Maxim D. Shrayer, who was born in 1967, grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the United States in 1987 with his family. Before settling in New England, Shrayer and his parents were Jewish refuseniks for many years. Shrayer, whose father is a writer and mother a translator, has written and edited over 20 books of nonfiction, fiction, poetry and translation in English and Russian. His books include “Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story,” “Yom Kippur in Amsterdam: Stories” and “Of Politics and Pandemics: Songs of a Russian Immigrant.” Shrayer’s work has been translated into 10 languages. His “An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry” won a 2007 National Jewish Book Award, and in 2012 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Shrayer, who lives in Chestnut Hill with his wife and two daughters, recently spoke to JewishBoston about the events unfolding in Ukraine and how the war has impacted his sense of immigrant identity.
What are your emotional challenges watching the tragedy in Ukraine continue to unfold?
It’s important to state first what the big picture is. The big picture is not about my emotional or intellectual quandaries or about the vicissitudes of being of Russian or Soviet origin today. The big picture is that Putin’s Russia is murdering Ukraine. His regime—his henchmen, generals and armies—are trying to destroy and murder a country, and in doing so, they are committing war crimes. Everything else probably pales in comparison with that. I also am very skeptical of the business of comparative suffering. I don’t think it’s ethically or intellectually productive.
Ukrainian Jewish history is fraught. However, there’s a renaissance of Jewish life in Ukraine, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish. Can you contextualize that history considering what happened to Jews in Ukraine during World War II?
We should remember that Ukrainian statehood is very recent in the modern sense. Ukrainian identity, language and culture are as old and, in some ways, perhaps older, than Russian identity or Russian sense of selfhood. But for many centuries, Ukrainians have lived in states and countries defined by stronger power brokers; the great Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, primarily. There was a brief period after the Bolshevik Revolution when there was an attempt to create a Ukrainian state, but it failed. Ukraine was then co-opted into the Soviet Union and existed as a federated republic within the Soviet Union. So, in a sense, Ukrainian statehood is only as new—or as old—as the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When we talk about what happened to Jews in Ukraine, we need to understand that we’re not talking about a Ukrainian state but broadly about Ukrainian lands. And now, Ukraine is a very large independent country. It incorporates, starting from the east, some of the contested Ukrainian territories closer to the present Russian Federation border, and then the whole of Central Ukraine. But the further west you go, the further you are in territories where Poland used to be the dominant power, and particularly the Polish nobility. So, the history is fraught, but not just with violence; it’s fraught with many complexities of identity.
You referred to the high rate of Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. It is correct, but this happened some 80 years ago. I have generally taken the position that while history ought to be remembered, preserved, understood and learned from, this has virtually nothing to do with the tragedy unfolding now in Ukraine. The history of Ukrainian lands is not just fraught with anti-Jewish violence, but also with centuries of a rich and vibrant Jewish life. But that’s not the point. Three of my grandparents were born and came of age in Ukraine. For me, the point now is about solidarity with Ukraine. And also about the fact that Putin’s regime uses and abuses and manipulates historical evidence to justify their bloody war against Ukraine.
I asked the question about Ukraine’s Jewish history because Putin said one of the reasons Russia attacked Ukraine was to “de-Nazify” it.
Ukraine is a country that has a Jewish president and a Jewish minister of defense, and a country whose Jewish citizens have uniformly acted as Ukrainian patriots. However, some of those citizens question whether they should remain in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the attempt to justify Putin’s neo-colonialist invasion stems from his desire to restore the Soviet Union, which is something Putin always said. History teaches us that people like Putin or Hitler generally mean what they say from the beginning. It’s just that we don’t take heed.
Many Boston readers, myself included, have had experience with the Russian School of Mathematics. The school purposely includes “Russian” in its name to honor that learning method. Nevertheless, people have recently distrusted the school because of its name. Is there an attempt to cancel Russian culture and history?
Yes, but I would qualify it this way: The United States is a very large country and an immigrant-diverse society. On the whole, these kinds of attempts have been exceptions rather than a broad tendency. Or perhaps other exceptions have been drowned out in the chorus of solidarity with Ukraine. The Russian School of Mathematics story is a particularly interesting case because two Jewish women from the former Soviet Union, who emigrated to America as part of the large exodus of Soviet Jews, founded it. They launched what they thought was a much-needed educational enterprise, and it’s been very successful.
The school’s name referred to the tradition of mathematics that goes back to the Russian Empire and then continues in the Soviet Union. But it would’ve been somewhat preposterous to call it the Soviet School of Mathematics. The tradition of immigrant businesses in America is that many of them have emphasized the origins of their founders—and in this case Russia had traditionally stood for all of the Soviet Union. Finally, the school employs a panel of teachers as diverse as the former Soviet Union itself.
I want to ask about your daily routine for these past few months—how does the war in Ukraine reflect your perspective as a Russian Jew?
I’m married to a doctor, and my kids are in middle school and high school, so my mornings begin early. But since the war in Ukraine started, the first thing I do is scan the news about the war. By then I usually have several text messages from contacts and friends in Russia, and also some in Ukraine and Israel. I also have a number of academic and literary contacts in Italy, and the boycotts [of anything Russian] in Italy are gaining speed.
I have started a portfolio of what I perceive and track as banishing Russianness in all its different manifestations. I usually take a screenshot and deposit it in my portfolio. At the same time, I’m beginning to feel that there are people with whom I cannot communicate anymore. It’s some sort of madness; people I thought I knew are posting things that are just incomprehensible. What do you do with the people who are knowable to you, or you thought were knowable, and now are acting either as brainwashed idiots or opportunists?
Luckily, I don’t think the frenzy in Boston matches everything that I find happening in Europe. For instance, I recently heard that a major festival in Florence canceled a Russian musical appearance. This is happening. It’s not a figment of the media’s imagination. I think we have been mostly spared such intolerant reactions here in Boston. I feel blessed living here because it’s a very enlightened and diverse community.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
It’s hard to dispense advice, so this is not advice, but it’s important to remember who we are. We should not attempt to abnegate one’s past and one’s roots, even as the world makes a strong connection between that past, those roots and today’s apparent evil. It’s very important to remain oneself, so I have not become less culturally Russian. Although I’ve lived in America for 35 years—and for only 20 years in the former Soviet Union, I know my Russianness, and I’m prepared to explain it. I also know what I left behind the turnstile of the Soviet border control, and I feel very grateful to my parents for getting me out.