Young Heroes Of The Soviet Union: A Memoir And A Reckoning, by Alex Halberstadt
This is not a very good memoir, nor is the author nearly insightful enough to provide reckoning about anything. There is a great gulf between what this book promises and what it ends up providing, and unless you like your memoirs intensely self-absorbed, making the writer the center of a story when he is (as he often is) the least interesting part of the book, this is a memoir that likely will not nearly be as enjoyable as its premise to you as well. A good memoir sets a person that a reader might not be inclined to care about or even sympathize with (and the writer is not a particularly sympathetic figure to me personally in many ways) and puts them in a context that seeks to explain or provide commentary on that life in a way that is interesting. Memoirs in general are meant to be more about the situation and the interesting experiences a person has that makes them a subject of interest. Sometimes, though, a writer fancies himself to be the subject of interest and a fit arbiter of the context of his life, and in this case, that fancy goes disastrously wrong, turning what could have been a very entertaining book into a very unsatisfactory one.
This book is a long one at nearly 300 pages long and it is divided into only three chapters as well as an epilogue. This is a book whose rambling approach would have been better served and a bit more manageable with a bit more structure in it. The first book looks at the author’s attempts to understand his paternal grandfather, one Vassily, who managed to successfully deal with the difficulties of being Stalin’s bodyguard and avoided purges, but was unable to keep his marriage with the author’s paternal grandmother together, who herself had a rocky relationship history with three marriages of her (1). The second chapter finds the author struggling with Baltic anti-Semitism and with the destruction of the Jewry of Lithuania in the horrors of World War II, which the author struggles to come to terms with (2). After that, the author then turns to his own childhood, and writes a whiny memoir about his own life and his escape from the Soviet Union and his struggles to fit in in the United States where he found himself bullied as sensitive children often are, children being keen at targeting and attacking those who are sensitive, alas (3). This is followed by an epilogue that shows the author and his father on a fishing trip in Russia, acknowledgements, and photo credits.
In reading a book like this, it is easy to see what might have been. The author’s personal history shows generational patterns of broken families and traumatic experiences, including a close escape from the Holocaust that killed 95% or so of the Jews of Lithuania. Likewise, one of the author’s ancestors was apparently one of Stalin’s bodyguards. This sort of material, in the hands of someone who was not self-absorbed and whiny, could have been mined for comedy gold or great insight. Unfortunately, the author is more interested in whining about his own struggles with his sexual identity and in seeking to avoid taking responsibility for the failures of his life by blaming his bad relationship with his father and his generational history of trauma. As is frequently the case, the attempt to use the bully pulpit of a memoir in order to dodge personal responsibility and cast the blame elsewhere, including even to the ancestral character of the Russian people as being unable to handle freedom or deal well with others, permanently stuck in passive relationships with abusive rulers. All of this is lamentable enough, but what is least excusable is the author’s belief that his flamboyant homosexuality marks a break from an unsatisfactory past, not realizing his love of death is related to the apostasy of Jews, the love of socialism, and the abortions and lack of family loyalty shown by generations of his family that he slavishly follows in.