Anatoli Rybakov

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Joshua Rubenstein

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Without question, the principal interest of [Heavy Sand] is in its portrayal of Jews during World War II. The novel tells the story of the Rakhlenko family, a large Jewish clan in the Ukraine who are destroyed by the Nazis. The first half of the book chronicles the life of the Rakhlenkos before and after the Revolution….

The family's life in the town is rendered with sentimental flourishes that, on occasion, strain the credibility of Rybakov's narrative…. Rybakov tends to exaggerate the stable, bucolic nature of life in the small Jewish towns of the Ukraine and Belorussia. We know, after all, that the great Jewish communities of the West were founded by those who had fled poverty and persecution….

From this point on, there is no denying the strength of Rybakov's story. Rybakov, who is Jewish and a decorated war veteran, does his best to show how desperately Jews tried to defend themselves. Unwilling to evacuate their homes in the face of German advances, ("They're a civilized nation, cultured, decent people … Show me one person they touched in 1918," mother reasons,) they are trapped by a ghetto, forced labor, and ultimately, death. Their heroic attempts to defend themselves as well as their often gruesome deaths are unprecedented scenes in contemporary Soviet literature….

Rybakov's novel and its attendant publicity in the West … cannot redress the deteriorating situation Jews face in the Soviet Union….

Heavy Sand is an eloquent attempt to remind its readers of Jewish suffering and heroism.

In this light, it is impossible to give a definitive explanation for the book's publication in the Soviet Union. But some things can be noted. Soviet citizens are attentive to the smallest changes of tone or factual detail that appear in newspapers, novels, or Party propaganda. Heavy Sand had to be approved by officials at the highest level of the Communist Party to reach publication. And this spring, for the first time in decades, Leonid Brezhnev, speaking at the 26th Party Congress, called for struggle "against Zionism and anti-semitism."

At the same time, we need to understand the two-faced character of much of the Soviet Union's official culture. Rybakov's novel has generated a good deal of attention in the West. The play Ladies' Tailor ran for only one week in Moscow in 1980 but foreign journalists remarked on its unique sympathy for Jews, giving the impression abroad that a shift in official policies was taking place.

No major change in government-sponsored anti-semitism has in fact occurred. Since the close of World War II, the regime has steadily destroyed access to Jewish culture, closed synagogues, and generally made it harder for Jews to believe thay have a future in Soviet society. Rybakov's novel is all the more remarkable for being permitted to express allegiance to Jewish history, for the regime has deprived Jews not only of their hopes for the future, but of their past as well. One novel alone cannot reflect the prospects for their lives in the Soviet Union today. (p. 24)

Joshua Rubenstein, "For Export Only? Jewish Culture in the Soviet Union," in New Boston Review (copyright 1981 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. VI, No. 3, June, 1981, pp. 23-4.

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