By David Michael Newstead.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Paul M. Levitt, author of the novel Stalin’s Barber. Our conversation is below and check out my review of Stalin’s Barber.
David Newstead: When did you first get the idea for the book? How did you think of it?
Paul M. Levitt: I guess you might say it’s been ruminating for a long time. My father was born in Ukraine. During my childhood, I often heard stories about Russia. The topic of Russia was always in the house with friends and family. The one story I never heard was why people were willing to confess to crimes they never committed, even without being tortured. Answer: for the greater good, namely, Socialism. I think my father and others like him found it difficult to think badly of the Russian Revolution, because it overthrew the despotic Czar. He could still remember pogroms against Jews committed by the Romanovs, so even though he knew Stalin was a monster, it was just different.
Then, the idea for the Turkish haircut and barbering came from a friend who had recently returned from Istanbul. Having had such a haircut, he described it to me. The moment he did, I knew that I had solved a major problem: how to get close to Stalin.
David: When did your father leave Ukraine? And what was his profession?
Paul: He left right before the Russian Revolution in 1917. He was a business man. Eventually, he started a cosmetics company that went under during the Great Depression. Later, he found success with other businesses. My father was a very generous man. Very kind man. I suspect that the memory of his experiences in Russia framed that kindness towards other people.
David: Can you describe the research you did to create the in-depth atmosphere of the story?
Paul: I actually spent seven years reading the fiction and non-fiction of the Soviet period, as well as numerous histories.
David: Have you visited Russia or conducted any interviews there in preparation for your book?
Paul: Yes, I have been to the Soviet Union, and yes, I spoke to friends in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.
David: What challenges did you face while writing?
Paul: Getting information is always a challenge. There are still archives in Moscow that aren’t open to the public. I asked Soviet scholars various questions, but I knew their information was limited as well. To bridge that gap, I did things like read every memoir that’s ever been written about Solovki prison camp. I’ve never been there, but again, it’s about getting at the accurate information that does exist.
David: Did you learn more about your own family history in the process?
Paul: Shortly before my father died, I conducted a series of interviews with him that I taped. I did the same with my mother who came from a Polish family, so I got a lot of information from that. I often tell my students to interview their parents and older relatives and ask them important questions now, because your parents won’t be around forever. In my own house, we didn’t have an attic for old diaries or ledgers, so my parents had all this information from over the course of their lifetime.
My father was the youngest of eleven children. The first five didn’t like what the found in America, so they returned to Russia and ultimately didn‘t survive. Just to explain how certain aspects of Jewish immigration worked. My family benefited from the efforts of Baron Maurice de Hirsch who was a wealthy German-Jewish industrialist. He had made a fortune constructing railroads across Europe, then put a lot of those profits into assisting other European Jews, including financing their immigration to the Western Hemisphere. This was started around the late 1800’s. So it’s because of Hirsch that my father and other family members were able to start a life in America.
David: When did you first want to become an author?
Paul: I’ve been writing since an early age. My older sister was a theatre studies major in college and I used to read her stuff. I got my start writing plays. I wrote for the BBC for a number of years, but it all probably started in Junior High.
David: So returning to your novel, why Stalin? Why a Barber?
Paul: I wanted to understand the Soviet period. What better way to understand it than through Stalin? The barber enabled me to put someone close to Stalin, who was notoriously paranoid. One of Stalin’s actual barbers was a Jewish man named Karl who he had put to death, so there’s some basis in reality for the story.
David: You repeatedly mention Turkish-style Barbering and Hair Singeing. What made you want to include that so prominently in the book?
Paul: If Avraham Behar (The Main Character) was to find a position in the Kremlin, his barbering skills would have to be unusual.
David: There is a minor character named Benjamin Levitan, I couldn’t help noticing the similarity to your name. Any relation to you?
Paul: My father’s name was (Baruch) Benjamin Abraham Levitt. There was a famous Russian painter by the name of Isaac Levitan. I thought the similarity worth exploiting in the story.
David: Since the book’s publication, have any citizens of the former Soviet Union or historians commented on your depiction? If so, how?
Paul: Yes, the Soviet historian Suzi Weissman fact-checked the book for me.
David: Have you been paying attention to the current crisis in Ukraine?
Paul: Very much so.
David: What did you think when you visited the area?
Paul: Poor country. Lot of agriculture.
David: Considering your family background and your own research, what’s your opinion of contemporary Russia?
Paul: I think Putin’s a thug. I thought Gorbachev was one of the major figures of the Twentieth Century. I share some opinions with Stephen Cohen about the Crimea situation, but Eastern Ukraine is much different. For the moment, they’re all rallying behind Putin, because there’s a certain restoration of Russian greatness. But when they get the bill, that’ll virtually bankrupt Russia. Ukraine itself has been in a bad way for a long time: politically, ethically, financially. Then, Ukrainian Nationalism has historically gone hand-in-hand with Anti-Semitism as a way to get people riled up. We’re seeing some of that now.
Around that point, we wrapped up our conversation and I thanked Paul for his time. In the days that followed, I reflected on the constant stream of news coming out of Ukraine and how it related to historical context like the experience of Paul’s family. Many of the tensions now underway seem like a convergence of regular people, bad policies, and the unresolved legacies of men like Joseph Stalin. Paul’s novel illustrates those dark fingerprints on history. Moreover, it provides a view into the real-life circumstances of a region that’s perpetually waiting for a positive outcome. Unlike fiction, it’s an ending that still remains to be seen.