JUNE 11, 2021
Emil Draitser’s In the Jaws of the Crocodile: A Soviet Memoir is part of a trilogy. Preceded by his memoir, Shush! Growing up Jewish under Stalin, which chronicles the author’s childhood from 1945 to 1953, and followed by Farewell, Mama Odessa, an autobiographical novel describing the emigration process for Soviet Jews in the 1970s, the books offer the social and political picture of Soviet Jewish life in the first few decades after World War II.
On its face, In the Jaws of the Crocodile is a beautifully written account of a Jewish Soviet citizen who, through the course of his life, comes to realize that he not only wants but needs to emigrate from his homeland. However, on a deeper level, this is the story of a young man confronting lawlessness and evil, trying to make sense of it, and, having failed to do so, taking the extraordinarily difficult and dangerous step of leaving the system that imprisons him and millions of others. It is on this level that Draitser’s memoir stands as a moral guide for people around the world, including the United States, who face analogous challenges in their own lives.
Draitser begins the memoir with stories of his childhood, vividly describing his family, which lives on the edge of Soviet laws in one of its most vibrant and diverse of the nation’s cities, Odessa. His father, a housepainter nominally employed somewhere where he didn’t have to show up, makes his income “on the side.” This is a particularly fraught situation for the family in the period in which the memoir begins, because it is the year of Stalin’s death. The reforms that would be promulgated by Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, three years later, were not convincing evidence for anyone that the USSR would be transformed into a country with a stable system governed by the rule of law. The enormous fear of the Stalin era still hung in the air — in particular, the memory of an antisemitic campaign that targeted “cosmopolitans,” which included the infamous Doctor’s Plot, in which doctors around the country were persecuted merely because they were Jewish.
Draitser and his family are Jewish, and this complicates the young man’s choices about going to college. The most prestigious institutions had very small (and secretly administered) quotas for Jewish students, a situation not unlike that in the United States in the same period. Unlike in the American system, however, the risk of being denied entry to a college was conscription in the military. Draitser wants to study literature, but the odds are he won’t be accepted because he’s Jewish. He winds up studying technology, and that sets him on a course for a career that he doesn’t relish — yet it’s a job, and one that brings him to Moscow.
Following his interests in literature, Draitser seeks to write sketches for publication in addition to his full-time engineering work. Since Odessa was the wellspring of so much Soviet humor, he is pigeonholed by his origins into writing satirical pieces. His being born in the city is considered evidence of his natural proclivity for humor. One piece after another is picked up by newspapers and journals. The challenge he faces is that his genre, topical satire, is highly controlled in an authoritarian state. There are no written rules for what he can satirize, and what he can’t. In his memoir, he shares with us short essays he wrote that ridicule low- and middle-level management who failed to meet the expectations of the command economy’s dictates. In some instances, Draitser’s work was even able to “right a wrong” and help people hurt by the greed or insolence of those in positions of authority in their small communities or factories.
Draitser’s writing career continues to blossom, and he finds himself invited to submit pieces to the nation’s most prestigious satirical magazine, Crocodile (whence the title of the memoir), a magazine with the largest readership in the country. Things are going very well for the young part-time journalist. And then poor Draitser crosses a bridge too far, and a bridge he didn’t even know existed. I will not reveal the nature of the bridge — that’s for the reader to find out — but will say that Draitser unwittingly violated one of the unwritten rules, a rule he had surmised existed but didn’t see in front of him. At this point, with no opportunity to defend himself, Draitser’s career as a published writer begins to unravel.
He decides to abandon the precarious topical satiric journalism and joins a small group of liberal-minded writers who played hide-and-seek with censorship by composing satire in the Aesopian style, that is, writing between the lines. Eventually, getting tired of that cat-and-mouse game, he attempts to write traditional stories void of any satirical implications. However, they are rejected on the basis that they have Jewish flavor, which is the result of his home upbringing. And Draitser, accordingly, begins to see his country of birth in a new way.
The rule of law in the world, in some ways, can be dated back to the Magna Carta of 1215, which, perhaps for the first time in human history, established limitations on the arbitrary exercise of royal authority. In the USSR, a country with a beautiful constitution establishing all kinds of rights for its citizens, there was, in practice, no limit on authoritarian power. A Soviet-era joke tells of a Russian and American talking about freedom of speech, for example, which was guaranteed both by the Soviet Constitution and by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Russian asks, “What’s the big deal? We have freedom of speech, too.” And the American explains, “Yes, but we have freedom after speech.”
Draitser begins to see that he cannot live in a country in which he fears, night and day, that someone could arbitrarily take away not only his livelihood but his life. At this particular time in history, in the 1970s, he explains, Soviet authorities had — for a variety of geopolitical reasons — begun to allow a limited number of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel. Those Jews allowed to emigrate went first to Vienna, where they could decide whether they wanted to continue to Israel or make a new life for themselves in some other country, usually the U.S. or Canada.
However, the decision to apply for emigration — for the right to leave, according to Soviet propaganda, the greatest country on Earth — was not without significant risk. Some people were refused permission, and they would live out their lives in the USSR with a powerfully large stain on their records, with an impact on their housing and employment opportunities. We, in the West, came to know these people as “refuseniks,” and their fate, until the collapse of the USSR, was tragic. Those Jews permitted to emigrate had to go through a series of humiliating events as they gave up their Soviet life, piece by piece, including their jobs, apartments, and property — and for what? Life in an unknown place where they didn’t speak the language or know the culture, which might turn out to be as bad as Soviet propaganda painted it …
Draitser’s memoir, covering the years from 1953 to 1974, shows not only how he tried to become a part of the Soviet system, but how he learned, over the years, the moral cost of doing so. His leaving the USSR was a courageous act taken at the cost of great risk to himself and his family. The story he tells helps us understand not only his own life choices but also illustrates, very poignantly, the predicament of all individuals trapped in lawless systems and social contexts permeated with identity-based hate — in this case, antisemitism. Most importantly for this reader, Draitser’s splendid book helps us sympathize more deeply with people who make the extremely difficult decision to flee their homes, giving up everything they know and love, embracing an utterly unknown world with the hope that it will give them and their children a better, safer life.
Benjamin Rifkin is professor of Russian at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. His teaching and research interests lie in foreign language education, applied linguistics, second language acquisition, and contemporary Russian film. Rifkin has published over two dozen articles in peer-reviewed journals both in the USA and Russia, as well as chapters in edited volumes on these topics, and is the author or co-author of textbooks for Russian includingAdvanced Russian through History (Yale University Press) and Panorama: Intermediate Russian Language and Culture (Georgetown University Press).