I volunteered to review Forget Russia by L. Bordetsky-Williams because I saw the word “Russia” in the title and thought, “Oh, this is relevant to my interests.” The summary was also promising: an American girl with Russian roots exploring her heritage and identity is something I can generally get behind, as a Russian Jewish immigrant. I was expecting something like Ester and Ruzya by Masha Gessen. Something interesting.
What I got was a boring, poorly-researched, weirdly exotifying mess of a book that left me feeling like the core of my identity has been misunderstood.
December 1, 2020
I was born in Russia to a Jewish mother. It’s where I’m from. It’s a complicated and messy country with a lot of horrible things in its past and present, but also fun and interesting things and things people should know more about. Forget Russia dances on the edge of elaborating on those things, and then doesn’t deliver.
As a novel, Forget Russia is poorly constructed. Characters like Anna’s roommate disappear for hundreds of pages and then suddenly come back with no explanation. Anna experiences events that should have intense emotional repercussions, like being raped by a classmate, but the events are over in two sentences and then don’t come up again for two hundred pages. When she has consensual sex with her Russian Jewish paramour, Iosif, the entire event is over in half a sentence as they “condensed hours into minutes—our bodies wrapped easily round each other.”
None of the characters have distinctive personalities or narrative voices, they’re all defined by how they feel about Russia. Everyone has an opinion about Russia, even Americans, but that’s not enough to make a character.
The overall tone of this story is humorless, but at the same time too emotionally distanced to feel much like anything at all. When huge, life-altering events are quickly glossed over, they lose impact. After a few chapters I found myself longing for some kind of joke to break up the monotony and get me to feel something besides annoyance.
Anna arrives in Moscow, makes new friends, has a fling with a guy, and writes in her journal. None of this is told in a way that makes it more interesting to read than your friend who studied abroad’s Snapchat stories. The sections of the book focusing on Anna’s grandmother’s life from 1915 to 1931 are a bit more compelling, if only because interesting things actually happen.
The book opens with the protagonist Anna’s mother telling her that Anna “has a Russian soul,” but what that means is never discussed, nor properly contextualized. Instead of exploring a range of experiences of people in the Soviet Union, Bordetsky-Williams chooses to focus on the incredibly narrow subgroup that is religiously observant Moscow Jews, which shows a lack of understanding of how Jewish identity worked in the Soviet Union.
Anna came to Russia to learn more about her grandmother’s life, and she accomplishes this by complete coincidence: the Russian Jewish guy she strikes up a romance with just happens to be the nephew of Anna’s grandfather’s best friend in Leningrad. But does hearing about her grandmother Sarah’s experiences in 1931 make Anna understand anything else better? We are told it does, but not really shown it. We are told Anna has grown as a person, but I don’t see how.
Anna is asked at one point if the people she’s met in Moscow are Russians or Jews, and she says she doesn’t get the distinction. A whole 22 pages later, Anna has come to the conclusion that she “finally understood a Jew could never be a Russian.” There is no elaboration on this point.
This insults me personally. My mother’s side of the family is Russian Jewish, and we don’t practice most Jewish traditions because to do that was socially unacceptable in the Soviet Union. Most ethnically Jewish people from the Soviet Union don’t practice, or if they do they picked up the habit after emigrating because to practice Judaism in the Soviet Union was at best highly frowned upon and at worst could lead to unemployment or eviction. By having every Jewish friend Anna makes attend a full synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, Bordetsky-Williams is implying that to be Jewish is to be religiously observant in a way that directly erases and invalidates the lived experiences of most Soviet Jews.
I can accept the foreign exchange students from America coming to Russia in 1980 as a necessary invention to make a fictional story work, even if it’s never acknowledged anywhere as such. However, the number of inaccuracies in the depiction of Moscow in 1980 and the Russian language and culture, and even state institutions, used in the story is not acceptable.
Towards the end of the novel, Anna’s love interest “got called down to the KGB building and they told him if he doesn’t get a job within a couple of months, they’re going to ship him off to fight in Afghanistan.” My mom, who grew up in Moscow in the ’80s and ’90s, explained that “not only is employment not the KGB’s responsibility, since he went to university, he finished his service in the university’s military department, so he can’t be forced to serve again.” Having this kind of plot contrivance betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of how the Soviet Union functions.
There were a lot of things even I noticed were wrong, like misspelled words and names, and many more inaccuracies my mom pointed out as someone who was living in Moscow in 1980. I was surprised that the author credited someone for helping her with the Russian language in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, considering that there were still noticeable mistakes in the Russian used. The acknowledgements section also lists a number of references for the emigration of Jews from the USSR in the 1930s, but no sources on the 1980s period in which most of the book is set. I wonder why, if the author is more interested in researching the back-and-forth travels of Russian Jews under Stalin’s regime than Russian life in 1980, did she choose to make most of her story take place in 1980. Especially since a lot more people who personally lived in Moscow in 1980 are still alive and can tell Bordetsky-Williams about their experiences.
Bordetsky-Williams is essentially writing a fantasy version of 1980s Moscow that was never real, and yet presenting it as such. All of the Jewish characters that appear reflect what I suspect is a more typical American Jewish experience, and not the Russian and Soviet Jewish experience as I know it, which is inextricable from systematic persecution and religious suppression. Instead of the “intricate insight into the everyday rhythms” of “Brezhnev’s Soviet Union” that the cover blurb promised me, I got a colorless, surface-level insult to everything my family has experienced.
I am reminded of Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, which, while not strictly factual, was funny and unusual and told the story of an American Jew going back to the former Soviet Union to learn about his grandparent’s past in a much more entertaining way. Ester and Ruzya by Masha Gessen, again, is a personal account of a Russian Jewish family that feels both well-researched and well-observed, and is paced in a way that made me want to finish the whole book in one sitting.
Forget Russia, unlike either of the aforementioned books, is bland, boring and not funny, on top of being wrong about everything.