Life & Culture

Ordinary Soviet life of a perfect Purim personality

Emil Draitser's memoir provides a rare, vivid insight into the lives of ordinary Jews in the Soviet Union.


In the Jaws of a Crocodile: A Soviet Memoir

by Emil Draitser

University of Wisconsin Press, £22.05

What’s a Purim miracle? A Jewish boy getting into Moscow University!

Charlie Chaplin once commented that “to truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it”. For Jews, living in authoritarian societies such as the Soviet Union, black humour and satire were natural, cultural antidotes. 

Emil Draitser, the author of this perceptive book, worked for Krokodil, a satirical publication. It was not a Soviet Private Eye; its stringers were not investigative journalists in the British sense — its task was “to ridicule things the state apparatus has proved wrong and worthy of criticism”. 

This Soviet memoir is not a grand history of courageous Jews fighting to leave for Israel. It is the story of ordinary Jews who try to maintain their identity in a society that discriminates against them — and it is studded with wonderful quips. 

Jewish writers were compelled to russify their names. Grisha Kremer became Grigory Kroshin for his readership. Draitser’s real first name was Samuil, but he changed it to the more acceptable and recognisable Emil after the French writer Émile Zola and the Czech athlete, Emil Zátopek.

Draitser’s mother knew that, for her son to have any chance in life, he had to enter university. Yet Krushchev ratified the numerus clausus, the quota system, directed at Jews, claiming “Jews never feel educated enough”. In the Soviet education system Jews like Draitser and others of humble origin never stood a chance, regardless of their intellectual prowess. Yet Draitser did enter college — he discovered later that his father and uncle had decorated a dean’s living room. Corruption also extended to buying exam papers beforehand. There was even a black market in private tutors. 

Draitser’s parents lived in fear of a repeat of the 1950s notorious, antisemitic Doctors’ Plot. He, however, was a member of the shestidesiatniki, the ’60s generation, a follower of Bob Dylan in the US and Yevtushenko and Vosnesensky in the USSR.

Draitser became adept at “writing between the lines” so that an astute readership was able to interpret the inner meaning of any article. But he inevitably ran into trouble. In 1971, he lampooned a very poor play he had seen in the town of Belgorod. But the playwright had powerful friends, extending to the Minister of Culture. Draitser was denounced by Literaturnaya Gazeta and then lost his job at Krokodil. 

He began to consider emigration — among the intriguing differences, he couldn’t understand why American tourists smelt so fragrant (deodorants were not manufactured in the Soviet Union). And, in 1974, he obtained an exit visa and emigrated to the United States, where he has become a writer and teacher. 

Now truly at home, his memoir is peppered with Americanisms for a domestic audience. Nevertheless, it provides a rare, vivid insight into the lives of ordinary Jews in the Soviet Union.

Colin Shindler is emeritus professor at Soas, University of London



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