Krasikov, Sana. The Patriots. Penguin Random House, New York, 2017. F;10/18.
I’ve recently run into a couple of novels where someone (usually like the author) leaves Russia for the United States. Here the opposite happens with huge consequences. Krasikov’s knowing suspicion of prevailing ideology may have started as she grew up in the Soviet Union but it hasn’t gone away since she moved to the United States.
Her Florence Fein leaves the “rigged capitalist setup” of 1930s USA to follow a Russian lover and finds in the USSR a much worse-bastardized ideology. There she marries, has a child Julian, is caught in Stalin’s bizarre negative caricature of Marxism and nearly dies in the gulag: “the most mercenary obligation to keep the slave fed and sheltered well enough so he wouldn’t keel over from disease or exhaustion … was dispensed with by the gulag administration.” After her escape she stubbornly stays in Russia and quietly makes a good income as a tutor in English for rich Russian kids.
The boy Julian spends his childhood in an orphanage where considering his mother’s situation things could’ve been a lot worse. They are reunited in the book’s first scene, the start of an pattern of chapters that jump back and forth from the 1930s and 50s, to around 2008. In the later years Julian, a capable marine engineer, travels to Russia from the US and while wheeling and dealing with unscrupulous Russians over a fleet of icebreakers, tracks down newly available information about the interrogation and banishment of his mum. Did she under relentless interrogation denounce her friend to protect herself and her family?
Julian’s son Lenny is trying to make a go of a finance career in Russia and there is a subplot where the father and son reconcile uneasily with one another. Florence’s brother Sidney corresponded with her and in a nursing-home scene back in the US fills Julian in on some justification for Florence’s actions as she was being grilled by Stalin’s secret police.
There’s deep irony everywhere, the vicious and murderous political kind: “The thousand-year-old principle (that) Russian enlightenment … develop(s) (through) non-freedom … achieved its most absolute triumph under Stalin.” The plain human kind: “the unspoken rule of communal living – which was that men could keep a kind of neutrality in conflicts, but women could not.” And the kind that makes us laugh: “whenever I tell anyone that I spent ages six to thirteen inside of public orphanages, they tend to arrange their faces in a reaction I call the Purple Heart Ceremony. As if they’ve discovered that my legs are actually prosthetics.”
But not everything is ironic: “the thing that America doesn’t tell you about a life of freedom… is that sooner or later you’re bound to feel like your problems are all your own fault.” And “The point, my friend … is we’re all leashed pretty tightly to the era we’re living through. To the tyranny of our time.”
There’s big scope of ambition to this story as it takes on Stalin’s Russian genocide, the Cold War, the nature of democratic freedom, political corruption, human betrayal and self-interest under terrible conditions, parenting, our inability to see beyond our own circumstances, and of course love. And Krasikov gets a pretty good grip on most of that although the structure and characters she uses don’t always radiate dramatic grace and beauty. In one way she may be telling us it’s just not a graceful and beautiful life nor that kind of world. But it’s a bit like the use of audience boredom to make a point in Waiting for Godot: the trick doesn’t quite come off. Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn represent human horror and cruelty as terribly as does this young writer but somehow they maintain … what?
I’ve called it coherence, grace, wonder, classic style, charm. But there’s more to it. It’s not so much that we get to watch and applaud the artist creating something wonderful, but that the artistic thing itself grabs us where we live and says Come on. See? It’s possible to do just a little bit better. To really change.
I’d say Sana Krasikov could do that, and maybe she will. 9.2/8.5.