Can trauma be inherited? 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 ten-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)
“A loving and mournful account that’s also skeptical, surprising and often very funny. . . . Confident, precisely drawn imagery . . . will make you remember what [Alex] Halberstadt describes in his own unforgettable terms. . . . A thread that runs through Halberstadt’s book is the inheritance of trauma—how ‘the past lives on not only in our memories but in every cell of our bodies,’ another version of the historical record that gets inscribed into our genetic code. Those parts of the book are elegantly delineated, but it’s the unexpected specificity of Halberstadt’s observations that ultimately make this memoir as lush and moving as it is.”—Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

“I remember being in a bar with Alex Halberstadt almost twenty 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, author of Pulphead
 
“Alex Halberstadt is a magnificent writer. Young Heroes of the Soviet Union is a beautiful book about trauma and its impact on one extraordinary family, and an incisive, radiant look at the long legacy of suffering and war.”—Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City
 
“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
 
“Alex Halberstadt writes honestly and movingly about what is inescapable in a family, the toll pain inflicts on the ones we love, and how that pain echoes across generations. Young Heroes of the Soviet Union is many things—including a history of twentieth-century Russia and an immigrant story—but at heart, it’s a coming-of-age story in which wisdom is attained through forgiveness and compassion.”—David Bezmozgis, author of The Betrayers
 
“Reading Young Heroes of the Soviet Union is an immersion in waters of profound depth and bracing lambency. The light glows in the quiet acuity of the prose. And it shines on vast and dire patterns that transcend the merely personal—the unfathomable hardships that nations and families inflict on people, and how we endure. This truly excellent book will transform your understanding of what memoir can do.”—Wells Tower, author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned