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Soviet Refugee and Author Lev Golinkin Shares His Story With The Gavel

A Jewish refugee who was only a child when his family fled the collapsing Soviet Union in 1989, Lev Golinkin, ‘03, has faced more adversity than most BC students will ever encounter. Golinkin puts his extraordinary life story on paper in his memoir, A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, and returned to campus last week to share his knowledge and experiences with this year’s freshman class at First Year Academic Convocation.

While back on the Heights, Golinkin sat down with The Gavel to discuss his book, his experiences as a BC student, and his struggle to come to terms with his identity.

On What Inspired His Memoir

While witty and memorable, the significance of the title A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is not immediately obvious. But the title is integral to the book’s subject, as the words Golinkin chose represent the reality of his life as a refugee.

“This book has to do with a journey, and leaving, and when you’re a refugee, basically your world falls apart. Your world is you, your family, and your stomach,” explained Golinkin. “So I wrote about what I had. I had a backpack full of spare clothing and my teddy bear, Comrade Bear, with me, and the eight crates of vodka were used to bribe people.”

He said, “We traveled from Eastern Ukraine...and it was pretty lawless in Western Ukraine. The Soviet Union was falling apart and people didn’t know what was going to happen. So the economy was going crazy to the point where nobody knew how much a ruple was worth....And every stop, the adults would just hand out bottles, saying, ‘you didn’t see us, you don’t know us, take the vodka, see you later.’”

The book has been a critical part of Golinkin’s quest to rediscover his identity and his past. When he immigrated to the U.S. and later attended BC, there came to be a disparity between Golinkin’s true self and the persona he presented outwardly.  He admitted, “I went through my years at BC completely pretending I’m an American, pretending I’m from [New] Jersey. I’m not from Jersey.”

While Golinkin was active and involved on campus, he found it difficult to connect with other students because he was concealing who he truly was. He recounted, “When I was participating in different retreats and volunteer groups, like Appalachia [Volunteers] and Kairos, I found it starting to weigh on me—it's hard when you see people being open and making genuine connections because I knew that I couldn't do that since I was holding myself back.”

This internal struggle persisted throughout Golinkin’s four years on campus. When asked what inspired him to write his memoir, Golinkin recalled a lunch he had in Eagle’s Nest with his mentor, Professor Kilcoyne, at the end of his senior year.

During the lunch, Golinkin expressed his concerns that he didn’t feel he had a meaningful future awaiting him after graduation. To Golinkin’s surprise, his professor agreed. Kilcoyne went on to explain, “You don’t have a future because you don’t have a past. So how can you have a future? You need to go back and discover your past.”

He continued, “You’re on your way to becoming a cynic. Somebody who can’t connect with anybody, because you’re a Jew hiding in a Catholic school, you’re a guy who’s not from Jersey who tells people he is.”

Kilcoyne recognized something that Golinkin hadn’t yet recognized himself: his inability to accept and express who he truly was hindered his ability to be happy and to form deeper relationships with his peers.

Following graduation, Golinkin heeded his mentor’s advice and turned inward to discover who he truly was. “I spent the next couple of years tracking down my past,” he said. “I needed to write the book because I needed to understand who I was.”

On Fitting In at BC

While Golinkin’s unique background contributed to the struggles he faced as a BC student, his sentiments about struggling to fit in at BC are shared by many students. While serving as a 48HOURS leader his senior year, Golinkin began to realize that many other students experienced similar difficulties in presenting their true selves, despite their own distinct backgrounds that so clearly differed from his.

According to Golinkin, “All of us [48HOURS leaders] were talking at one point in the retreat...every single one of us remembered being so lonely and homesick, especially once October hit, and we thought that everybody else was happy and fitting in but us.”

He continued, “I remember seeing some of these very people [freshman year], and thinking, ‘Wow, this guy’s got it all together.’ While at the same time, he was thinking the same thing about me. And as a result, we were both miserable.”

Golinkin recognized that many of these anxieties and insecurities were not specific to him or even to the BC community. “I don’t think it’s a BC thing,” he remarked. “With BC it just might be because it’s a competitive school, because everybody here has had to work hard—they’re used to pushing themselves. But I think it’s just a normal thing that we just pretend we’re supposed to be 100% happy, 100% of the time, the moment you make it on campus.”

Having experienced other countries and customs, Golinkin also feels that American cultural norms contribute to this widespread isolation, both on BC’s campus and across the country. He explained, “For me coming to America, it was like, ‘Why do all of these people always ask ‘How are you?' It’s clear they’re not interested; why are they even saying that? And why are these people saying ‘good’ when the look on your face clearly tells me that you’re not having a good day?”

On Advice for BC Students

For Golinkin, involvement in the marching band provided him with mentorship from upperclassmen, which was instrumental in improving his time at BC. He said, “I was in the marching band, and I dealt with seniors and juniors, and the most important thing was, they said, ‘We’re nervous too. Don’t worry about it.’...That helped me so much.”

This experience was a major takeaway for Golinkin as he reflected on his collegiate years. “I think peer mentorship and being open about this would be one of the best ways to really help break the ice,” he proposed. “I hope they have even more mentors [for BC freshmen]. Because you walk around here and you’re like, ‘everybody’s perfect.’”

While excited to be back on campus, Golinkin turned the focus away from himself. Rather than discussing his own success, Golinkin remained humble and emphasized the ways in which current BC students can help freshmen acclimate to campus and learn to be themselves.

“And I think the other thing is, not to have somebody like me come in, but I think [another student] is a much more powerful voice for freshmen,” he explained. “They can relate to [other students] in a million ways they can’t relate to me.”

Pondering his own experiences as well as those of other BC students, Golinkin said, “I have lived in three countries, and I have lived as a refugee on nothing. And I felt anxious coming into BC,” he admitted. “Why wouldn’t somebody who grew up in America in safety, who only knew one house or two houses in their lives, why wouldn’t they feel that way?”

“It’s normal,” he emphasized. “And I wish we could just be more open about it.”

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Avid lover of avocados, coffee, and proper grammar usage. Chandler Bing and Joe Biden are my spirit animals. You can catch me talking politics and running for the Newton bus.