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A Purim "Shpil" in Soviet Moscow

It was early 1987, and Jewish emigration was at a virtual standstill. What better way than a drama of victory over ancient enemies to sustain our own hope of escape?


A teacher of Hebrew at the Moscow Synagogue in 1990. Steven L. Raymer/National Geographic/Getty Images.

A teacher of Hebrew at the Moscow Synagogue in 1990. Steven L. Raymer/National Geographic/Getty Images.

Observation
Feb. 29 2016
About the author

Maxim D. Shrayer, born in Moscow in 1967, is a professor at Boston College and the author, most recently, of Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, a National Jewish Book Award finalist. He is also the editor of Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories by his father, David Shrayer-Petrov, a Wallant Award finalist.


The time was 1987, the place Moscow. Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union was at a near-standstill. In 1986, out of the roughly 1.5 million Jews remaining in the USSR, only about 900 were allowed to leave. Tens of thousands of refuseniks—Jews who had applied for permission to emigrate, been denied or placed on hold, and were meanwhile punished for their effrontery and persecuted—were left in what seemed like an interminable state of limbo. Among them were my father, my mother, and I, then close to my twentieth birthday.

And then in early spring 1987, thanks in part to the society-wide reforms inaugurated by Mikhail Gorbachev, to mounting pressure from the U.S. and its political allies, and to the heroic efforts of the Soviet refusenik movement, the cloud appeared to lift; by the end of that year, we along with many others would win deliverance. And so the holiday of Purim in March of that year stands out as one of our brightest memories.

The story of Purim, after all, as told in the biblical book of Esther, is a story of sudden redemption in the face of unimaginable odds. Myth and memory have mingled and lived on in Purim traditions—which is why, for Jews in post-World War II Russia, associations with ancient Babylonia and Persia rang close to home. Older people spoke of March 5, 1953, the day of Stalin’s death, as a day of Jewish liberation. They were referring to the anti-Semitic campaign of Stalin’s last years, culminating in the so-called Doctors’ Plot when many Soviet Jews feared the worst. In my refusenik youth, the idea of a miraculous escape from persecution, an escape through some fateful intervention, resonated with special significance.

One of the ways Jews have historically celebrated the joy of Purim is by mounting brief skits or full-length plays, known in Yiddish as Purim shpiln, recapitulating and taking off from the story of the beautiful Queen Esther, her wise and enterprising cousin (and adoptive father) Mordecai, the villainous vizier Haman, and the brutish but clueless King Ahasuerus. In Moscow, as in Leningrad and other big cities, troupes of amateur or unemployed actors and musicians, drawn heavily from the ranks of refuseniks, would make the rounds every year, putting on multiple clandestine performances in the days and weeks surrounding the holiday. Attending a Purim shpil in a crowded apartment, we would relish these little dramas of victory over ancient enemies and dream of our own escape from Soviet captivity.

In early 1987, the leader of one such unsanctioned troupe approached my father, the writer David Shrayer-Petrov, in hopes of persuading him to compose a new Purim shpil. My father, by then a veteran refusenik—my parents had applied for an exit visa back in 1979 and been promptly stripped of their professions—was a published poet and lyricist, novelist, and sometime playwright who as a refusenik had been blacklisted and unable to publish in the USSR. His interlocutor, Roman Spektor, a tall sinewy man in his thirties, was a charismatic figure with a mane of unkempt black hair, a curly beard, and charcoal eyes.

I remember the meeting well. Spektor arrived at our apartment with two key members of his troupe. They were hoping, they said, for something more than the usual Russian-language rendering of the book of Esther puffed up with Yiddish and Hebrew songs. Something more, and something different: a Purim shpil infused with contemporary politics, a play that would be poignant, topical, biting. Spektor cited the early-modern example of the Italian commedia dell’arte: itinerant players who, upon coming to a new town, would absorb the local news and gossip and quickly weave them into the fabric of their show. In particular, Spektor wanted my father to incorporate references to contemporary Soviet politics as well as prevailing attitudes in the refusenik community.

Father treated the commission as though it had been proffered not by an underground band of disenfranchised thespians but by Moscow’s leading theater. In two weeks he had the Purim shpil written, and rehearsals began.


A restored and digitized version of the original shpil discussed herein.

 

I was fortunate to observe the writing process from the inside, as Father and I discussed his Purim shpil almost daily. From the outset he’d resolved to shift the historical timeframe by setting the play not in the ancient Persian capital of Shushan but in a composite totalitarian empire experiencing the birth pangs of change. The subject of Gorbachev’s nascent reforms was indeed a captivating one in early 1987, but my father was careful not to let it dominate the script or the overall spectacle. My own favorite element was the chastushki, rhymed couplets in the Russian folk tradition that he composed for the evil Haman and for Vashti, Ahasuerus’ banished queen. Performed to the accompaniment of either a lone guitar or a small klezmer-style band, these rhymes included up-to-date topics and events. Those ranged from the beating of refusenik women by the regime’s goons to—in one of the most hilarious numbers—a recent episode featuring the American talk-show host Phil Donahue, who had come to Moscow in January to tape a week’s worth of shows and managed to discover a silver lining in every aspect of official Soviet behavior, including the brutal treatment of the refusenik community.

Over the months of rehearsals, and of performances that would extend from the middle of March into April, I got to know the members of the troupe very well. Most were in their twenties and early thirties, and most were refuseniks, though one outstanding exception was the male lead, Aleksandr Ostrovsky, who brilliantly played King Ahasuerus and who in his day job was employed in one of Moscow’s myriad engineering offices. They were a lovely group of people, remarkably free of the jealousies and intrigues so common among theater people. Besides the explosive Spektor and the languorous and witty Ostrovsky, the core members included Lev Shchyogolev (Haman) and his sister Irina (Esther). Lev was a fighter with the heart of a civic-minded Russian poet; Irina, our prima donna, was a true Ashkenazi beauty. There was also the gentle Gennady Milin, who played one of Haman’s two henchmen (Roman Spektor played the other).

The youngest performer was Nadya Ilyina, my contemporary and the daughter of our refusenik friends Pavel Ilyin and Mikaella Kogan. A pianist with a pale freckled face and red hair worn loose, Nadya played Vashti, rendering the disgraced queen’s feisty, politicized couplets with punchy perfection. The other musicians included the violinist Alla Dubrovskaya, without whom there would have been no plaintive or joyous Jewish tunes filling the impromptu performance spaces; the guitarist and songwriter Aleksandr Lantsman, who played Mordecai and directed the band; the guitarist Sasha Mezhiborsky; and Feliks Abramovich on tambourine and melodica. Various family members and “groupies” served as support staff. My close friend Maxim Mussel, today a marketing guru and filmmaker, accompanied me to many performances.

Traveling to an underground gathering at someone’s apartment, often via a combination of subway, bus, trolley, and streetcar, with bags full of costumes and props and musical instruments in beat-up cases, we could indeed have been mistaken for an itinerant troupe of entertainers. Typically we would arrive early to set up, eating whatever we had brought with us or were offered by the hosts; after the performance we sometimes stayed on, singing and partying into the night. And yet even at our most lighthearted moments, sharing a drink or a kiss or a raunchy joke or a line from a beloved poet, I suspect I was not alone in being mindful of what we really were: a transient solidarity that would fall apart and disperse whenever its members were permitted to leave Russia for good.

 

O, those motley assemblies, those Jewish spectacles in overheated apartments with windows wide open to the Soviet street: one never knew for sure who would show up and join the audience of refuseniks. Friends of friends would invite friends of friends. Foreigners would turn up, including American students spending a semester in Moscow. So would various odd characters, artists, silent frowning old men in derby hats, bejeweled and heavily scented women.

Once my father invited along our good friend Genrikh Sapgir, a poet and playwright, as well as two visiting American college girls, and we all shared a ride in a jam-packed, smelly trolley while communicating in “Rusglish.” On another occasion, I invited Jamie and Betsy Cooper, children of the American historian John Milton Cooper, Jr. who was in Moscow on a Fulbright, to attend a performance in a posh apartment building not far from the Pushkin Art Museum. When we rang the bell, the austere-looking Jewish lady opening the door refused to let us in until I was able to convince her that I was the author’s son. “And who are these two?” she demanded, pointing to the Wisconsin-bred brother and sister. “They are my friends from America, they are with me.” “Too many young foreigners, that’s my crummy opinion,” she grumbled, finally undoing the chain to let us in. And then there was the time I arrived only to be informed by the host, a man who forced his children to speak Hebrew at home, that attendance that evening was restricted to those committed to going to Israel.

Our chance encounters as we went around town allowed me to interact with Soviet Jews from many walks of life. I met refuseniks so uncompromising in their religious observance, or so single-mindedly intent on aliyah to Israel, that it was difficult to converse openly with them. I also ran into refuseniks who, even after years and years of being stuck in limbo, would still not countenance the idea of Israel as a destination, regarding it as an alien and illiberal place. Especially meaningful to me were random conversations with Jews teetering on the verge of applying for an exit visa themselves. How many had been wanting to emigrate or actively considering it? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? I also came across some, including my peers, who said they wanted to express themselves freely and openly as Jews but could not imagine leaving Russia.

In those days, the rumor mill was also burbling with reports of funding that would surreptitiously soon arrive from Israel to finance a real grassroots refusenik company or even a full-fledged theater. For over two decades, two forces had been shaping the intellectual life of the Jewish movement in the Soviet Union. The politiki (“politicals”) stood firmly on the bedrock of Zionism and aliyah. The tarbutniki or kul’turniki (“culturals,” from the Hebrew and Russian words for culture) fantasized about legalized Jewish cultural autonomy within Russia itself. Now, with Gorbachev’s reforms moving beyond rhetoric to enactment, emigration was beginning again to seem a real possibility; at the same time, though, some “culturals” were hoping for an easing of restrictions and a restoration of Jewish religious and cultural life. After all, some mused, the emigration door might not fully reopen for a while: shouldn’t we, at least for the time being, seize what we can?

Toward the end of the Purim shpil season, two members of “our” troupe paid my father an unexpected visit. I was home. It was a wet April evening with earthen smells of spring wafting in through the tiny kitchen fortochka (a quarter-sized window). “We heard, well, actually, we’ve been told,” they fumbled, “there was going to be a theater. Yes, we’ve been told it would be under your tutelage. David’s Theater. Why weren’t we even consulted?” Taken aback, my father assured them he’d heard of no plans for any such theater.

Just a couple of days later, the refusenik activist Yuli Kosharovsky came to see my father—by now, not unexpectedly. An aura of mystery enveloped this man. An electrical engineer by training and an underground Hebrew teacher who had been a refusenik since the early 1970s, Kosharovsky was a person of few words, but when he spoke he exuded elegance, wit, and resolve. My father’s junior by about five years, he was known to be one of the generals of the refusenik community—but in contrast to the Prisoner of Zion Vladimir Slepak, whom I had come to know well, Kosharovsky came across not as a man of the barricades, of street protests and demonstrations, but as a quiet strategist behind the scenes.

Kosharovsky and my father spoke in the den, behind closed doors, then went outside to continue their conversation. When they returned, my father seemed distressed. I joined them in the hallway and we made small talk for a few minutes. Kosharovsky inquired about my university studies and then mentioned his son, who was younger than I and perhaps still in high school. “He has but one fiery passion,” he said, slightly paraphrasing a poem by Lermontov.

“Israel?” my father asked.

“No, no,” Kosharovsky replied with a thin half-smile. “Computers.”

“Thank you for your visit,” my father said in a quiet tone.

“I guess I will be seeing you at the closing performance,” said the slender Kosharovsky, who resembled a Chekhov suddenly converted to Judaism.

After he left, my father and I took our regular evening stroll around the neighborhood, which led around the wrought-iron fence of a KGB hospital and past the maternity hospital where I was born. I learned why the visit upset him. At first Kosharovsky had spoken admiringly of his literary work and the Purim shpil. He owned a copy of the collection Being a Refusenik, which had recently appeared in Israel and contained the first part of my father’s epic novel about refuseniks, Herbert and Nelly. A writer like him needed support, Kosharovsky said. Would he be interested in directing a Jewish theater? Regular productions and performances? New plays?

All of this sounded very attractive, yet my father reminded Kosharovsky that local Jewish autonomy wasn’t what refuseniks ultimately wanted. How about for the time being, Kosharovsky asked, while we’re still waiting? Well, perhaps, my father conceded, and then his guest pressed harder. Even if you do receive permission to leave, might you instead consider staying behind and taking charge of the newly founded Jewish theater? To this my father replied that he didn’t want to stay in Russia, that all he wanted was to get his family out. Will you go to Israel, Kosharovsky then asked, point-blank?

Both he and my mother had very close relatives in Israel, my father answered, a living uncle and a number of first cousins. But whether or not we would go there was our family decision, a decision by all three of us. He couldn’t and wouldn’t give a guarantee. Kosharovsky nodded silently and sternly, signaling that the conversation was over.

 

The final performance of my father’s Purim shpil took place at our Moscow apartment. It was a sunny afternoon, with glass beads stringing themselves on the rivulets of water formed by melting snow. All the movable furniture had been cleared from my parents’ bedroom. Windows were opened to let in the fresh air. Chocolate-brown drapes with printed clusters of blue gardenias fluttered in the April wind, creating a backdrop for the actors and musicians and blocking the view of crooked pine trees and the wrought-iron spikes on the fence of the Institute of Atomic Energy.

More than 50 people had thronged the room, feet extending into the narrow proscenium. The performance was videotaped by an American diplomat. He was young and physically fit, a redhead; his wife was excited to describe the abundance of goods in U.S. supermarkets; later, their two little kids would inherit my favorite stuffed dog and my made-in-East-Germany train set. It’s hard for me today to watch the surviving video. I choke with tears as my father, called up by the director, joins the cast on stage at the end of the performance. I watch him dancing an exuberant freylekhs with the members of the troupe, levitating in his heavy tortoise-shell frames, sky-blue suit, and embroidered blue velvet kippah. He looks exhausted from his years of being fenced in, yet somehow, among these young performers, unimaginably happy. He twirls around with Esther, then with Vashti. He kisses the actors and actresses on stage like a father kissing his children. He seems at home in their element, a refusenik author for refuseniks, a dancing outcast among the dancing children of refusal.

More about: Arts & Culture, History & Ideas, Purim, Religion & Holidays, Soviet Jewry