Moscow Belorussky rail­way sta­tion, 1970s, Pho­to by Thomas Tay­lor Hammond

My new nov­el, The Dis­si­dent, begins with a Jew­ish wed­ding in Moscow on Jan­u­ary 131976

This date comes fifty-eight years, two months, and one week after the Great Octo­ber Social­ist Rev­o­lu­tion. Jew­ish rit­u­als are a dis­tant memory. 

None of those in atten­dance, includ­ing the bride and groom, know how Jew­ish wed­dings — or any oth­er rit­u­als — are per­formed. There is a rab­bi in town. Rab­bi Yakov L. Fish­man is the name. He is not to be trust­ed. He has been known to call in detach­ments of goons to rough up the refuseniks who protest on Arkhipov Street, across from the Moscow Choral Synagogue.

Remem­ber the days when every Jew­ish house of wor­ship in Amer­i­ca dis­played a Save Sovi­et Jew­ry” ban­ner? This was the largest Jew­ish move­ment in US his­to­ry. Chances are, you were a part of it — or your par­ents or grand­par­ents were.

But what was it like to be Jew­ish in Moscow in 1976? How do Vik­tor and Oksana, the bride and groom in The Dis­si­dent, rein­vent their Jew­ish iden­ti­ties while also man­ag­ing to keep out of prison? 

I had a panoram­ic view of that dra­ma. I saw it as a pre­co­cious Moscow teenag­er who would become a young immi­grant in Wash­ing­ton, DC, a his­to­ri­an, and a nov­el­ist. In The Dis­si­dent, I want­ed to cap­ture the sto­ry of the expe­ri­ence of being Jew­ish in the 1970s Moscow in a way that is both accu­rate and gripping.

I came to the U.S. in 1973, at age four­teen. A sto­ry about my family’s arrival can be found in an exhib­it by the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety of Greater Wash­ing­ton. (There is a pho­to, too.) As a teenag­er, I was periph­er­al­ly involved in the Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ment, most­ly as a vol­un­teer trans­la­tor. (There are some his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments that appear to be trans­lat­ed by a fif­teen ‑year-old with an Olivet­ti type­writer. That would be me.) 

Ear­ly in my career, in the 1980s and 1990s, I wrote two books about the dis­si­dent move­ment in the USSR, along the way cre­at­ing an audio archive of inter­views with dis­si­dents. These inter­views were extreme­ly help­ful to me as I wrote The Dis­si­dent. Recent­ly, my archive was acquired by Blavat­nik Archive, where the record­ings are being dig­i­tized and transcribed.

When done well, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion can show how peo­ple lived. And Moscow in the mid to late 1900s is a place I know so well that some­times I feel like I can walk through the place, knock­ing on doors, check­ing in on old friends, mak­ing new friends, and — impor­tant­ly — mak­ing enemies.

I didn’t have to imag­ine many scenes in The Dis­si­dent. I actu­al­ly wit­nessed the scene where KGB goons in plain­clothes bust up a demon­stra­tion across from the Moscow syn­a­gogue. This was Sim­chat Torah 1970, I believe. I remem­ber watch­ing from a court­yard, not know­ing what Sim­chat Torah is.

The sto­ry of The Dis­si­dent piv­ots on an ax mur­der. Two men, a Jew­ish dis­si­dent and his lover, a U.S. Embassy offi­cial, are mur­dered in the cen­ter of Moscow. An ax is used. Who did it? The KGB? Maybe. And if not the KGB, who?

Vik­tor, the groom we meet in the open­ing scene, has the mis­for­tune of find­ing the bod­ies. Vik­tor is a young engi­neer who is try­ing unsuc­cess­ful­ly to leave the coun­try. Alas, he is spot­ted at the mur­der scene and is plucked off the street by the KGB. He is giv­en a choice: find the killer or become the sus­pect of con­ve­nience. And there is a dead­line: U S Sec­re­tary of State Hen­ry Kissinger is com­ing to town in nine days. 

As Vik­tor strug­gles to deter­mine whom to trust, he is forced to ques­tion not only the KGB’s murky motives but also those of his fel­low refuseniks.

In addi­tion to being a Cold War thriller, The Dis­si­dent is a love let­ter to my home­town. As Vik­tor makes his way through Moscow, he expert­ly nav­i­gates the short­cuts I hap­pen to know as well. He knows, for exam­ple, that if you hop over the two-meter fence at the plan­e­tar­i­um, you will jump down on the New Ter­ri­to­ry of the Moscow Zoo. This kind of thing is use­ful when you are try­ing to escape from the KGB.

The Dis­si­dent comes with a map of cen­tral Moscow, where this sto­ry plays out — the boule­vards, mon­u­ments and muse­ums, routes of tramways and trol­ley­bus­es, KGB head­quar­ters, Lefor­to­vo Prison. Also, the Krem­lin. (Some­day, when Putin is gone and this lat­est bout of mad­ness is over, I would rec­om­mend using that map for a self-guid­ed tour.)

To help solve the case, Vik­tor ropes in his com­mu­ni­ty, which includes his banned-text-dis­trib­ut­ing wife, a hard-drink­ing sculp­tor, a Russ­ian priest of Jew­ish her­itage, and a vis­it­ing Amer­i­can intent on reliv­ing World War II hero­ics. The Dis­si­dent is not a com­e­dy, but many char­ac­ters have rau­cous sens­es of humor, which brings much-need­ed relief to them — and to the reader.

Moscow of 1976 is a tough envi­ron­ment for an ama­teur sleuth, espe­cial­ly when the KGB is the most like­ly cul­prit. The secret police is ready to pounce on any­thing that has the appear­ance of inde­pen­dent thought. For­eign press acts as a mid­dle­man, fer­ry­ing infor­ma­tion to the out­side world. And for­eign intel­li­gence ser­vices — CIA and Mossad — lurk in the shadows. 

In his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, detail mat­ters. Life’s rhythms mat­ter. Covert­ly dis­trib­uted man­u­scripts and music that pours out of reel-to-reel tape recorders mat­ter. Same goes for food, vod­ka, and con­ver­sa­tions that pour into the night. The prices of vod­ka and street food are accu­rate to the kopek. 

Clothes mat­ter, too. In The Dis­si­dent, Vik­tor wears Levi’s. Jeans are a part of the uni­form of a refusenik. To get around tough for­eign cur­ren­cy laws, Jew­ish groups have to be cre­ative in their efforts to move resources to the refuseniks. Most­ly this means bring­ing jeans — Levi’s and Lee prefer­ably. Clothes can be sold for a small for­tune on the black mar­ket. Copies of Play­boy mag­a­zine are a hot com­mod­i­ty as well. Copies of the mag­a­zine can be spot­ted here and there in The Dis­si­dent

Books play an out­sized role in this thriller. Since the vast major­i­ty of Sovi­et Jews had no expo­sure to reli­gious obser­vance, the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Coun­cil of Mon­tre­al pub­lished a Russ­ian-lan­guage book­let titled The Laws of Jew­ish Life,” a do-it-your­self guide to Judaism.

It was thin enough to fit into a back pock­et of a refusenik’s Levi’s. Pos­ses­sion of this book­let could lead to pros­e­cu­tion under the Russ­ian Republic’s Crim­i­nal Code Arti­cle 190 – 1: Sys­tem­at­ic dis­sem­i­na­tion by word of mouth of delib­er­ate fab­ri­ca­tions that defame the Sovi­et polit­i­cal and social system.” 

Sad­ly for the bride and groom whom we met in chap­ter one, the Mon­tre­al book­let con­tains no DIY direc­tions for con­duct­ing weddings. 

In one way or anoth­er, Vik­tor and his friends are forced to inter­act with the KGB — but how do you do that while keep­ing your dig­ni­ty? Is there an escape clause in deals with Satan — even if you make such deals to avoid being sent to prison for a vicious crime you didn’t commit?

For guid­ance in these mat­ters, Vik­tor and his friends turn to The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta, Mikhail Bulgakov’s inter­pre­ta­tion of Goethe’s and Marlowe’s sto­ry of Faust, which he sets in Moscow of the 1930s. In the con­text of The Dis­si­dent, The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta acquires prac­ti­cal and strate­gic val­ue. My char­ac­ters rely on this text as they struc­ture a Faus­t­ian rela­tion­ship with the KGB, seek­ing lit­er­ary guid­ance for man­ag­ing a rela­tion­ship with the lat­ter-day Satan. 

The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta is not exact­ly a DIY guide for deal­ing with Satan, but it’s the best thing my char­ac­ters have. 

As Vik­tor strug­gles to deter­mine whom to trust, he is forced to ques­tion not only the KGB’s murky motives but also those of his fel­low refuseniks — and the man he admires above all: Kissinger himself.

Paul Gold­berg is the author of two pre­vi­ous nov­els: The Yid, a final­ist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture and the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award’s Gold­berg Prize for Debut Fic­tion, and The Chateau. He has writ­ten two books about the Sovi­et human rights move­ment as well as an expose of the U.S. health­care sys­tem. He lives in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.