Review: A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Review by Meghan Phillips

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book cover child with backpack and a bearIn September 1989, Lev Golinkin is nine years old and just back from a family vacation in Estonia. The old rotatory phone in his apartment in Moskovskyi Prospekt 90, Kharkov (now part of the Ukraine), USSR, rings and rings and rings with every caller bearing the same news: “Did you hear? America is closing the border. The U.S. Congress will stop accepting Soviet Jews: anyone who’s not registered in Vienna won’t be able to go to America. America is closing the border.”

After years of living in a climate of fear and intense anti-Semitism, these phone calls are the motivation the Golinkin family needed to leave the Soviet Union once and for all. The family’s journey from Kharkov to Vienna, Indiana, and eventually New Jersey are detailed in Golinkin’s memoir A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka (Anchor Books, 2014).

Despite his heavy subject matter, Golinkin writes about growing up in the Soviet Union with great wit and humor. He opens the first chapter of his memoir by describing the mandatory parades that celebrated everything from the Great Patriotic War to the first day of school: “We [the Soviet Union] had perfected parades; we had the best damn parades in the whole world. St. Patrick’s Day? Thanksgiving? Please. Macy’s has balloons. We had intercontinental ballistic missiles rolling through Red Square.” I couldn’t help but think of Mark Twain’s assertion that “[t]he secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow” when reading Golinkin. If Twain is right, then the oppression and anti-Semitism that Golinkin experienced as a child in the Kharkov was more than enough to develop his dark sense of humor.


Despite his heavy subject matter, Golinkin writes about growing up in the Soviet Union with great wit and humor.


The chapters in Golinkin’s memoir read almost like stand-alone essays. Each is titled with a key phrase from the narrative, and most focus on a specific incident or idea central to the larger story of the Golinkin family’s escape from the Soviet Union. The majority of the book’s chapters are organized chronologically, so the family’s life in Kharkov, their decision to leave their home, and the hardships they face on their way to America read like story. This linear approach makes it easy to forget that Golinkin is an adult writer reflecting on his childhood. As the story progresses, however, flashes of Golinkin in his early twenties, a young man who has worked so hard to disavow his past that if anyone asks him where he’s “really from” he says New Jersey, are sprinkled throughout. The last few chapters follow the adult Golinkin as he attempts to claim his past and his identity as a Russian Jew.

These last chapters of the book mark a clear shift in the tone and focus of the memoir. Whereas the majority of the story was centered around the Golinkin family’s experience escaping an oppressive regime and adjusting to life in the U.S., the last quarter of the book finds Golinkin working to understand who he is. In the prologue, he observes that “you can’t have a future if you don’t have a past.” Golinkin tries to find his past by interviewing key individuals who made his family’s escape possible and revisiting the stops his family made during their emigration. Through this process, the reader is left feeling that Golinkin finds some peace in confronting his painful past. And despite the more personal turn, A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka will appeal to anyone interested in the emigrant experience.

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