It’s hard to escape Russia these days. The FBI is investigating possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. James Comey has been sacked, investigation in full flow. The country has been in the news more than usual of late, and not just in places like Georgia and Crimea, far away from Western eyes. Rather, with the election of Donald Trump in November last year, Russia has pitched its tent firmly on Washington’s doorstep.
But this tangled web of associations is far from new, as Sana Krasikov’s new novel, The Patriots, makes clear. It is 1934, and Florence Fein boards a boat that will cross the Atlantic, taking her from Depression-scarred New York to Stalin’s Moscow. She travels in no small part out of a desire to harness her life to something larger and grander than her existence in the Depression-era Bronx, and in no small part out of love. It’s this will to grandeur that sustains her existence in the Soviet Union once her lover vanishes; it’s her loyalty not to Communism as an ideology, but the Soviet Union as a grand idea that keeps her clinging on as she bounces from shared apartment to smaller, dingier shared apartment, as Stalin burns his way through Soviet society in purge after purge. Her story does not end well.
Fast forward to the new millennium, and the world looks somewhat different. It’s 2008. The Berlin Wall has been torn down. The Soviet Union has crumbled. Putin runs Russia now. But Florence’s son, Julian, can’t escape Stalin’s orbit. He belongs to “that confused breed of expats whose families had escaped the Soviet Union only to have their children return, salmonlike, to dip their heads into the fecal pool of a newly democratic Russia.” He travels back and forth between the US and Russia to strike shady oil deals with oligarch-owned conglomerates with a morass of ties to the FSB and the new post-Soviet plutocracy. When his mother’s KGB file is opened, Julian finds himself unpicking the trail of events, personal and political, that leads Florence first to the Lubyanka, then to the Gulags, and that leads Julian himself to a childhood spent in a series of Soviet orphanages.
“that confused breed of expats whose families had escaped the Soviet Union only to have their children return, salmonlike, to dip their heads into the fecal pool of a newly democratic Russia.”
History repeats itself, however — Julian is not just in Russia to cut his own deals, but to convince his own son, Lenny to extricate himself from the country, and return to the States. Lenny is as entranced by Putin’s Russia as his grandmother was Stalin’s — but he is drawn not by the desire to shape a new society, so much as shape his bank balance. He is of the opinion that anyone who has not made a million by the age of thirty-five is a failure, and he sees the perfect opportunity to make a success of himself in Russia’s smoke-filled back rooms. But just as his grandmother has a run-in with the KGB which ends in disaster, Lenny finds himself imprisoned on charges of fraud and racketeering.
The Patriots is a powerful evocation of a secret history, one that is measured both in terms of the personal and the political. Florence comes to Russia for personal reasons, before the Great Patriotic War, and before the Cold War both force an entirely different set of exigencies on the Soviet Union’s small expat community. Krasikov points to an instructive episode in 1936, when Stalin began to snap up US citizens, claiming them for his own country. People like Florence “[fell] from the grace of the American government” not necessarily out of malice, but out of sheer incompetence — in bizarre act, President Roosevelt appoints Joseph Davies to the position of Russian ambassador. His only qualification is cutting a large cheque to FDR’s election campaign.
Davies quickly becomes bored, preferring to snap up prerevolutionary treasures auctioned off by a starving populace at bargain prices than do the hard work of ambassadorship, disdaining high-level talks for costume parties. Krasikov concludes that Roosevelt appointed Davies not out of nepotism alone, but because the two men shared one common trait — a curious admiration for Stalin, and his “iron will, [his] unapologetic social engineering, the politico-economic experiments that were such a potent model for [Roosevelt’s] own expansion of government.” She continues, “In short, the trapped Americans […] were not abandoned. They were not even forgotten. They were sacrificed on the common altar of two superpowers.”
A rallying call of the student movements of the 1960s, as well as of second-wave feminism was “The personal is political.” The same can be said of the Russias which are depicted in The Patriots — a fundamental principle which does not change regardless of who is in power. The opposite is also true — the political is intensely personal. Every gesture that one makes is in danger of being read as a political statement, and at the same time, one’s personal life is always underscored by the whims of those with power, be they KGB or FSB, Stalin or Putin. And, as The Patriots shows, these networks of personality and power do not stop at Russia’s borders, and they are not just the tools of the powerful. They stretch across the Atlantic, and across the world, often through liminal figures such as Florence Fein and her family. Today, America is at risk of falling under the sway of such networks, and under the grasp of those who have inhabited them for their entire lives, and know only too well how to manipulate them. Sana Krasikov’s novel is a powerful evocation not just of the personal struggles of a set of curious people on the borderlands of America and Russia, but a timely warning shot calling for caution in the face of a tragic history which appears to be repeating itself, both on an intimate and a grand scale.