The Novel That Introduced Soviet Jews to Their Forgotten History

Aleksandra Brushtein's books, set in Czarist Russia, gained cult status among Soviet Jews

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Photograph of a young Sasha Brushtein, with her parents and brothers.
A young Sasha Brushtein, with her parents and brothers. Credit: Russian State Archive of Literature and Art
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

A year ago, I was asked to choose and write a few words about any book that had influenced me profoundly. As I browsed feverishly through my mental library among great works which I’d admired, I realized that what I was looking for did not lie in the pages of “War and Peace” or “The Brothers Karamazov.”

The book that is imprinted in my memory as a moral and political compass, and the book I would like my children to know, is a Soviet-era work for children and juveniles titled “The Road Slips Away into the Distance.” It’s an autobiographical trilogy by the Jewish children’s playwright and memoirist Aleksandra Brushtein, who is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world. The first volume of the work was translated into Hebrew in the 1980s, but Brushtein (1884-1968) remains unknown in Israel, too. In the Soviet Union, where it ran through many editions of tens of thousands of copies each, the trilogy achieved cult status.

“The Road Slips Away into the Distance” transcends genres. It’s simultaneously a coming-of-age novel, a historical and political tale, and an adventure-filled memoir. With biting humor, abundant self-irony and a deep appreciation of her past, Brushtein tells the story of her childhood and adolescence in Vilna at the turn of the 20th century. Her story is credible, fascinating and moving, without straying for a moment from the socialist narrative, and it adheres rigorously to the rigid rules of censorship of the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the trilogy was published.

In the first part of the work, the protagonist, Sashenka (Sasha) Yanovskaya, overcomes the quota system that limited the acceptance of Jews to educational institutions, and gets herself admitted to a prestigious girls’ school. The reader encounters dozens of characters – from the family’s servant, Yozefa, a pious Polish woman, to Hannah, an elderly Jewish pretzel vendor – in the course of the narrative, which takes us to the end of Yanovskaya’s schooling.

It is in this first part that Yulka, a poor Polish girl whose legs are paralyzed, becomes the best friend of Sasha, who is from an affluent Jewish family. Sasha’s private tutor, a medical student and a revolutionary, organizes a May Day demonstration by workers, is jailed and then banished from the city.

Readers thus become acquainted with the suffering of the ordinary folk under the czarist regime, and with Russia’s simmering revolutionary underground movements. Together with Sasha, now becoming a teenager in the second book, we follow the trial of peasants who are accused of making human sacrifices, and in the third book the Dreyfus affair bursts into the protagonist’s life. Many of us, children of the Soviet Union, learned about Alfred Dreyfus’ trial and his story thanks to this book.

“The Road Slips Away into the Distance” is perceived by many as a formative work for themselves, and quotations from it became slogans that helped one to identify like-minded spiritual and social brethren. In today’s Russia, too, there is renewed interest in Brushtein’s work, and since 2005, a new printing of the book by different publishers has appeared almost every two years. Two years ago, scholar Maria Gelfund published extensive annotations to the trilogy, on which the present article is based. Last year, the first part of it appeared with her commentary, also in Russian. Both of these are under the A&B Publishers imprint (and with illustrations by the Israeli artist Anna Likhtikman). The second and third parts are in the pipeline.

“As a girl I thought it was a kind of book for our family and maybe another 10 friends,” Gelfund says in a Skype interview from Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. “But it was never a subject for discussion with friends – the book was part of our inner life. It was only in the era of the internet that I discovered, to my surprise, how many people are drawn to it.”

Part of this has to do with the fact that many Jews who grew up in the Soviet Union and found in the book a connection to their often-forgotten historical past – the Pale of Settlement, Jewish cultural life in czarist Russia, Jewish communal and political affiliation before the 1917 October Revolution, and finally, the Holocaust – are now rediscovering their childhood years and using the book to slake their thirst for knowledge that was denied them in their youth.

Adolescent temperament

An illustration from “The Road Slips Away into the Distance.” Credit: Anna Likhtikman

Brushtein was born in Vilna, now Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. During the 19th century, the city was part of the Russian Empire and was one of the leading centers of the Pale of Settlement, with Jews constituting half the population (it was known as “Jerusalem of Lithuania”). Other residents included Poles, Belarusians and Russians, with the latter (for the most part army personnel) constituting 20 percent of the city’s inhabitants. Despite the religious, linguistic and cultural conflicts that raged in the city, Vilna managed to preserve a multicultural Jewish-Catholic-Russian Orthodox complexion, which is still felt there.

Brushtein’s life intersected with dramatic crossroads of the 20th century. Her father was a physician and social and political activist who was venerated in Vilna. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, the daughter was active in an underground movement that tried to help political prisoners, and after the revolution joined the state-led campaign to combat illiteracy and was one of the founders of a children’s theater in the Soviet Union. Her parents never left Vilna, and perished in the Holocaust.

Her husband, an esteemed physician who had close connections to the authorities, died of an illness two years after the end of World War II, and was thus “spared” the anti-Semitic Doctors Trial that Stalin staged toward the end of his life. The family was also unharmed by the campaign against Jewish “cosmopolitans,” which affected Brushtein’s field of occupation – the theater – as her great-granddaughter, Yekaternia Bolotova, told me in a phone conversation.

Brushtein, who was accepted and appreciated by the Soviet intellectual milieu, died in September 1968 in Moscow, in a world totally different from the one she was born into.

“Brushtein wrote outside the boundaries of genre, played the game without rules,” Russian journalist and writer, Dmitry Bykov noted. “Her book lies at the junction at which youth is always poised. This is a children’s-adult book, interesting for every age, because the elderly Brushtein, almost 80 when she wrote the book, remained the adolescent Sashenka Yanovskaya. Her responses were those of a teenager, and so were her feelings and temperament.”

In the book, Sasha’s father, Yakov Yanovsky, is characterized as a devoted doctor who scurries between patients day and night, not refusing any call, even if he’s falling off his feet and knows he won’t be paid. He’s close to socialist circles and assists friends in distress, but does not engage in political activity himself. Yanovsky comes across as somewhat awkward, with poor eyesight and scatterbrained.

Yakov Vygodsky, Brushtein’s real father, on whom the character is based, was apparently a very different person in many ways, as emerges in various accounts, including at a lecture by the Yiddish scholar Prof. Mikhail Krutikov, from the University of Michigan. Vygodsky had close ties to revolutionary circles and was a leading physician and researcher. He treated everyone who came to him and was known for his modesty, but no less than that was a well-known figure among Vilna’s Jewish population for his public activity and political leadership. He was sent to a concentration camp for POWs run by the German occupation authorities who ruled the area during World War I, after he refused to pay a special tax imposed on the Jewish community and also called on the entire community to oppose the decree.

At the end of the war, the city passed from hand to hand at a dizzying pace – Germans, Lithuanians, Bolsheviks and Poles – and each such change brought the danger of looting and pogroms against the Jews. Vygodsky did not leave the city, however, and was unrelenting in his activity on behalf of the Jewish community.

With Vilna finally under Polish rule, beginning in 1920, Vygodsky was elected to the Sijm (parliament) and served in it for many years. From his memoirs it’s clear that he made a point of not kowtowing to anti-Semites and of displaying his Jewishness proudly even in the face of possible attacks.

However, that approach was of no avail when the Nazis took control of Soviet Vilnius in 1941. Vygodsky, now aged 85 and ill, tried again to intercede on behalf of the Jewish community. The famed Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever relates in his book about the Vilna ghetto that Vygodsky, wearing a black suit on which a yellow patch was hastily sewn, went to see Franz Murer, the German official in charge of Jewish affairs in the military government. Before Vygodsky could finish what he had to say, Murer pushed him down the stairs. Vygodsky wiped the blood from his face and returned home.

The new edition of “The Road Slips Away into the Distance.”Credit: Anna Likhtikman

Ruzka Korczak, one of the leaders of the Jewish underground in the Vilna ghetto, wrote in her book “Flames in the Ashes” that Vygodsky, who was a member of the city’s Judenrat (Jewish council, appointed by order of the Germans), refused to supply the Nazis with Jewish workers to clear land mines before he was apprised of the fate of those who had previously been assigned to the task. He was arrested and incarcerated in Lukišks Prison, where he died an agonizing death in 1941. His wife, Yelena Vygodskaya, subsequently perished as well, but the place and date of her death are not known for certain.

Holocaust, sparingly

“My father, father! Fifty years from that evening […] fascists who seized our city executed you, an aged man of 85 […] I don’t know where you were buried. I have nowhere to come in order to tell you that I am living in integrity, not humiliating anyone, that I am working and that good people respect me… I am saying this to you – here,” Brushtein, who apparently knew little about her father’s fate, writes in a heart-rending passage in “The Road Slips Away into the Distance.” It is the only passage in the trilogy that deals with the Holocaust, a subject that was suppressed for many years in the Soviet Union.

At the time the first section of the trilogy was published, in 1957, it was permissible to talk about “huge numbers of victims among the civilian population,” but not about the Holocaust as a separate phenomenon, Maria Gelfund explains.

“This has to do, on the one hand, with international politics, and on the other hand with the fact that just a few years after the large-scale Jewish trials – the ‘cosmopolitans’ in 1949 and the doctors in 1953 – it was impossible to talk about anti-Semitism in general,” she says.

According to many historians, the subject of the Holocaust was not addressed properly in the Soviet Union until the regime’s final days. The subject receives very sparing treatment in the book, but in Gelfund’s view even the lone passage about the father’s death constituted an important contribution to the memory of the repressed Holocaust, and indeed Brushtein’s book was one of the first voices that broached the subject.

Though Brushtein praised her socialist country in the book, she was well aware of its ills. For example, Gelfund notes, after describing the discrimination against Jewish girls in the school’s admissions tests, Brushtein avoids drawing a comparison with the situation in the Soviet Union. Her silence is meaningful, Gelfund avers, because in many other episodes in the book – such as her description of the poverty and illiteracy of the workers’ children – she made a point of noting that it was no longer possible to imagine such things in the land of the Soviets.

But in a book written immediately after Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges, it was problematic to write that nationality-based discrimination was a thing of the past. On top of which, the Soviet Union, like czarist Russia before it, blocked the admittance of Jews to prestigious university courses, as Brushtein well knew.

Despite the oppression, the purges and the lying Brushtein witnessed around her, did she continue to believe sincerely in the socialist idea, or were the accolades she heaped on the Soviet Union lip service for the publication of her book? Gelfund thinks Brushtein was sincere in her approach.

“She was not disappointed in communism per se; she thought the idea had been distorted, but she was not disappointed in it,” Gelfund says.

According to Bykov, “The Soviet regime fomented many troubles, but derived its inspiration from enlightened ideals. Many generations had dreamed of a revolution, and many things in the Soviet Union worked far better than they do now.” Brushtein remained true to the ideals of her youth, he says. “There was a category like that: good Soviet people.”

Muted Jewish tone

“Brushtein muted the Jewish tone of the book somewhat,” Gelfund writes in her annotations. Many of the characters are based on Jews but are given Russian names. The author’s father, who grew up in a Hasidic family and was well versed in Jewish law, becomes an atheist in the novel. Even so, Jewish culture, the Jewish characters, both Yiddish and the Jewish vernacular in Russian, and even a detailed description of the activity of Jewish charities – all these receive a place of honor in the trilogy, in a way that was highly exceptional in Soviet literature.

“The book was a cult work for a vast number of adolescents, for whom nationality is a marginal matter, as it was for me as well. But it’s easier for me – my blood is mixed, and my Jewishness, like my Russianness, was never a problem for me,” Bykov notes. “Brushtein’s book is good because a talented person wrote it, and not because it devotes considerable attention to Jews.”

Gelfund offers a different perspective. “It’s likely that everyone who read books and was in a Jewish environment came into possession of the book. In a different national environment the book also worked. But I think that for readers in a completely Russian milieu, not everything in the book would be understood.”

Still, the repeated reprinting of the book in contemporary Russia suggests that the value of the trilogy does not lie only in its being a rare and nostalgic historical work, or in the fact that it addresses forbidden national issues. For the fact is that the social struggles that were burning issues for Brushtein are as relevant today as they were in her youth, in Russia and elsewhere.

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