“The genius under the table”

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“The genius under the table: growing up behind the iron curtain” by Eugene Yelchin
Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts, 2021,
Reading level: 5-6, comprehension level 9th ​​grade and above

Imagine for a moment that your actions and those of your family are recorded and later reported to the authorities. This is only possible in a society with a leader with immense power and the will to use that control to dominate a nation.

Unfortunately, a number of leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler led such reigns of terror. Such dictators use established laws when they are helpful to their totalitarian goals and break the same laws if they hinder their ambitions. The Russian nation has known a number of such rulers in the 20th century.

Totalitarian rulers often look for scapegoats during times of trouble who divert justified anger from the true source of evil to weak victims. Often the Jewish people are the target of this hatred. Derisively called “the Yids,” Jews are convenient scapegoats for outbreaks of anti-Semitism. Eugène Yelchin makes a brilliant, funny and disturbing account of it in his autobiography, “The Genius Under the Table: Growing Behind the Iron Curtain.”

The Yakovlevna family lives in a one-room apartment in Leningrad, Russia. Now renamed Saint Petersburg, Leningrad is located in the far north and experiences harsh winters. The youngest son, Yevgeny, sleeps under the family table at night. He is a disappointment to his parents, as he seems to have no talent. His older brother, Victor, is an exceptional figure skater.

At night, Yevgeny draws amazing pictures on the bottom of the table. His father is an ardent communist unable to advance in the army because of anti-Semitic hatred. Yevgeny’s mother works in the famous Leningrad ballet company. She dreams that clumsy Yevgeny will become a famous Russian ballet dancer. If the two boys are successful, the Communist Party will offer the family a better apartment and possibly an automobile.

While the older brother, Victor, is on his way to the Olympics, the younger brother struggles to find himself. It’s not easy because few people appreciate art and the family is constantly watched by KGB members. One wrong mistake and a person can disappear.

Yevgeny’s father is desperate to get a book of poems from a Russian poet, but the communist government disapproves of the poet’s writing. Finally, they allow the sale of a small number of copies. Mr. Yakovlevna is so eager to win the title that he leaves the one-bedroom apartment without proper winter clothes. Yevgeny runs after his father to bring him more clothes while waiting for the precious book. But the queue is endless and the brutal weather could ruin the older man’s health. But the health risk seems worth getting the poetry book. A few days later, tragedy strikes. Meanwhile, the KGB agent in their apartment building studies the daily activities of the entire Yakovlevna family to determine if they are enemies of the state. What happens?

Are the Yakovlevnas traitors? How can such innocent actions be considered attacks on the government? Why is everyone in Russia so terrified? Finally, where does all this Jewish hatred come from? To find the answers to these and other questions, head to the library and check out “The genius under the table” by Eugene Yelchin.

It is a sobering account of what happens when people lose their ability to act because of a tyrannical government. When people become terrified of their neighbors, what happens to the social fabric of society? Why the hell are the Jews blamed for all these problems? Yelchin’s autobiography is a timely warning to those looking for a powerful leader who can make and then break the laws of a country. The book is a witty, insightful and painful account of the Soviet Union. Highly recommended.

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