As the title suggests, the memoir A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin is a mixture of hilarity, sorrow and hope. “We had made it,” Golinkin confirms, but only after his family flees years of persecution as Jews in the Soviet Union, with $600 and ten suitcases to their name, across the border and into Vienna, into the West. In a land where dissenters and intellectuals were put into mental institutions until they went mad, Golinkin endured daily beatings at school because he was Jewish. “People are good at adapting,” Golinkin attests, “especially at gunpoint.”
Golinkin was nine years old when his family left the collapsing Soviet Union, in the late 1980s, and the story continues into his twenties. He overcomes anger and isolation later in life by volunteering and by finally looking back at his unique experience. Almost nobody was as eager to leave a country and as eager to never look back. But looking back, as Golinkin makes us realize, is as necessary as breathing.
I related to the story because I too immigrated from Russia at about the same time, also at the age of nine. I remember the lack of food, clothes and other necessities that plagued our lives. Unlike Golinkin, we moved to Brooklyn, New York, but, like him, worked hard at assimilating. It was tough at first in America, and at very first in Russia, but we pulled through as a family.
From poignant descriptions of babushki, or Russian grandmothers who sit outside with their characteristic head shawls, who always stare back, even in the height of danger, to attestations of such slavisms as the tea service, which everyone owned, “from Siberia to Uzbekistan,” Golinkin manages to weave together a quick-paced, adventure-filled and gripping account of immigration. And at the very end, Russia and that immigration cease to be anathema to him, becoming instead a door to be opened, a door which he does indeed open for the reader, for three hundred and some pages.