• Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

  • A Memoir and a Reckoning
  • By: Alex Halberstadt
  • Narrated by: Alex Halberstadt
  • Length: 9 hrs and 56 mins
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars (31 ratings)

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Young Heroes of the Soviet Union  By  cover art

Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

By: Alex Halberstadt
Narrated by: Alex Halberstadt
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Publisher's Summary

In this "urgent and enthralling reckoning with family and history" (Andrew Solomon), an American writer returns to Russia to face a family history that still haunts him.

Can trauma be inherited? It is this question that sets Alex Halberstadt off on a quest to name and acknowledge a legacy of family trauma, and to end a century-old cycle of estrangement.

His search takes him across the troubled, enigmatic land of his birth. In Ukraine, he tracks down his paternal grandfather - most likely the last living bodyguard of Joseph Stalin - to reckon with the ways in which decades of Soviet totalitarianism shaped three generations of his family. He visits Lithuania, his Jewish mother’s home, to examine the legacy of the Holocaust and pernicious anti-Semitism that remains largely unaccounted for. And he returns to his birthplace, Moscow, where his glamorous grandmother designed homespun couture for Soviet ministers’ wives, his mother consoled dissidents at a psychiatric hospital, and his father made a dangerous living dealing in black-market American records. Along the way, Halberstadt traces the fragile and indistinct boundary between history and biography.

Finally, he explores his own story: that of an immigrant who arrived in America, to a housing project in Queens, New York. A now fatherless 10-year-old boy struggling with identity, rootlessness, and a yearning for home, he became another in a line of sons who grew up separated from their fathers by the tides of politics and history.

As Halberstadt revisits the sites of his family’s formative traumas, he uncovers a multigenerational transmission of fear, suspicion, melancholy, and rage. And he comes to realize something more: Nations, like people, possess formative traumas that penetrate into the most private recesses of their citizens' lives.

Cover art: Komar and Melamid, What Is to Be Done? (from the Nostalgic Socialist Realism series), 1983 (photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s)

©2020 Alex Halberstadt (P)2020 Random House Audio
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

Critic Reviews

"In this urgent and enthralling reckoning with family and history, Alex Halberstadt describes the disjunction between his Soviet childhood and his American adolescence with incandescent wit, a sometimes bitter but always compelling nostalgia, and great literary flair. This book is a triumph over the shame he experienced as he was growing up, and a narrative of his struggle against steep odds to become a whole person." (Andrew Solomon)

"As a boy, the author of this haunting book immigrated to the United States, changed his name, and turned his back on his Soviet past. As a man, he reclaimed it, wrestled with it, and ultimately faced it head-on. The result is an exploration of family and memory that stayed with me long after I turned the last beautifully written page." (Anne Fadiman, author of The Wine Lover's Daughter)

"I remember being in a bar with Alex Halberstadt almost 20 years ago, talking about our families, when he said, ‘Did I ever tell you my grandfather was Stalin’s bodyguard?’ He hadn’t. I suggested that he write a book about it. Not in my most hopeful imaginings could that book have turned out to be as surprising, sad, funny, and engrossing as the one he wrote. This is history as memoir, and vice versa. Describing Russia in the twentieth century as a place where ‘the buffer between history and biography became nearly imperceptible,’ he made me feel how this is true of all places, for all of us." (John Jeremiah Sullivan)

What listeners say about Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

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  • Overall
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some depth and some historical narration

The book started with a nice trip across continents to Russia find mysteries of a family and mysteries of a history in USSR, its intriguing. However the second chapter suddenly dives into "History of Jews in Lithuania" which seems to be a completely different subject for a completely different book. Then the subject is all around the place all the way at some pooint to some kids (relatives of author) dressing as american indians, for no absolute reason. Its hard to focus what is happening for what purpose and clearly has no connection to Soviet union.

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Thoroughly enjoyed it despite the melancholia

I heard about this book on a podcast reviewing Robert Draper’s book To Start a War. At the end of the podcast, Draper recommended this book as a reflection on the decay of Soviet and Russian society. This book was certainly that but also a deeply personal story of immigration and loss. Very touching.

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Compelling Memoir

Beautifully written and read by the author. A bittersweet masterpiece of periods, places, personalities, and power, all brilliantly woven together as a family “memoir and reckoning.” A fascinating story of grandfather who was Stalin's bodyguard; an horrific story of the Lithuanian Holocaust; a compelling story of life in Cold War Soviet Union; and a very personal story of life in New York for a young, gay Jewish emigre. A different kind of book. Educational and evocative. Distinctive yet universal. Moving. Practically perfect in conception & execution.