On November 8, Masha Gessen’s book tour became a what-should-we-do-now tour.
Her new book, “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region,” was overshadowed by her five-year-old biography, “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.” Her essays in the New York Review of Books drew on her experience in Russia to provide guidance for America’s new era.
When her “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” went viral a few days before she spoke near my house, I made plans to attend. Informed by her time in Putin’s Moscow, where she edited one of the Russian president’s favorite natural science magazines, Gessen’s rules provide the reader with a six-point outline for maintaining sanity in a time of transition toward irrational totalitarianism. She notes in the introduction to her rules that “Donald Trump is anything but a regular politician” and that he was “the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat — and won.”
Gessen is a two-time émigré from Russia to the United States. As a teenager in 1981, she came to America with her family. A decade later, she returned to Moscow to work as a journalist, but in 2013 she returned to the United States in response to Russia’s increasing persecution of gays and lesbians.
I went to the talk to hear Gessen’s well-informed rallying cry in person, but she was still there to sell books, so she talked about “Where the Jews Aren’t,” and signed copies of it.
While the title gives away much of the story, Gessen’s distinctively Russian-accented writing integrates her family story with that of the often ridiculous path that led to the establishment and ultimate disintegration of a Jewish Autonomous Region in the farthest reaches of the Soviet Union. Yet for me, the most surprising aspect of this storyline was how this region was as much a creation of the minds of Jewish cultural survivalists as it was of Soviet policy.
Our community often allows itself to forget that we had more than one answer to the Jewish question before the establishment of the State of Israel. Today we are seeing slight glimmers of this diversity of thought, as upstart groups refuse to accept the status quo within Jewish communal institutions, often making that clear by way of their Twitter feeds and other safe spaces.
But in interbellum Europe, the Jewish question was more than academic. Threats against the Jewish community were real and constant. Jewish intellectuals had to respect this environment as they engaged in debates around how best to answer to the Jewish question. Gessen, along with other historians, noted that the scope of the horror perpetrated against European Jewry was made possible by a lack of imagination. “How could this be possible?” was likely a common refrain in communal gatherings in the early years of Hitler’s reign. Even as bodies started to accumulate across Europe, it required near-clairvoyance to understand the disastrous potential of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. It could be that some of the cultural survivalists responsible for the foundations of Birobidzhan’s social fabric had better imaginations.
David Bergelson clearly was one of these thinkers. Bergelson, arguably the story’s main character, saw Birobidzhan less as an idealized socialist enclave for Jews — as his public writings on the region would suggest — than as a way to survive. His dedication to living was paramount; living was the only choice for Bergelson, no matter the means that enabled his survival. Gessen’s presentation of this man — whose life was hypocritical at best and morally and intellectually reprehensible at worst — is understanding and kind. It even could be described as loving. Bergelson is portrayed as a consummate survivalist and intellectual, a description that is the ultimate compliment in this context.
Simon Dubnow, an equally visionary thinker and literary counterbalance to Bergelson’s Soviet propagandist role, also is presented to the reader in a softer manner than an objective historical review of his life might have warranted. But he too is lauded for his nearly perfect understanding of the innate Jewish virtue of knowing when to leave.
This worldview makes perfect sense for a person who was forced to emigrate from the same place twice. Gessen’s story, which is starkly and beautifully outlined in the prologue, provides a backdrop to the realities of the early death throes of the Soviet Jewish “problem,” as well as the present-day Russian LGBT “problem.” In the early 1980s, her family left communist Russia, leaving the only home young Masha and her family had ever known, intending to build a new life in the United States. She was not convinced this was the right choice.
She notes that she and her friends, their “parents, the parents of the kids from the other block, all of [their] extended families going back centuries — our people — had been engaged in an ongoing argument. When should the Jews stay put and when should the Jews run?” As a people, we are forced to ask this question, it seems, in every generation. And unfortunately, the Soviet Jews who believed in the promise of Birobidzhan, living in the Autonomous Region or in other cities around the Communist nation, were forced to contemplate this question when there were few alternative answers.
As the title explains, there are no longer Jews in what was designated as a Jewish region. In the introduction to Bergelson’s story of survival, we learn he was killed by an executioner’s bullet. Every theme, person, and place explored in this book is rife with contradiction. Yet, somehow, these dialectics are understandable within the Jewish reality Gessen describes.
Knowing when to run and not being ashamed to do what is necessary to survive are critical Jewish values, according to Gessen. Those values are to be celebrated and honored. The book is dedicated thoughtfully to Gessen’s parents and their courage in leaving. While written at a time when this was in admiration of their past, it rings as an all-too-real warning for our future.