Doctor Levitin—the first novel to depict the experience of the Jewish exodus from the former USSR—has being published for the first time in English. It is edited by Boston College Professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies Maxim D. Shrayer, who also contributed a commentary and oversaw the translation, with University of New Hampshire professors Arna B. Bronstein and Aleksandra Fleszar co-translating with Shrayer.

A major late 20th-century Russian and Jewish work, Doctor Levitin was first published in Israel in 1986. The book has personal resonance for Shrayer: It was written by his father, David Shrayer-Petrov, a Russian-American writer and medical scientist.

The first in Shrayer-Petrov’s trilogy of novels about the struggle of Soviet Jews and the destinies of refuseniks, it draws on the personal plight of his Jewish-Russian family. Shrayer was born in Moscow in 1967 and spent nearly nine years as a refusenik with his parents; they left the USSR and immigrated to the United States in 1987.

Maxim D. Shrayer

Maxim D. Shrayer (Lee Pellegrini)

“My father’s novel is a living tribute to the heroism and self-sacrifice of Jewish refuseniks, whose children and grandchildren have become proud new Americans and new Israelis,” said Shrayer. “Over the past ten years, I have been privileged to work jointly with two marvelous and dedicated translators, on ‘Englishing’ this saga about the Jewish exodus from the USSR.”

A significant contribution to the works of translated literature available in English, Doctor Levitin is a panoramic portrayal of the Soviet Union during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan and Soviet Jews fought for their right to emigrate.

Conceived by Shrayer-Petrov soon after he had been become a refusenik in 1979, the book “focuses on one of the most turbulent and tragic periods in the post-World World II Jewish and Russian history,” Shayer explained. “Almost 300,000 Jews left the former Soviet Union from 1970-1988. Russia didn’t let her Jews go without having first subjecting them to targeted repressions and disenfranchisement. Tens of thousands of Jewish refuseniks were made pariahs and herded into a political ghetto.

“As a child and raw youth living with my parents through almost nine years of refuseniks’ limbo, I witnessed the inception and composition of my father’s refusenik saga,” Shayer continued. “Its publication in English translation bears special significance not only because it fills a gap in our understanding of modern Jewish history and culture. It also transforms the refuseniks’ collective experience into an American story.”

The novel’s protagonist, Doctor Herbert Levitin, is a professor of medicine in Moscow whose non-Jewish wife comes from the Russian peasantry. Shrayer-Petrov documents the unbreachable contradictions of the Levitins’ mixed marriage, which becomes an allegory of Jewish-Russian history. The antisemitism of the Soviet regime forces them to seek emigration. Denied permission, the family is forced into the existence of refuseniks and outcasts, which leads to their destruction and Doctor Levitin’s final act of defiance and revenge on the Soviet system.

“My father completed Doctor Levitin in 1980, a banished author-doctor stuck in refusenik limbo and living out the destinies of his own fictional characters,” Shrayer said. Once he completed the second novel in his trilogy, the manuscripts were secretly photographed, and the negatives smuggled out of the USSR for publication in Israel. “My father believed strongly that his novels about refuseniks and the exodus of Soviet Jews should be published in Russia. In 1991, as the USSR was heading towards dissolution, he submitted his refusenik saga for publication in Moscow. It was published there in 1992 with a print run of 50,000 copies, which was unimaginably large by the standard of today’s Russian book market, and quickly sold out.” Two revised editions were subsequently published.

—Rosanne Pellegrini | University Communications | November 2018