STARRED REVIEW
March 10, 2020

Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

By Alex Halberstadt
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Funny things start happening when Russian American author Alex Halberstadt begins digging into his family’s murky unhappiness in Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning. Beginning with childhood memories of his parents’ troubled marriage and divorce, resentment toward his absent father and embarrassment over grandparents who made no effort to conceal their foreignness, Halberstadt twitches aside the dismissive curtain we tend to drape over the older members of our families.

What he finds is startling but ought to be familiar in its own way to each of us. “I was coming to see that all four of my grandparents had lived in a country and a time when the buffer between history and biography became nearly imperceptible,” writes Halberstadt. Distressingly, there is a grandfather who served as a bodyguard to Stalin, and who becomes known to Halberstadt as a fragile man who still wrestles with the truth of the atrocities he at least witnessed, if not perpetrated. His son, Halberstadt’s remote father, was a college student in Soviet Russia, liberal-minded, prone to seeking out contraband literature and music and ardently opposed to his own father and the KGB.

Halberstadt’s maternal grandparents have their own journey, different in nearly every way. Comically absent-minded and timid in old age, they are revived in Halberstadt’s research as young Eastern European Jews, each of whom barely escaped the Nazis with the clothes on their backs in their own separate, desperate flights, losing almost everyone they loved in the process.

As Halberstadt weaves his familial background out of several trips across Russia and Eastern Europe in a quest for information, a curious effect occurs. Time becomes less linear and seems to lie around us, piled in no particular order, like snow. The past is still present with us; nothing is truly left behind. What seems obvious is that the wounds that are inflicted upon us are alive and will continue to fester, infected, if not confronted. So too, however, does the good that survives: the love that struggles through dark and horrifying circumstances, while imperfect, grows and strengthens. 

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Alex Halberstadt and seven other new and emerging memoirists.

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Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

By Alex Halberstadt
Random House
ISBN 9781400067060

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