Young Heroes of the Soviet Union makes clear the links between family, nation and belonging that many take for granted.
Nationality, belonging and family histories readily complicate identity, and the work of determining how where you come from affects who you are is particularly poignant for Cold War immigrants. Alex Halberstadt emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union with his mother and maternal grandparents in 1980. His parents were divorced, and his father stayed behind. His paternal grandfather, Vassily, was one of Stalin’s bodyguards, and Halberstadt’s father ceased communication with Vassily decades ago. Halberstadt travels to Ukraine to visit with his grandfather to see what he can learn about his past as well as his family’s legacy. Complications about family resonate throughout Halberstadt’s stories: he travels by train from Moscow to Vinnitsa in the company of Petya, his stepfather’s son from his first marriage, and Anya, Petya’s ex-wife.
Halberstadt is simultaneously the knowing native and the astonished outsider. He heads out into the streets of Vinnitsa to look for his grandfather, with the street name Voroshilov in hand. The street is not familiar to anyone until he located a woman who explained the street was renamed a few years back. “The 50th Anniversary of the Victory over Fascism Street was a grand name for a narrow two-lane road with scrawny birches planted every twenty feet in the sidewalk,” Halberstadt reflects. There on the awkwardly named street, he finds the apartment Vassily shares with his wife, Sonya. Their reunion is warm but troubled by the many metaphorical and physical distances between them. Vassily mistakenly believes that Halberstadt’s father had emigrated to the United States with them. When Halberstadt explains that his father still resides in Moscow, he falsely sends regards. He has a moment of shame for the lie, only to see Vassily overjoyed by the idea of his son acknowledging him.
On the second day of his visit, Sonya finally insists that Vassily tell his grandson the truth about his life during Stalin’s rule. Parting company with his grandfather at the end of the day, Halberstadt stops in the park to sit and contemplate Vassily’s narrative. What he recalls, though, is another history, that of the mass execution of Jews by Ukraines under Nazi direction in that very park, preserved in the iconic photograph from that day, titled “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.”
Halberstadt retells Vassily’s stories, along with his realization, finally, that Vassily’s history is complicated, incomplete and full of ambiguity, as one would expect from a man telling his grandson about his experience as an insider in a violent and horrific national culture. He is struck by the sudden realization that Vassily’s history does not just belong to him but directly affects all of the family: Halberstadt’s father, his mother and Halberstadt himself. Learning the details of your grandfather watching, if not participating in, the horrors of interrogations, rape and murder inevitably leads to self-appraisal: am I capable of that as well? Even if only to protect myself? Finally, when Halberstadt leaves to return to Moscow, Vassily whispers to him, “I was frightened every single day.”
After meeting his grandfather, Halberstadt is consumed by the desire to piece together his past, culminating in a trip with his mother to her birthplace, Vilnius, Lithuania. Recalling his childhood visits to his grandparents’ home in Vilnius, Halberstadt notes that his grandmother, Raisa, thought that reliving the past was an indulgence. As Halberstadt grew up with Raisa and Semyon, his grandparents who emigrated to New York with him and his mother, he came to understand that Semyon preferred not to relive the past because of terrible experiences of the war. In Young Heroes, Halberstadt graphically retells the history of the Jews of Lithuania, up to and including Semyon’s urgent decision to leave when German tanks crossed the border. His mother, brother and grandmother had little concern and were not persuaded to leave. Instead, with thousands of other Jews, they were killed in a merciless mass execution. Halberstadt skillfully integrates these histories into his family stories, winding them together so that the difficult histories are his family history as well. In Lithuania, Halberstadt and his mother find Jewish history largely erased, but threads of anti-Semitism still present.
The book’s title is a riff on a book of the same name, the first that Halberstadt recalls from his first-grade classroom in Moscow. He notes that the first chapter of the textbook was the story of Pavlik Morozov, who “turned his father over to the Reds for hiding several sacks of grain, a crime for which his father was shot. Later, Pavlik’s own family murdered him.” A grim lesson for small children, told in terrifyingly violent detail.
Halberstadt’s skill at rich description is double-edged: on one side, he clearly portrays the everyday life of the Soviet Union, of his childhood experiences there and in the United States. The visceral details that bring these places to life also make his stories of war and violence painfully vivid.
The final third of the book is devoted to Halberstadt’s Americanization. He reports his embarrassments and the cruelty of his classmates, as well as his longing ache for his father and paternal grandmother, without self-pity. In his final assessment, Halberstadt details perceptions that Russians have about their own country that, ideologically, bring some light to the complicated communication within his family. From his two grandfathers, one Stalin’s bodyguard, the other, a Jewish intellectual, he identifies the threads of both idealism and defeat that have shaped not only his worldview, but the worldview of many who think of themselves, at least in part, as Russian.
Young Heroes of the Soviet Union makes clear the links between family, nation and belonging that many take for granted. In choosing to leave the Soviet Union, Halberstadt, his mother and his grandparents had to officially forsake their national identity, yet that identity is crucially a part of who they are as people. After emigrating, Halberstadt severed communication with father, but came to understand that divorce and physical separation cannot undo the bonds that tie us to other people. The lessons shared here are far from unique to Halberstadt’s individual circumstances, allowing his experiences to resonate broadly across cultures, nations and identities.