Refusniks Heading West


A Story of Emigration
By Maxim D. Shrayer
224 pages. Syracuse University Press. $22.95.

In 1987, the Shrayer family left Soviet Russia for good. They were part of the Refuseniks who, during Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, were finally granted the exit visas they had suffered for years to obtain.

Waiting for America begins on the day when Maxim Shrayer, just 20, boards a plane in Moscow that is full of Refuseniks all heading west to Vienna, the first leg of his journey to freedom.  He and his family had been waiting for this for almost nine years, facing discrimination as citizens who were considered traitors—and as Jews, because they made up the bulk of the Refuseniks. Many on the plane were headed for Israel, but the Shrayer family, despite pressure to make Aliyah, are thinking of America, although they don’t yet know where.

The book covers two months of European limbo, as the family—Maxim, his parents, grandmother, aunt, and cousin— and their compatriots wait to move into their future. After a few days in Vienna, and then in Rome, they spend most of two months in Ladispoli, an Italian beach resort where the agencies helping these émigrés have relocated them until arrangements for a permanent home could be finalized.

Shrayer writes this book almost 15 years later, as a professor of Russian and English literature at Boston College. But the Maxim of this story has no inkling of this possibility. In these pages he is a young man who thinks as much about pretty girls as about freedom, sightseeing, and his future. His world of transit is seen through his sensibilities filtered “by my body exploding with hormones,” close family ties, and a love of Russian authors like Babel and Nabokov, especially Nabokov who was also a young man in Italy: “Reading Nabokov’s Russian stories in Italy, less than a month after leaving the Soviet Union, was not unlike losing one’s virginity. It was both riveting and emptying.”

What Shrayer takes from both authors is a keen eye for observation, particularly of the people around him. He introduces us to an array of colorful characters from the bureaucrats who arrange for food, financial aid, and papers; to his fellow travelers—be they from Moscow or Baku in the Caucasus Mountains; to the young Italian crowd he meets; the many girls he pursues; and, most fully, to his own family.

We come to understand the tensions that arise from being uprooted. His mother, once so fearless “A tigress she had been in Moscow facing KGB thugs at demonstrations and protests,” is now full of insecurity. “Now… my mother looked despondent, powerless to confront her lot as a refugee.” She, at least, spoke enough English to manage the Italians. His father, a physician and also an established writer in Russia, did not. After he could not communicate with his literary contact on an Italian newspaper, he worried. How could thrive where he could not speak, let alone to write stories, poems, and books he needed to write?

Maxim Shrayer captures these moments with compassion. But what he relishes most is telling the humorous stories of those days. There is his aunt and her “Manchurian trunk,” so heavy that he and his father cursed every time they had to move it. What saved them was a plum pit that Maxim slipped on, sending the trunk crashing down the marble steps and cracking it open. (I won’t spoil the surprise inside.) There is his Uncle Pinya, a dynamo in his 80s, visiting from Israel. There is the battle for Jewish souls between the rabbi who rides a motorcycle and the pastor who is hush-hush about Christianity. There is the former Russian girlfriend, the Italian redhead who makes ice cream, and another with the American Mustang and a back seat for rendezvous. 

Each character comes with a full physical description. Some seem overdrawn, especially the minor characters; but at their best they are delightful—as in the portrait of Uncle Pinya who “was about five-seven, with a lion’s mane of hair. Very dry, but still very animate—like a mountain river in summer that still remembers itself turbulent and full of spring to torrents.”

What I wished for, reading this memoir, was more cross-cultural comparisons. Shrayer does note the “astounding” abundance of goods and surprising individual freedoms: “The punks stood there peacefully, smoking and chatting. In the Soviet Union they would’ve been picked up and driven away in a police van.” But many interesting moments, like when his father, on one of the first mornings at breakfast, says, “I never thought I’d see my family eating unripe peaches for breakfast,” made me want more about their past life. Who ate ripe peaches in Soviet Russia? Who didn’t?  And when Shrayer first saw the graffiti in Vienna and the poverty in Rome, how did that compare to what he saw in Moscow?

But the past, with lengthy reflections on it, is not the creative turf of this memoir. Its focus is two months of freedom as a young Soviet émigré—full of girls, parents, crazy relatives, sightseeing, funny stories, books, and relief to be on a new road in life. With that in mind, Waiting for America admirably accomplishes its goal.