Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, let’s start with a basic question. What are the stories gathered in
Dinner with Stalin
David Shrayer-Petrov: Above all else, Dinner with Stalin is about Russian Jews who found themselves abroad, first emigrating and later grafting themselves onto American soil. My characters perceive themselves, especially when overseas, as Americans—even though at home in the US they may think of themselves as Russians. But if you pressed them on the subject, “You’re Russian?” they would answer, “Yes, we’re Russian. Russian Jews.” As a writer I weave the fabric of my stories from different balls of yarn: my characters appear as Americans at work, as Russians at home, while in fact they have Jewish souls.
MDS: If we take the title story, “Dinner with Stalin,” as a symbol of the whole collection, how does it express the essence of your book?
DSP: The title story doesn’t only encapsulate the Jewish question. This group of émigré friends is visited by Stalin who has come from the other world. It’s actually an actor who masterfully plays Stalin, bringing the whole thing to the point of absurdity; the audience begins to believe him—the way they temporarily believe the actor playing Hitler in Ray Bradbury’s “Darling Adolf.” Present among this motley group are representatives of a number of nationalities of the former USSR, including Armenians, Azeris, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews. Here Jews enjoy parity, and the émigré protagonist and his wife, Mira, end up asking Stalin the most blunt questions about Soviet and Jewish history.
MDS: So in fact “Dinner with Stalin” is a fictional model of the former Soviet Union?
DSP: …yes, that’s right. And also a model of a United Nations session…
MDS: …convening in post-Soviet times…
DSP: …exactly. At this session representatives of different post-Soviet nations testify about Stalinism and other harrowing aspects of the past.
MDS: Let’s digress for a moment and talk about your path as both a writer of fiction and a Jewish author. You started out as a poet, and you hadn’t become a writer of stories until the 1980s, having already written three novels and two books of non-fiction. The short story became one of your chosen forms. Why do you think you embraced the short story later in your career?