Can trauma be inherited? In this luminous memoir of identity, exile, ancestry, and reckoning, an American writer returns to Russia to face a family history that still haunts him

In 2013, researchers at Emory University conducted an experiment: They released a chemical compound smelling of cherry blossoms into a habitat of mice, then gave the mice an electric shock. Eventually, the mice learned to associate the scent of cherry blossoms with pain, and trembled whenever they smelled it. But the surprising part came after they had babies of their own: When exposed to that same scent, their offspring also trembled, though they'd never been shocked.

Which raises a question: what if our lives are lived in response to evens we can neither identify nor remember, that have their origins in the decades prior to our births?

In Young Heroes of the Soviet Union, Russian-American author and journalist Alex Halberstadt sets out on a quest to name and acknowledge a legacy of familial trauma, and to end a cycle of estrangement that afflicts his family. This journey leads him to track down his grandfather--one of the last living bodyguards of Joseph Stalin--and to examine the ways in which The Great Terror and decades of Soviet totalitarianism indelibly shaped three generations of his family. He goes back to Lithuania, where his Jewish mother's family was from, to revisit the trauma of the Holocaust and a pernicious legacy of anti-Semitism that has yet to be reckoned with. And he explores his own story, as a fatherless immigrant who arrived in America--to a housing project in Queens--as a twelve-year-old boy and struggled with feelings of rootlessness, identity, and yearning for home.

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