Back | Next



Some of my earliest memories are of books. They were everywhere in our apartment back in the Soviet Union; shelves stacked as high as the ceiling in the corridor and the living room, piles of them encroaching upon every nook and available surface like some benign infestation.

Strangers came by often, sometimes several times a day, and browsed the shelves. They spoke to my father, always quietly, as though they were in a library. Cash and books exchanged hands in either direction but there was little haggling, both parties reluctant to insult the books by arguing over their price like they might with a sack of potatoes.

I learned to read at the age of three. My parents showed off this talent proudly, bribing me with candy to sound out long, complicated words like “automobile” and “refrigerator” in front of their friends. I found it more difficult to pronounce the harsh Russian R’s than to put together the words written in Cyrillic block letters on scraps of paper.

Growing up, I struggled to grasp the complexity of the world around me. It didn’t help that everything was in flux, changes nearly as profound as the ones happening to my body. “Perestroika” and “glasnost” were the complicated words of the day, and I didn’t quite understand them, even though I could easily read them in newspaper headlines.

My father’s engineering job required him to constantly travel to sites in Western Ukraine, overseeing the installation and maintenance of heating and cooling systems in factories all over the region. He spent at least a week out of every month away from home and brought back suitcases full of books from every trip.

For a country with high literacy rates and voracious readers, it was surprisingly difficult to buy a good book. Store shelves were full of dusty reference materials and Marxist propaganda, but nothing one would want to read.

It went like this: the state-controlled book publisher produced a print run of “The Three Musketeers” by Dumas. One hundred thousand copies would be printed and distributed to stores across the Soviet Union. When a shop in a small town in Western Ukraine received its allocation of five copies, the store manager paid the retail price of under a ruble per book into the register and the books never reached the shelves. The manager then resold the copies to someone like my father, at a significant markup.

My father brought the books home with him and a stream of strangers would pick them up one at a time, paying cash or trading in volumes of even greater value. It is how he grew his collection on an engineer’s salary.

“This country is disintegrating,” my mother often complained upon his return. “The way things are going, there may be strife, perhaps even a civil war. This isn’t a good place for Misha to grow up.”

“He’ll always be safe here,” said Father with utmost confidence. “You know this to be true.”

Mother frowned and let the subject drop for a time, but it would come up again, with increasing frequency. After I went to bed, I often heard the muffled sounds of an argument coming from the kitchen.

My mother put her foot down when it became possible to legally emigrate.

“Things aren’t going well, Valentin,” she told my father. “Don’t you see this, when you go off on your business trips? We should leave while we can. Who knows how long it’ll be until the government clamps down again? Last time they let people go was in the seventies, and it may be another twenty-year wait if we miss our chance this time around.”

“I have an ethical responsibility to our neighbors,” he said, “to all the people of Belgorod. This town needs me in such chaotic times, more than ever. And while we live here, our family won’t come to harm, no matter how bad things might get elsewhere in Russia.”

“The only responsibility that matters is to Misha,” she said. “Even if you make the whole town calm and pleasant and secure, like a gilded cage, what happens later? He’ll be drafted into the military and sent away for two whole years, that’s what. How do you plan on keeping him safe then?”

After many versions of this discussion, some calm, some ending in screaming and tears, Father surrendered. Mother reached out to our distant relatives in America and asked them to help us apply for asylum as political refugees.

My father’s last stand on the issue was a few days after we received word that our status was being considered, and we’d need to come in for an asylum hearing at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. He pulled me aside when Mother wasn’t home.

“You’re almost twelve now, and you can think for yourself. You have a say, as part of this family. If you don’t want to go, and I don’t want to go, then your mother can’t force the issue.”

Father spoke earnestly, almost desperately.

“You’re so eager for everything America has to offer, but there are other… considerations,” he said. “I was hoping to have this conversation when you’re a little older, but it seems I’ve run out of time.”

Father paused. He looked as though he was about to dive into a cold pool.

“Our family has collected books for generations.” Father nodded at the overloaded shelves along the wall. “We are driven to it from a young age and dedicate our lives to obtaining and reading the best thoughts mankind has put down on paper. And as our collections grow, so does the peace and prosperity in whatever shtetl or town our family makes its home at the time.

“I know this may be difficult for you to believe in this age of science and logic, but it’s true. Our neighbors would always benefit, even in the worst of times, even during the pogroms, and the revolution, and the Great War. People living near our home would always fare better, the worst of conflicts and strife passing them by. The bigger the book collection, the larger physical area it seems to protect.”

Father paused, as if waiting for me to protest, to refute his superstitions. I said nothing and he smiled meekly.

“Call it magic or luck or a blessing, but it has worked for over a hundred years. I am able to keep the people of Belgorod safe, simply by doing what I love. But I shudder to think what might happen to them if we pack up and leave.”

I thought hard about the implications. It’s very easy to accept the idea that you’re somehow exceptional, at that age. What child doesn’t yearn for a superpower, or a door to Narnia, or some other confirmation that he’s extraordinary? But the idea of Father, so ordinary and familiar, being the one who’s special, acting as some sort of a wizard who protects his domain, that was far more difficult to process.

I was a quiet, bookish child, with few close friends and relatively little attachment to my homeland. Beginning a new life somewhere different and far away appealed far more than carrying on Father’s legacy of caring for people who didn’t care all that much about us.

“You don’t owe them a thing,” I said. “What have the townspeople done for you in return? We don’t have a lot of money, or respect. We don’t even have a car.”

“We may not be wealthy, or famous, but you can see for yourself that life in our town is fine. It’s not anything like what mom portrays it to be. And we do have a bit more money now that other engineers from the office and I have formed a cooperative. We can buy a car, and a VCR player, if we stay. Wouldn’t that be good?”

But my mind was already made up. I couldn’t wait to go to the land of Twain and Asimov and O. Henry.

“Come on, Dad,” I laughed. “Everyone in America has those things.”

We traveled to Moscow by train. Mother was right—things were pretty bad out there, compared to our quiet, civilized town. Even the capital itself appeared worn down by the winds of change.

My mother spent the entire trip preparing us for the interview. We had to make our case for refugee status, talk about how much we felt persecuted for being Jewish in Russia. Her network of friends and contacts suggested that mentioning the casual anti-Semitism of the Soviet system wasn’t enough. Specific examples were needed. I was coached to talk about getting my nose broken in a fight in first grade, and how the other kid picked on me because of my ethnicity.

Father grumbled at the long list of slights, real and perceived, but didn’t refuse to cooperate.

The interview was brief and mundane, almost a letdown after all the nervous anticipation. A bored woman who spoke Russian with a strange accent met with us for all of five minutes. Our faces must’ve been a blur, just one among the long line of families with interchangeable stories and dreams, seeking her permission to enter the Promised Land.

I dutifully recounted the time a bully punched me in the face. Did he really pick on me because I wasn’t Russian? Mother’s reasoning was persuasive but I wondered if the embassy official could see doubt and discomfort in my father’s eyes as I stumbled through the account of how it happened.

When his turn came, Father spoke of being held back at work, of Russian engineers promoted ahead of him, and of unkind words casually spoken at the office when his co-workers thought he couldn’t hear. Whatever reservations he had about moving to America, he didn’t try to sabotage the interview. And although he never complained about such things at home, it was clear to me that he was telling the truth.

We celebrated getting approved with a visit to the country’s first McDonald’s restaurant. There was a forty-five minute wait to get in, but we braved the long line in order to sample the exotic tastes of our future homeland.

Divesting a lifetime’s worth of possessions wasn’t easy. We sold some stuff, and gave away a lot more to friends and family. Books were among the last things to go.

At least a dozen people were coming in every day, and most of them left with large stacks of books. The empty gaps on our shelves were disquieting, even more so than the impending journey overseas. Father did his best to keep up a cheerful charade but whenever someone would leave, hefting a duffle bag full of Pushkin and Bulgakov, I could see the sort of sadness in his eyes one might experience when saying goodbye to their child.

Life in our town was getting significantly worse. Crime rates skyrocketed, people lost jobs, and prices of everything climbed relentlessly, surging upward nearly every other day. Father blamed himself and the diminishing book collection for these troubles, but news reports confirmed that all of Russia was experiencing similar upheaval.

I expected an “I told you so” from my always outspoken mother, but she only hugged Father tight whenever his gaze would linger too long on the empty bookshelves.

The trip across the ocean was almost a blur. I slept for most of the ten-hour-long flight aboard the Pan Am jet.

We arrived in New York City with nothing except several hundred dollars and a few suitcases full of clothes. It was less than a month before the August Coup and tanks rolling down the streets of Moscow. The Soviet Union was formally dissolved four months later.

My father cried on my thirteenth birthday.

We had been living in New York for almost a year then. Mother, who already spoke almost-passable English from studying it in Russia, was adjusting well. I was picking the language up quickly via a steady diet of action movies and afternoon cartoons. The new language did not come easily to Father, though. He found a menial job to support us while Mother undertook a computer programming course, but he wasn’t happy. Mother did her best to cheer him up but privately shared with me her fears that he was slowly sliding toward depression.

He scraped together some cash and bought me a beautiful volume of plays by Chekhov at a Russian bookstore in Brighton Beach.

“Happy birthday,” he said. “I remember how you told me you wanted to read these plays, not long before we left Belgorod.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll read them sometime.”

“Sometime?” Father frowned.

“I’ve decided not to read anything in Russian for now,” I said. “It’s to give me the extra time and incentive to learn English better instead. But it’s not forever. One day, when I’m bilingual, I’ll tackle Chekhov and Dostoyevsky and anything else I wasn’t old enough to enjoy in Russia.”

This was the first time I ever saw him break down and cry.

“It’ll be all right, Dad,” I told him, trying to offer some awkward comfort. “You’ll get used to this new life. We all will.”

“It’s not me,” he said, wiping his eyes with a sleeve. “By uprooting you and bringing you here, your mother and I have robbed you of your legacy.”

Not knowing what to say, I gave him a hug, brief but firm.

“Back in Belgorod,” he said, “we added a little bit of good into the world simply by collecting and reading great books. And now I broke up my collection and transplanted you here, away from a nice selection of Russian books and away from where you could do the most good for those around you.”

He trailed off, not crying again, but staring past me, no doubt dwelling on things lost.

“Dad,” I spoke quietly. He focused on me and I continued: “Who says they have to be in Russian?”

I took him by the hand and walked to my room, where a cardboard box housed the meager beginnings of my collection.

I showed my father a dozen well-worn paperbacks. Books by Heinlein and Hemingway, and authors I’d never heard of but couldn’t wait to try, bought for a quarter each at yard sales and Salvation Army stores.

“I can’t read them yet,” I told him. “But my English is getting better every day, and it won’t be long now.”

My father stared at the books, his fingers running gently along their cracked spines.

“I saved a little more money,” he finally said, “for your birthday. We should go and buy you a bookcase.”

We came from the country that no longer exists, on an airline that is now defunct. There’s no going back. Immigrants always make sacrifices in exchange for a chance at a better life, and some give up more than others. But I knew things were going to be OK. For the first time in months my father’s face was lit by a genuine smile.

This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.

The opening line is a mini-homage to Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie,” which does a brilliant job exploring some of the same themes. If you haven’t read it yet, put this book down, google it, and read it immediately. I’ll wait.

This is, by far, the most personal story I’ve written. My family emigrated from the former Soviet Union, just like the protagonist’s did. I was a couple of years older than the narrator and lived in a city rather than a small town, but many of the scenes (the US embassy, the father attempting to convince his son to stay) took place almost exactly as written in this story. And although the book magic I experienced as a child wasn’t literal, I dedicate this story to my late father, Yefim Shvartsman, and thank him for nurturing my lifelong love of reading.

Back | Next