My new novel, The Dissident, begins with a Jewish wedding in Moscow on January 13, 1976.
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 (There are some historical documents that appear to be translated by a fifteen ‑year-old with an Olivetti typewriter.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.