Paul Goldberg’s new novel continues his exploration of Soviet Jewry’s struggle for cultural identity and physical freedom. Having immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union as a teenager in 1973, Goldberg always writes about his former homeland with the wicked, satirical eye of an insider-outsider.
The Dissident conjures the repressive Soviet Union of the 1970s, a critical interval in modern Jewish history at the threshold of mass Jewish emigration and the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. Goldberg focuses on a group of refuseniks—Jews who have applied to leave Soviet Russia but who have been denied the request to emigrate — and on the surveillance-obsessed political world of pre-glasnost Russia, at the end of the Soviet empire.
The novel opens on January 13, 1976, at the wedding of Oksana, an English teacher, and Viktor, an engineer who leads “Democratic Moscow” tours for American students. Both younger-generation Jews, they know virtually nothing about the rituals of Jewish practice.
The plot flashes back to the double murder of two important Moscow refuseniks and the Soviet State’s attempt to pin the crime on Viktor. He discovers the bludgeoned, decapitated bodies while trying to secure a smuggled copy of The Laws of Jewish Life, a banned guide he needs for the wedding ceremony.
Throughout the book, Goldberg illustrates the ways in which Jewish memory threatens the Soviet order, challenging the State’s vaunted self-image, its claim to having created a so-called communist paradise. After the Russian Revolution, Jews were seen as outsiders in their native land and forced to carry identity cards inscribed with a “J.” The State feared that the mass emigration of millions of Jews seeking religious freedom would not only go against Soviet ideology, but would also pose a serious threat to the economy.
A decade later, the international call for human rights in the Soviet Union, along with Russia’s need to be designated a “favored nation” in order to trade with the West, became urgent. The Soviet Union did not want its large Jewish minority (estimated to be over two million in 1970) to join up with its growing, self-declared cohort of “dissidents,” that group of “otherwise-thinker[s]” considered an enemy of the State.
Goldberg fills his large canvas with a range of memorable characters, some historically “real” (like Yelena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov’s wife, an ardent dissident) and others not. The most compelling, thickly drawn fictional character is Norm (“Nuchem”) Dymshitz, a tough Jew from Pittsburgh. Committed to the refusenik cause, Norm flies to Moscow to deliver much-needed American cash and jeans, which are worth hundreds on the Soviet black market. A fearless Jewish hero, Norm fought Nazis in the Russian forest during World War II alongside Oksana’s father. He survived dire circumstances, all in the interest of saving persecuted Jews.
In the end, Norm exemplifies Goldberg’s definition of the “dissident”: he possesses the intellectual power of “otherwise-thinking” and the vision of “otherwise-seeing.” As the narrator explains, “Norm is a partisan, Norm is a Jew, or a Jew and a partisan, the hunted, the hunter.” A “wise, valorous, tormented man,” Norm is a witness and survivor who understands that, when faced with extreme conditions, “you push harder, past the edge … to push through, to bend the world.” This strategy, Goldberg’s narrator reminds us, “has guided Norm through the cataclysms of the twentieth century.”
The Dissident dramatizes, with an insider’s memory, the longing of Soviet Jews to escape the soul-deadening repressions of the State. For Oksana and Viktor, who wished to be married Jewishly, Goldberg provides a happy ending of sorts years later, after Viktor — a KGB scapegoat for the refusenik murders — serves time in the Gulag.
In a brief epilogue, Viktor receives a sudden deliverance from his Soviet captivity and, thanks to Norm’s “Moses-like” agency, joins Oksana in the free world of Pittsburgh. Viktor’s emigration, it turns out, coincides with Passover. Norm leads a seder — Viktor’s first. No longer a refusenik, Viktor will be able to keep Jewish memory alive.
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He divides his time between Brooklyn and Mohegan Lake, NY.