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Maxim Shrayer: New Memoir, First to Recount Coming of Age During Last Soviet Decades

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Maxim D. Shrayer (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)


CHESTNUT HILL, MA (November 12, 2013) — Critically acclaimed author Maxim D. Shrayer, Boston College Professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies, has published a powerful new memoir: Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story.  

In the first English-language, autobiographical and nonfictional account of growing up Jewish in the former USSR—of refuseniks and the Jewish exodus from Russia—Shrayer poignantly conveys the triumphs and humiliations of a Soviet childhood and expresses the dreams and fears of his family, which never lost hope for acceptance and a better life.

A book launch with Shrayer, for Leaving Russia, will be held on Thursday, December 12 at the Brookline Booksmith, one of the nation’s premier bookstores, in Brookline, Mass., where Shrayer is a resident. (Details below.)

In 1987, the Shrayer family left the Soviet Union, after waiting nearly nine years. They were among the veteran Jewish refuseniks who, during the dawn of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, were granted exit visas to emigrate from the country. Shrayer’s parents, writer David Shrayer-Petrov and translator Emilia Shrayer, had been refusenik activists.

 “It was important to tell this story because the Jewish experience in Russia—and especially during the Soviet period—is not well understood in America,” Shrayer explains, “this despite the fact that it’s now difficult to imagine the fabric of our communities without ex-Soviet Jews.

“The Jewish exodus from the Soviet Union was the last great wave of immigrants to North America and to Israel, and this story is central to the narrative of both American history and Jewish history,” he adds.

According to its publisher, Leaving Russia is narrated in the tradition of Tolstoy’s confessional trilogy and Nabokov’s autobiography: it is a searing account of the KGB’s persecution of refuseniks, a young poet’s rebellion against totalitarian culture, and Soviet fantasies of the West during the Cold War.

This important new work is hailed by CBS News National Correspondent Wyatt Andrews, who reported from Moscow during the Shrayer family’s last two years as refuseniks and witnessed their persecution:

Leaving Russia adds color to the black and white world forced on Jews in the old Soviet Union. In this book, Shrayer describes an emotional journey—not just from Russia to America, but from spiritual darkness into light. The book also explains why Jews felt forced to leave a country they loved, when it grew clear that country would never, could never, love them in return.”

Against a backdrop of politics, travel and ethnic conflict, Shrayer’s remembrances, his moving story and evocative writing offer humor and tenderness, longing and violence. Leaving Russia is a love story in which a young Jew’s love is unrequited and his heart is forever broken by his homeland.

A prolific and award-winning scholar, author and translator, Shrayer grew up in Moscow and left the Soviet Union at the age of twenty. In his new book, he hopes to convey “the sense of growing up with a constant sense of both belonging and non-belonging—which is the way most Jews felt in the Soviet Union. I wanted to capture how a young Jewish child learns the grammar of living a double life, and how this double life affects one, both negatively and positively. I wanted to explain how it is possible to feel so strongly attached to a place—as many Jews felt about Russia—and yet to be resolute in one’s desire to leave it, as Jewish refuseniks felt when  they fought for their right to freedom.”

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Though a “prequel” in terms of its timeline, Leaving Russia follows Shrayer’s 2007 acclaimed literary memoir Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration. That book tells the story of his life in transit as a Jewish refugee; it begins the day his family left Moscow in June 1987 and spans their three months in Europe, waiting for American visas.

This new book, he says, is “both a seething memoir of Jewish life and death on the brink of the Soviet Empire’s collapse and an analytical autobiography of an ex-Soviet Jew; told in a systematic, linear fashion, it includes many photographs from the family archive. Leaving Russia ended up being a story of trauma and persecution, though it depicts many happy moments of love, friendship, and literary growth.”

Jonathan D. Sarna, preeminent historian of Jews and Judaism in America and author of When General Grant Expelled the Jews, also had praise for Leaving Russia:

“An exquisite memoir. . . . An unforgettable first-person account of Jewish life and Jewish suffering during the final years of Russian Communism.”

Shrayer writes in his book’s epilogue:  “It's impossible to tell how things would have turned out had I stayed in Russia. And yet, for better or for worse, Russia had made me who I was at the time of the leaving, in 1987. And America enabled me, a twenty-year-old Jewish-Russian immigrant, to start unlocking the hyphens of my self. She let me in and took me as her own—Soviet lock, Russian stock, and Jewish barrel.”

Book Launch

Shrayer will read from Leaving Russia and talk with audience members at the book’s launch on December 12, 2013 at 7 p.m. The public event will be held at the Brookline Booksmith, located at 279 Harvard Street in Coolidge Corner, Brookline, Mass. For information visit  http://www.brooklinebooksmith.com/  or call  (617) 566-6660.

About the Author

Born in 1967 Moscow to a Jewish-Russian literary and academic family, Shrayer holds at Ph.D. from Yale University. He has published more than ten books in both English and Russian. In 2007, his monumental two-volume Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry won the National Jewish Book Award.

Other publications include the path-breaking critical studies The World of Nabokov’s Stories and Russian Poet/Soviet Jew. He also has edited and co-translated from Russian three books of fiction by his father, David Shrayer-Petrov, as well as published a collection of short stories, Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, and the Holocaust study I SAW IT. His first acclaimed literary memoir, Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration, preceded Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story.

Shrayer completed a significant portion of the new book with the research support of Boston College, during a leave from teaching. 

“I believe my interests, both academic and literary, in people with multiple identities and hyphenated selves, stem from my Soviet years, as does a certain imperative I feel to investigate and make known other stories of persecution and intolerance, be it religious, ethnic  or political,” he said.

In addition to a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, Shrayer has previously received a number of fellowships and awards, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bogliasco Foundation. A professor of Russian, English and Jewish Studies at Boston College, Shrayer lives in Brookline, Mass., with his wife, Dr. Karen E. Lasser, and two daughters. More information on his web site: www.shrayer.com.

Author Contact: To arrange an interview with Professor Maxim D. Shrayer, please contact him directly at 617-860-6051 or maximdshrayer@gmail.com. Follow the book on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/LeavingRussiaAJewishStory   

Publisher Contact: To request a review copy of Leaving Russia, contact Mona Hamlin at Syracuse University Press: 315-443-5547 or mhamlin@syr.edu