“Running a totalitarian regime is simple: tell the people what they’re going to do, shoot the first one to object, and repeat until everyone is on the same page.” Such was life in Ukraine for young Lev Golinkin and his family, and it might have been tolerable had he not also suffered daily beatings in school for being a Jew. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the family fled to Austria where they lived in a refugee hotel before immigrating to the U.S. A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is the story of that journey and of Golinkin’s struggle to reclaim his identity.
When the family finally makes it to the America extolled in folk songs and held out as their greatest hope, assimilating is as hard as you might imagine. Golinkin’s father, an engineer in the Ukraine, spends eight months sending out resumes in order to land an entry-level job in his field. His mother, a doctor, struggles with the language barrier while pulling espresso shots as a barista. Lev and his sister Lina are the family’s great hope, but while she studies, he struggles to dismantle his internalized anti-Semitism.
Golinkin writes with dry humor about his experience but connects emotionally when describing how a lengthy stint doing charity work in college finally led him to investigate his past and the people whose charity made his own life not just better, but possible at all. A friend in Vienna steered them to Indiana so they wouldn’t be lost among refugees in Brooklyn, and the efforts expended to get the children into college were heroic. A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka blends memoir and history into an intimate tale of personal growth.