It’s funny that we talk about settling down in a place as putting down roots. Roots go deep and, once established, are hard to tear up. It can be done, but pulling up roots can kill whatever is being transplanted. (I took up gardening this summer. Can you tell?) This metaphor is apt in the case of The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov. In the mid-1930s, Florence Fein pulls up her roots because she can’t stand the hypocrisy the United States and moves to the Soviet Union, to be a part of building the new socialist future—and also to track down her lover. Decades later, her son returns to Moscow to try and uproot his son, who has moved back to the “motherland” to make his fortune. Russia just won’t let the Fein-Brink family go.
When I first started reading Florence’s journey to Moscow, I was strongly reminded of a book I read a long time ago. The Forsaken, by Tim Tzouliadis, remains one of my favorite works of nonfiction that I’ve ever read. It tells the story of the thousands of dissatisfied Americans who moved to the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Most of them were dead within a decade, between purges, deprivation, and war. Florence is just such a dissatisfied American. Her hope doesn’t waver when she arrives in the heart of the new Soviet empire, looking for a man who loved her when he visited America on a trade mission. Her hope is a little bit shaken when she is assigned communal housing, wrangles a measly job, and tangles with Soviet bureaucracy. Thankfully(?), her stubbornness and determination not to give anyone an opportunity to say, “I told you so,” keep her in the country until her American passport is taken away and she’s stuck. The Patriots turned out to be a great fictional counterpart to the true story told in The Forsaken.
Florence’s decision results not just in her own downfall (and a trip to the gulag), but also traps her son in an orphanage for almost a decade and a thwarted future due to latent Russian anti-Semitism. Where Yulik (Julian) Brink is determined to get all generations of his family out of the country, his mother and his son, Lenny, are almost equally determined to stay in Moscow. They can see opportunities and obligations that Yulik just can’t. All Yulik can see is the corruption, prejudice, alcoholism, and lack of freedom. America is his land of opportunity.
The Patriots moves back and forth and time from the 1930s to the early 2000s, with brief stops in the 1940s and 1970s. Florence (whose story is sometimes told with a biographical voice from Yulik’s perspective), Yulik, and Lenny all have plenty of time to meditate on their choices and the consequences of those choices. They also have some hard lessons in learning to navigate life in the Soviet Union and the oligarchy that followed. Yulik, the most cynical of the lot, seems to be the only one who knows how to fight fire with fire. Florence and Lenny, weirdly, hold on to an American naïveté. They assume people are operating in good faith and that justice will prevail. Yulik, to his great frustration, cannot convince his mother or his son that the Soviet Union/Russia (from where he’s sitting) will just chew them up and spit them out.
I found The Patriots to be a fascinating portrait of a family caught up in history, looking for a home in all the wrong places, always absolutely convinced that they are doing the right thing. There were times that I thought it was going on a bit too long—mostly because I thought Lenny was a pain in the arse and didn’t particularly enjoy his chapters. I was completely hooked by Florence’s sections and to the parts of Yulik’s story when he was trying to get his family out during the mid-1970s. Florence is an astonishing, complex character. She is well worth the effort of reading about her grandson because she lives through such extraordinary times; she should have died more than once. The Patriots is a challenging but rewarding read, especially for readers who, like me, are a sucker for books set during the early decades of the Soviet Union.