Last Updated September 5, 2023.
A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin is about journeys. There is the literal, geographical journey that the young Lev takes with his family to escape persecution and oppression; then there is the metaphorical journey the adult Lev takes back to his past. However, the latter is also a literal, physical journey, as Lev travels back to the former Soviet Union, retracing the migration his family undertook as refugees.
By attempting to retrace his family's exodus, Lev is able to dissect the political and social circumstances that led to his Jewish family's persecution. Part memoir, part historical documentation, A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is a book that tries to connect Lev's personal narrative with the larger world history.
The title of the book itself contains clues, or symbolism, regarding Lev's literal and metaphorical journey. The backpack is synonymous with journeys. Unlike luggage or duffel bags, the backpack can hold only a few items, so one is forced to take only essential items with them. This shows the abrupt ending to Lev's childhood and the beginning of his exile.
On the other hand, the teddy bear Lev carries with him symbolizes his attempt to take a part of his childhood—his innocence and the last bit of peace in his young life—into the unknown. Despite the harsh, dark realities of the world, Lev carries his stuffed toy like an amulet for protection. Later on, the bear will become a reminder of his lost youth.
The crates of vodka symbolize not only Russian identity but also hints of the perilous journey Lev's family had to take through the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. The vodka became currency to bribe Soviet authorities during their passage.
In Lev's past, he and his family journeyed toward the future, toward a new beginning. In the present, the adult Lev journeys toward the past in order to fill the void that he has been living with as an adult. In the end, Lev finds answers and closure.