Between the Lines Book Club: Little Failure and the History of Jewish Emigration From Russia

between the lines book club logoLittle Failure is a tragicomic memoir about Gary Shteyngart’s childhood.  He grew up in Leningrad and moves, with his Jewish parents, to America in 1979.

In the early 1970’s, the U.S.S.R. was firmly entrenched in a Cold War with the U.S.A., and leaving the U.S.S.R. was very difficult.  In 1974, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment stated that only nations that allowed their citizens to emigrate would be awarded “most favored nation” status.  Initially, the U.S.R.R became even more restrictive in terms of immigration, in protest to the pressure from the United States.  Following the Six Day War, the Soviet Union began granting more visas to Jews who want dot immigrate to Israel.  The peak years of immigration during this period were 1969-1973.  While many Jews went directly to Israel, others, known as “drop-outs”, would get as far as a transit center in Europe and then apply for US refugee visas.  In the 1980’s, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed unlimited Jewish emigration for the first time.

Today, it’s difficult to count the number of Russian Jewish immigrants in the US, because not everyone agrees on who should be counted.  According to an article on, by Paul Berger, there are anywhere from roughly 750,000 Russian-speaking Jews in the US to 500,000.  Experts estimate that 6% to 12% of Jewish people in America come from the former U.S.S.R.  Berger quotes Sam Kliger as saying, “By any account, the number of Russian-speaking Jews in the United States now probably exceeds those of Russia and Ukraine combined.  New York today is populated by more Russian Jews than any other place in the world.”


Gary Shetyngart’s father’s family, 1940s, Ukraine