I Sat on Stalin's Lap by Markas Zingeris
When Jasha Blyumin, a translator of American musicals for Lithuanian theatres, faces surgery to treat his heart condition, he reflects upon his fascinating life, starting as a child born into a Jewish family. To avoid exile in Siberia, the young Jasha was sent to take part in a Russian classics recital contest in Moscow. Emerging as the winner, he was rewarded with the opportunity to sit on Stalin’s lap for a picture that would eventually circle the entire USSR, and beyond.
As the novel travels back and forth between Jasha’s past and present, we share the most exciting time of his life, a doomed teenage romance with his classmate Viva Buras, the daughter of a Brazilian repatriate family, amid the absurdism of the Soviet ‘socialist paradise’. Later we see him in the crowd of protesters standing against the Soviet tanks during Lithuania’s Singing Revolution, as the regime crumbles. His old school friends all carry the weight of their Soviet past in polarising ways, in their new lives as oligarchs in Moscow or musicians in New York. Some fall apart, others attempt to maintain the faded glory.
In this offbeat, funny and heart-warming account of dramatic political and historical events, the author portrays the lives of ordinary people set against the clash of regimes and their fall. It reads like a Soviet-era Wes Anderson dream with a cast of three generations of Lithuanian Jews – a minority which has almost vanished in the country today. This is an absorbing novel that is hard to put down.
Markas Zingeris is an award-winning writer, translator, poet and playwright, whose work has been translated into several European languages. He was expelled from university for refusing to join the Communist Party, but managed to earn a degree in journalism in 1971. Zingeris is currently a Director of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum.