Growing up during the Cold War, I was taught that the Soviet Union was
evil. They wanted to infect us with Communism or kill us with
nuclear missiles. In middle school, I heard the famous dissident
and Refusenik, Natan Sharansky, speak at my synagogue, and I was
moved to activism. My family participated in the March for
Soviet Jewry in Washington, D.C. in 1987. I carried a sign that
said “Let My People Go.” After Gorbachev finally let the Soviet
Jews leave, I met and later married Gene, an emigrant from the
“Jewkraine.”

After the Cold War supposedly ended in 1991, we hardly viewed
Russia as a threat. In 2012 when a group of Russian spies were
arrested on American soil, the news media focused on the sexual
exploits of one of the spies, Anna Chapman, and we foolishly
convinced ourselves that we had no reason to fear.
Nonetheless, the spy stories captured my imagination. Some had
children who had been born here. Those children had never been
to Russia. Some of them didn’t speak any Russian. And none of
them had any idea their parents were spies. What kind of shock
was it for them to learn that their lives were a lie?
What if my own life was a lie? Gene got on the train every day,
ostensibly to go to work in the city. But I didn’t know for sure
where he went or what he actually did. I followed the what-if’s
down the rabbit hole. The result was my first novel, Kings of
Brighton Beach, a crime thriller set in New York’s Brighton
Beach—Brooklyn’s Little Odessa—where many Russian Jews had
emigrated and still live.

Brighton Beach happens to a hotbed of mafia activity. In the
1990s, the news was full of storied about the bloody and
ruthless Russian mafia. They slit throats and gunned their
rivals down in the streets. In recent decades, the Russian mafia
crime has shifted toward white-collar crimes like real estate
scams, Medicare and Medicaid fraud, and bribery of public
officials. Often Jewish Russian immigrants figure prominently in
such stories. And there is one more important change since the
late ‘80s and early ‘90s: We now know that the Russian mafia has
strong and intimate ties with the Russian government—a
government that we are increasingly recognizing may pose a real
threat to democracy.

Of course, when I set out to write my first novel, I knew almost
nothing about the Russian mafia or spies. But in my day job, I’m
a sociologist. I turned my research skills to studying the
Russian mafia, the Jewish immigrant community, and the KGB.
Eventually I realized that to tell the full saga I had started
in Kings of Brighton Beach, I needed to start the story at the
beginning—in Cold War Russia. To that end, I set To Catch a
Traitor in the Jewish Refusenik community in Moscow in 1985, a
political moment when Anti-Semitism and the right of Jews to
emigrate gained the world’s attention—and my own–and became a
sticking point in negotiations over nuclear disarmament.
The novel pits Sofia, a Jewish woman fighting for the right to
emigrate against Artur, then a novice KGB agent, who seeks to
stop the spread of dangerous Jewish propaganda. To Catch a
Traitor is the first in my Sins of a Spy series, which will
conclude with the arrival of Sofia’s and Artur’s families in
Brighton Beach, New York, kicking off the action in Kings of
Brighton Beach.