to improve the Soviet soci-...

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Interlude: Family Tree

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pp. 272-283

How much l onger, my parents and I would ask ourselves. How much longer could our family remain uprooted on our native soil, before our roots would wither away and die? In the spring of 1987, as leaving the USSR consumed my daily existence, I developed something of an obses-sion with our family tree. I perused family albums (some of which ...

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10. Taking Leave

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pp. 284-311

It was already th e beginnin g of April, past the point of no return for the Russian winter. OVIR, the Offi ce of Visas and Permissions, was still silent. We had no choice but to remain a thorn in the side of the authorities. My father decided to hold a solo six-day demonstration in the same place where he had given an interview to CBS?s Wyatt Andrews in the summer ...

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Epilogue: In America?

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pp. 312-314

Prior to compl eting this book, I had written and published a literary memoir of the summer of 1987, which my parents and I spent as US-bound refugees in Austria and Italy. After Waiting for America: A Story of Emigra-tion was released in 2007, critics and readers queried if I was working on another memoir. I would reply that in fact I was working on Leaving Rus-...

Index of Names and Places

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pp. 315-324

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Image Plates

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pp. 351-376

...1. Peysakh (Pyotr) Shrayer (front row left), Maxim D. Shrayer?s paternal grandfa-ther, with his parents and four siblings. Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine, 1924. Pho-3. Anna (Nyusya) Studnits, Maxim?s maternal grandmother (back row third from the right), with her brother Grisha (Grigory; on her left) and relatives on their father?s side. Gorodok, Ukraine, 1931. Photographer ...

Back Flap, Back Cover

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pp. 377-378

E-ISBN-13: 9780815652434
E-ISBN-10: 0815652437
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815610243
Print-ISBN-10: 0815610246

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 43 black and white
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Library of Modern Jewish Literature

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Soviet Union -- Biography.
  • Immigrants -- United States -- Biography.
  • Political activists -- Soviet Union -- Biography.
  • Refuseniks -- Biography.
  • Soviet Union -- Biography.
  • Shrayer, Maxim, 1967- -- Childhood and youth.
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