Saying Farewell to the Soviet Union

March 12 2019

In this excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, Boris Fishman describes the liminal state of his family’s home in the weeks leading up to their departure from the Soviet Union for America. The year is 1988, and the author is nine years old:

It was like one of my father’s strange fairy tales: little by little—for free, for favors, for pay—the apartment began disappearing. The vanishing of the television, taken by one of my mother’s co-workers, caused me special grief. . . . My bookshelves were attached to the wall, so I believed they were safe, but one day they were gone, too. Then the Persian rug on which, on all fours, I read the sports pages. Then my bed.

The kitchen went last. A friend of my mother’s hauled away everything in it. They agreed on a price, but the woman gave us no money; she had a relative in America, and since each emigrant could take the equivalent of only $90 in currency (and $250 in possessions), the woman’s relative would pay 50 percent of the agreed-upon price when we got to America—for us, a way of getting out more currency than was allowed. Our position was weak: who knew if the phone number the woman scrawled on a piece of graph paper corresponded to an actual human? . . .

You can sleep on the floor, but you can’t eat the air; how to survive without a stove or a fridge? For the first time in my life, I experienced the dread of not knowing from where the next meal would come. No one had explained that those relatives and friends who did not fear associating with us—“men would not come to our plague-stricken house, but sent their wives instead,” as Nadezhda Mandelstam, the condemned Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam’s wife, wrote in more severe circumstances—would come with everything from utensils to foldout tables. My aunt brought braised beef with cubed potatoes and marinated peppers; blintzes stuffed with ground beef and caramelized onion; and a chicken stuffed with crepes and more browned onion, then roasted. All of this disappeared quickly. Departures like ours meant more helping hands, but also more mouths.

Though my grandparents’ home never lacked for guests, this was a different kind of assembly. The smartest people congregated in the kitchen, where the constant replenishment of the foldout table turned the day into a single, unbroken meal. But there were people standing—with glasses, or arms folded, or consoling hands atop grieving wrists—in every room, even mine. (Evidently, its emptiness had re-registered it as common property.) . . . The apartment hummed with festiveness, nerves, and anticipation. . . .

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More about: Arts & Culture, Immigration, Soviet Jewry, Soviet Union

War with Iran Isn’t on the Horizon. So Why All the Arguments against It?

As the U.S. has responded to Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf, various observers in the press have argued that National Security Advisor John Bolton somehow seeks to drag President Trump into a war with Iran against his will. Matthew Continetti points out the absurdities of this argument, and its origins:

Never mind that President Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, and Bolton have not said a single word about a preemptive strike, much less a full-scale war, against Iran. Never mind that the president’s reluctance for overseas intervention is well known. The “anti-war” cries are not about context, and they are certainly not about deterring Iran. Their goal is saving President Obama’s nuclear deal by manipulating Trump into firing Bolton and extending a lifeline to the regime.

It’s a storyline that originated in Iran. Toward the end of April, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif showed up in New York and gave an interview to Reuters where he said, “I don’t think [Trump] wants war,” but “that doesn’t exclude him basically being lured into one” by Bolton. . . . And now this regime talking point is everywhere. “It’s John Bolton’s world. Trump is just living in it,” write two former Obama officials in the Los Angeles Times. “John Bolton is Donald Trump’s war whisperer,” writes Peter Bergen on CNN.com. . . .

Recall Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes’s admission to the New York Times Magazine in 2016 [that] “We created an echo chamber” to attack the Iran deal’s opponents through leaks and tips to the D.C. press. . . . Members of the echo chamber aren’t for attacking Iran, but they are all for slandering its American opponents. The latest target is Bolton. . . .

The Iranians are in a box. U.S. sanctions are crushing the economy, but if they leave the agreement with Europe they will be back to square one. To escape the box you try to punch your way out. That’s why Iran has assumed a threatening posture: provoking an American attack could bolster waning domestic support for the regime and divide the Western alliance.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Javad Zarif, John Bolton, U.S. Foreign policy