Award-winning novelist David Bezmozgis, whose family was assisted by JDC on their emigration from Latvia, is a master storyteller at the height of his powers. His latest novel, 'The Betrayers,' tells the story of Baruch Kotler, a Soviet Jewish dissident turned disgraced Israeli politician who flees scandal by running to Yalta, on the Crimean peninsula.
September 8, 2015
Award-winning novelist David Bezmozgis, whose family was assisted by JDC on their emigration from Latvia, is a master storyteller at the height of his powers. His latest novel, ‘The Betrayers,’ tells the story of Baruch Kotler, a Soviet Jewish dissident turned disgraced Israeli politician who flees scandal by running to Yalta, on the Crimean peninsula.
Bezmozgis took the time to answer a few of JDC’s questions about his work and passions.
Q: How was ‘The Betrayers’ — now out in paperback — impacted by current events? To what extent did you weave the news out of Ukraine into your novel?
A: I started writing ‘The Betrayers’ in 2010 and was finishing the book in the fall of 2013 as the revolution in Ukraine was unfolding. It had always been my aim for the book to be as current as possible, and I’d envisioned a storyline set in the summer of 2014, coincident with the novel’s publication date. I delayed as long as possible finalizing the text, expecting that the revolution would peter out and everything in Ukraine and Crimea would return more or less to the way it had been — simply because this was the way things had gone in the past. Of course, we now know something entirely different happened. Consequently, it was no longer plausible to have my protagonist, Baruch Kotler, and his young mistress, Leora, flee to Yalta in the summer of 2014. The only option I saw was to set the action of the novel one year earlier, in the summer of 2013. Thus, the novel could no longer attest to the current situation in Ukraine and Russia, but rather serve as context for the Ukrainian revolution and Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Its Israeli political elements, however, remained largely unaffected by current events, despite the war in Gaza that broke out around the time of the novel’s publication. In fact, if anything, the rift between secular Baruch Kotler and his Orthodox Zionist son presaged some of the Israeli extremism we’ve witnessed in recent months.
Q: Tell us a bit about how you used JDC archival materials and visits to Ukraine to research your novel.
A: The JDC’s contribution to the novel was significant. For instance, it was my discovery of the Agro-Joint project through the JDC archives that cemented the idea that the novel needed to be set in Crimea and Yalta. I’d been aware that Crimea had been contemplated as an autonomous Jewish republic after WWII through my reading about Stalin’s persecution and murder of prominent Soviet Jewish poets and writers. But I hadn’t known that this idea had its origins in the 1920s and 1930s when the JDC helped to establish numerous Jewish farming colonies in Crimea and southern Ukraine. Knowing that Crimea possessed this peculiar Jewish history — that the peninsula could have been an alternative to Israel — provided an important subtext to the story. And once I’d decided that the novel would be set in Crimea, JDC helped to connect me with its representatives on the ground in the various Heseds on the peninsula. The people I met there, both the representatives and the clients, provided me with invaluable insight and information about Jewish life in Crimea. Quite simply, without their input, I couldn’t have written the novel.
Q: Why did you decide to incorporate JDC’s Hesed social welfare center into the plot?
A: A significant part of the novel deals with the day-to-day realities of a Jewish pensioner in Crimea. It became very clear to me very fast that I could not write about such a person without also writing about the JDC’s Heseds. Almost as a rule, elderly Jews in Crimea and other parts of the FSU depend upon the Heseds for their material and spiritual survival. Also, when I visited the Heseds, both the people I met there and the physical spaces themselves, made a strong impression on me. I saw tremendous energy and optimism set against harsh realities and straitened circumstances. I wanted to reflect that in the novel.
Q: You’re passionate about Ukraine and the crisis there. As the story begins to fade from headlines in the West, what is important to remember?
A: Perhaps no place in the world has seen more bloodshed this past century than Ukraine. There has been almost no respite from conflict or hardship. This is certainly true for the Jews of Ukraine and Crimea. Those of the older generation still bear the marks of the Holocaust and WWII. Now, when they are at their most vulnerable, is not the time to forget them. The same holds true for the younger generation who are trying to cultivate their Jewish heritage.
Q: To what extent is ‘The Betrayers’ in conversation with your other works?
A: My two previous books drew more from my own family history. In that sense, the previous books were about ordinary people at the mercy of history. ‘The Betrayers’ bears no resemblance to my own life and the character of Baruch Kotler is far from ordinary–rather he is someone who, by force of will, has fought to change the world. However, I see the three books as forming a triptych. ‘Natasha’ described a Soviet Jewish family’s process of immigrating to North America in the 1980s. ‘The Free World’ concerned itself with the messy history of Russian Jews from before the Russian revolution to the mass emigration of the 1970s. ‘The Betrayers’ examines where these Soviet Jews will leave their greatest impact and legacy: to my mind, Israel and the FSU.
Q: What was the genesis of the novel for you? Was there an a-ha moment where you knew, ‘Wow, this is a story I need to tell’?
A: Ten years ago, I was writing an obituary for the New York Times about a famous refusenik, Alexander Lerner. Researching him, I read about a man ostensibly within the Zionist movement in Moscow who had denounced his comrades to the KGB. The main target of this denunciation proved to be Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky. I was somewhat familiar with Sharansky’s story but not that of his betrayer. I got to wondering what happens to a man who betrays his brothers for a country that then ceases to exist. And I wondered too about the constitutional difference between someone like Sharansky and his betrayer. What enables one person to sacrifice everything for their principles and another to enter into a compromise? This formed the core of the novel.
Q: How does your experience as a Jew from the former Soviet Union impact your writing?
A: Soviet Jews have a complex history. They were the victims of tremendous persecution and deracination but they were also some of the engineers and beneficiaries of the Soviet experiment. Within every family, there were people who embraced communism and those who opposed or resented it. Trying to understand and reconcile this complexity has informed the way I see the world and the way I write.