Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Familyby Chaim Potok
From the author of The Chosen comes a work of nonfiction that chronicles the stormy lives of a Jewish father, Solomon Slepak, an infelxible old-guard Bolshevik, and his son, Volodya, who became an internationally renowned "refusenik" hero during the 18 years of his persecution for attempting to leave the Sovviet Union. Potok tells their story with deep understanding and empathy. 13 photos.
Volodya Slepak's name will be familiar to anyone who was active in the movement to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s and '80s. He and his wife, Masha, were two of the most steadfast of the "refuseniks," Jewish activists who were denied exit visas to emigrate to Israel from the Soviet Union. What is less familiar about Slepak is his family's unusual history. His father, Solomon, was a high-ranking functionary in the Bolshevik movement who weathered the purges and bloodshed of the Stalin era. Virtually until his death in his late 70s, Solomon continued to uphold the party and the Kremlin, disdaining his son's political activities. Potok, who first encountered Volodya when he himself was active in the movement for Soviet Jewry, has had access to many hours of taped interviews with Volodya, Masha, their two sons, and other family members and friends, and he has used them to reconstruct the story of a bitterly estranged father and son, and the ideological civil war that split them apart. Regrettably, because so much of the history of Solomon's life is missingthe KGB wouldn't release his files, much of his early story can only be garnered by reconstruction and guessworkthe first half of the book is sketchy and unsatisfying. When Potok begins to trace Volodya's history, his novelist's eye and ear help bring the tale to life. But the end of the story is a somber one, with both Volodya and the author given to pessimistic ruminations on the future of their respective homelands.
While not on a par with his best fiction, this Potok offering will engage many readers, particularly those with vivid memories of the struggles of, and for, Soviet Jews.
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The story of the Slepak family -- the father a Bolshevik revolutionary, and the son a Soviet dissident -- is fascinating. It blends a very personal biography with significant historical events, cultural influences, at times cruel and at times nonsensical political decision-making, and an exploration of what it takes for a people to risk everything for a hope and a future. In this case, truth is stranger -- and better drama -- than fiction.