A Backpack, A Bear, and 8 Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Genre: Memoir
Secondary genre: Modern history
Format read: Audio
Content warnings: bullying, racist slurs
Rep: Ukranian/Russian, Jewish (racial), refugee, immigrant/1st gen American
Rating: planchet-4

In the 80s, the Russian government was in flux. After a period of anti-Jewish legislation, Mikhail Gorbachev open the borders briefly, allowing Jews and other “undesirable” people to flee. Among them was Lev Golinkin and his family: his parents, older sister, and grandmother.

Tracing his time growing up in what is now Ukraine, through their flight to Vienna and eventual immigration to the US, this book tells a heartbreaking story of the world as it existed around the time when I was born. Littered with humor, it’s an ultimately hopeful tale, but still makes us look at the world we live in today through a different lens. How much has changed since then? How have we really progressed? Are things better? These are questions Lev asks himself as an adult, returning to Vienna to interview the people who made his immigration possible.

As with most of the nonfiction I’ve read, it’s hard to summarize the story into something as short as a blog post without giving away the details. But it’s a wonderful book and one that I highly enjoyed listening to on my commute. If you are curious about the 1980s, international politics, immigration, or Eastern Europe, then this is a definite pick.