David Shrayer-Petrov with wife Emilia Shrayer at a rally for Israel in Boston in 2014. COURTESY/MAXIM D. SHRAYER

Mourning the loss of Dr. David Shrayer-Petrov, a Russian refusenik who made his voice heard



Mourning the loss of Dr. David Shrayer-Petrov, a Russian refusenik who made his voice heard

David Shrayer-Petrov with wife Emilia Shrayer at a rally for Israel in Boston in 2014. COURTESY/MAXIM D. SHRAYER

Dr. David Shrayer-Petrov, a refusenik activist, medical scientist, and celebrated author, left his mark across continents in both the medical and literary worlds.

Shrayer-Petrov died on June 9. He was 88 and lived in Brookline with Emilia Shrayer, his beloved wife of 62 years. He was born in 1936 in Leningrad.

Through Shrayer-Petrov’s legacy of groundbreaking, eloquent works of fiction – among them “Doctor Levitin,” and “Dinner With Stalin and Other Stories” – he opened a curtain on the struggles of the lives of refuseniks in the Soviet Union and the complex ways those who made it out navigated their lives abroad.

It was nearly 45 years ago – in January 1979 – when Shrayer-Petrov, Emilia Shrayer, and their son Maxim D. Shrayer applied for exit visas to leave the Soviet Union.

They had gradually made the difficult and bold decision to leave their once successful careers, impelled by increased antisemitism in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War in Israel, Maxim said in a conversation.

The consequences were immediate: Shrayer-Petrov was stripped of his prestigious academic medical position and was tossed out of the Union of Soviet Writers.

For the next eight years, until 1987 when the family was granted permission to emigrate to the United States, they faced antisemitic harassment.

Nonetheless, their Moscow apartment became a gathering spot for other refuseniks and Jewish writers.

Against this backdrop, Shrayer-Petrov penned “Doctor Levitin,” a richly textured, searing novel that chronicled his experience through its Jewish protagonist, Herbert Levitin, and his wife Tatyana, who is not Jewish, as they grappled with their fear for the future of their son who faced the draft and later perished in Afghanistan.

In 1984, the manuscripts for “Doctor Levitin” and “May You Be Cursed, Don’t Die,” were secretly photographed and smuggled to the West. An abridged version of “Doctor Levitin” was published in Israel in 1985, under the title, “Being Refused.” The pair later became the first two novels in a trilogy.

In 1987, the family settled in Providence, where Shrayer-Petrov continued his parallel paths in the worlds of medicine and literature. For almost 20 years, he conducted research at the intersection of oncology and immunology.

Altogether, Dr. Shrayer-Petrov authored more than 100 academic articles. As a poet and fiction writer, he published 25 books.

“He really lived two lives, as a doctor and the life of a poet and writer,” Emilia Shrayer, a translator, said in a poignant reflection of her husband, whom she described as the “love of my life.”

He never wanted to talk about the hardships he lived through, she said at his funeral. “He loved poetry. He loved life,” she said.

“My father lived through many existential dimensions – a Jewish young man in Leningrad during late Stalinism and a Jewish immigrant in America, a military physician in Belarus and a banished Moscow doctor who treated refusenik patients, a young Jewish-Russian during the thaw and an aging New England poet – and in each of these times and spaces my father remained prolific and generous, open-minded, and true to himself,” son Maxim wrote in an email.

After retiring, Shrayer-Petrov and Emilia moved to Brookline to be closer to their son and his family. Maxim D. Shrayer, an award-winning writer (“Leaving Russia,” “Kinship”) is a professor at Boston College.

American readers and the Jewish literary world were rewarded with his translated works, including the 2014 publication of “Dinner With Stalin,” a collection of fictional stories.

In 2018, four decades after Shrayer-Petrov first wrote “Doctor Levitin,” its first English-language translation was published, a milestone that brought Shrayer-Petrov critical acclaim, personal satisfaction, and introduced his works to new audiences.

In 2014, Knizhniki published a revised two-volume edition of “Herbert and Nelly.”

Its enduring power is as a work of fiction that exposes the characters’ inner struggles and historical landscape, more powerfully than works of nonfiction, Knizhniki editor Boruch Gorin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.


In addition to his wife, Emilia, and their son, Maxim, he leaves his daughter-in-law, Dr. Karen E. Lasser; and two granddaughters, Mira and Tatiana Shrayer. Θ

Material in this obituary was first published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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