Soap Opera Soviets


Review of Karpov’s Brain by  Gerald Green (Bantam 1984) 523pp.

Gerald Green is perhaps best known as the author of the television drama Holocaust. This was viewed by 500 million people world-wide and certainly no one can dispute the educational value of such an exercise. Yet for many who viewed Holocaust from another level, its over-simplification and sheer lack of sophistication to a large extent devalued the significance of the events it portrayed. Mr Green has now applied this successful formula to the subject of Soviet Jewry. He has squeezed this momentous struggle into over 300 paperback pages and this in turn will no doubt be reduced to the television screen for international viewing.

Karpov’s Brain is based on the story of the Jewish activist Anatoly Shcharansky, who was sentenced to thirteen years in camp and prison in July 1978. Karpov is the villain of the piece. An inveterate anti- Semite in the KGB’s Jewish department, he suffers the indignity of having the two halves of his grey matter separated in an operation performed by his former mistress who just happens to be the USSR’s top brain slicing surgeon. The latter, who is sympathetic to the ‘refusenik’ community, induces poor Karpov’s good brain—the other inclines to evil—to respond positively to the imprisoned Shcharansky figure.

Mr Green writes for an American, if not American Jewish, audience. In doing so, he blows the Shcharansky saga through a literary synthesizer to produce sweet music for his clientele. Abram Levitch, the Shcharansky figure in the book, is depicted as a docile, almost servile, character endowed with an obligatory Jewish sense of humour. He is carved more in the image of Tevye the Milkman than a flesh- and-blood hero of the Jewish emigration movement. Indeed, Soviet Jewish activists are transformed into stereotype Diaspora Jews as understood by soap opera addicts.

But Mr Green also writes for Mr Reagan’s America: the simplicity of the ‘evil empire’ syndrome is an added ingredient. The continued harping on both the idiocy and satanic credo of the Soviets and the saintliness of those who oppose them has the opposite effect to that intended—-such a crude approach can result only in an infantile anti-Americanism.

Mr Green creates a formal union between ‘refuseniks’—Jews seeking to emigrate to Israel, as personified by Levitch (Shcharansky)—and ‘democrats’—human rights activists, as personified by Zolkin (Sakharov). Some individuals such as Shcharansky felt it their duty as Jews to assist Sakharov in areas where their work for the Jewish movement would not be compromised. One forum was the Helsinki Monitoring Committee, designed to monitor Soviet compliance with the 1975 agreement. In Mr Green’s book, this becomes the ‘Freedom Committee’. In reality, Shcharansky—through the Helsinki Committee—worked within the letter of the Soviet legal system. All but two of the fifteen Helsinki Committee documents signed by him provided expertise based on the Jewish ‘refusenik’ experience. Moreover, the prosecution at the Shcharansky trial concentrated primarily on the defendant’s Jewish activities and minimally on his work for the Helsinki Committee. Mr Green’s ‘Freedom Committee’, however, suggests an approach on the part of its members which would indeed line them up for rapid arrest and trial on anti-Soviet charges.

Mr Green’s book will no doubt bring the issue of Soviet Jewry to the attention of a vast new audience. This, of course, is extremely important. It is, however, the education of the Jewish readership through this medium that is worrying. The commandeering of the issue of Soviet Jewry in a manner which integrates perceived US foreign policy objectives and the lowest common denominator in terms of audience appeal will not stimulate new approaches to aid Soviet Jews in the harsh real world.

Soviet Jewish Affairs May 1985

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