The Patriots by Sana Krasikov

Unusually, 2017 has seen a number of new works come out that I’ve been interested in reading; although, somewhat predictably, they’ve had a common theme that could have something to do with the fact that this is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution…

I’ve already spent happy hours with Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” and Julie Lekstrom Himes’ “Mikhail and Margarita”; however, when I read Elle’s interesting and perceptive review of “The Patriots” I knew that it was another new novel I wanted to track down. The publishers, Granta, kindly provided a review copy, and I’ve spent several days completely immersed in the book – which is testament to how good it is. Author Sana Krasikov is a new name to me, and this is her first novel, with a previous short story collection “One More Year” having won awards and plaudits. Born in the Ukraine but now living in New York, she obviously has the background knowledge which informs the story…

“The Patriots” tells the story of Florence Fein, a young Jewish woman living in New York in the 1930s. Florence is a naive idealist; from a Slavic background, she is drawn to Russia and the Soviet dream which is being portrayed to her, and against a background of the American depression and daily anti-Semitism it certainly looks appealing. As a Russian speaker she is able to work for Amtorg, the Soviet Trade Mission, which brings her into contact with Russians who are in America to bring about trade deals; and one of these encounters, with the enigmatic Sergey, will be pivotal.

When he returns to Russia, Florence sets out to follow him, convinced that America has nothing to offer her. However, the reality she meets when she arrives in Moscow, then Magnitogorsk, is shocking, with people existing in poverty (except for the higher ranks in the party) and it is surprising that Florence wants to stay. However, she does, and eventually an encounter with an old acquaintance sends her back to Moscow. Florence is savvy enough to find a job and manages to make her way in a city which is in the process of regenerating; and she still harbours a longing to track down Sergey. However, her life will not go as she planned; she will end up with a very different partner to the one she intended, she will find herself embroiled in politics and betrayal, and she will find that her judgement of the best way to behave is not as sound as she thought. Redemption of sorts will come eventually, but not until a much later date.

Set alongside Florence’s story is that of her son Julian, and her grandson Lenny. In these post-Soviet days, Julian is able to shuttle between America and Russia doing business, and his son has in fact settled in Moscow. Julian remembers what it was like to live under Soviet rule, and how his father disappeared and his mother was sent to a camp. At some point the family escaped back to America, but the ties with Russia are strong; and there are many unanswered questions that Julian has about his mother’s past which come to a head when a friend implies that she was an informer. A business trip to Moscow gives him the chance to investigate the archives, assembling the jigsaw of his past, as well as to try to extricate his son from a difficult situation…

Neither Soviet nor post-Soviet Russia, with all their bureaucracy, are easy places to be. Although Julian’s setting is less obviously bleak, his meetings with various businessmen are as troubling as the chilling scenes of manipulation from the NKVD interrogator endured by Florence. Torture exists and deprivation, although this was never too graphic, and the book is very audacious in its scope, exploring in depth the extremes to which a person will go, not only to survive but also to save a family member.

“The Patriots” is a complex, well structured tale which weaves the various plotlines together brilliantly. As Florence’s story unravels, and we learn more of what happened to her and also to Julian and his father, we watch alongside as Julian starts to piece together more of his history. Both mother and son have to deal with those who are in power in Russia of their time, whether Soviet authorities or Russian oligarchs, and the naivety of both of them is clear. They will find a way out of their situation, but for neither is the process pleasant. The portrayal of Julian is as nuanced as that of his mother, and we see him at various stages of his life; from the little boy adored by his parents, through the confusing and brutal years of loss and orphanages, to rediscovering his missing parent and attempting to remake his life. In many ways he is as out of his depth with the subtleties of modern Russian business as his mother was the complexities of life amongst the Soviets.

I found myself completely engrossed in the story of Florence and her family, so absorbed that I was reluctant to put it down. The characters are strong and well drawn; the background and setting completely convincing; and the sense of helplessness Florence feels living in a totalitarian regime is frightening. The culture of suspicion and betrayal is insidious, leading the naive woman to make foolish decisions which leave her stranded in a hostile foreign country with no way of escape. The ideas and beliefs of the time are never glossed over, but discussion of them is an essential part of the narrative. Running through the story is the thread of the family’s Jewish heritage; something that is always with them, informing every action taken by and against them, and most often used as a stick to beat them with – either literally or metaphorically. The family belongs nowhere, neither in America or Russia, and I wondered if Krasikov was using this lack of a home as a metaphor for the situation of Jewish people and the shocking anti-Semitism they still face nowadays.

Author Sana Krasikov

“The Patriots” was a wonderful, epic read which deserves all the plaudits its received. Florence is a flawed and misguided heroine, but one who you can understand; and the wide range of the book, taking in eight decades, gives it a scope perhaps missing from “Mikhail and Margarita” (which also suffered a little, in my view, from using real figures as major characters). And in many ways it’s an excellent counterpart to the Towles’ book which took a look at Soviet life from a different angle; although there was off-camera evidence of what was happening to Russians at the time in that book, here there is no doubt at all. The hardships and the brutality and the sheer grinding hell of everyday life is laid bare in Krasikov’s narrative, and it’s a chilling scenario which I never want to see returning to the world.

The books I’ve read this year so far about Soviet Russia have all acted as timely reminders of what life can be like under totalitarian rule; and as I’ve said before, with the current state of the world, this is not something we should allow to return. Intolerance and hatred are the worst strands in human behaviour and this excellent book, as well as telling a wonderfully gripping story, brings home how harsh humanity can be. Highly recommended!

Advertisements