1. Why did the author title this novel The Journeys of Socrates? What journeys does Socrates (Sergei) take? What sorts of terrain does he traverse and how does it reflect his inner journey? If you had to choose a different title for the novel, what might that be?
2. Does Sergei have a home? What place(s) serve as his home? What homes does he (find and) lose? Does his boyhood visit to the Abramovich’s cabin shape his sense of home? How do his perspectives about home and family develop over the course of the novel? When the novel ends, has he finally reached home? If not, when might that happen? Has it become his nature to journey once again?
3. What role does God play in the novel? What about organized religion? Heaven and hell? Early in the novel, Sergei asks his grandfather Heschel about “the path to Heaven” and Heschel tells him, “I believe that one day you will blaze your own pathŠyou will find your own way.” Does Sergei experience hell? Does he find heaven?
4. What did you learn about Russian Jews and Cossacks by reading The Journeys of Socrates? What role do each play in Sergei’s life? Are Jews and Cossacks innate enemies? Is Sergei a Jew, a Cossack, both, or neither? How does Sergei reconcile these distinct identities within himself? How does each tradition influence him?
5. What role does the survival training play in Sergei’s development? What do those days in the wilderness teach Sergei about himself? What does he learn about the natural world? About Dmitri Zakolyev? Why did Zakolyev choose Sergei as a partner? What strategies must Sergei follow to maintain peace with Dmitri? Are they effective? After he helps Dmitri to free himself, Sergei observes, “He knew that in saving Dmitri Zakolyev, he had made an enemy for life.” Why has Dmitri become an enemy? Could Sergei have made a different choice? Why? How does the survival test prepare Sergei for later trials?
6. Why do Sergei’s grandparents give him the nickname “Socrates”? Heschel describes Socrates the Greek as being “among the wisest and the best of men.” What do you learn about Socrates the Greek by reading The Journeys of Socrates? Is the name a good choice? How does Sergei resemble Socrates the Greek over the course of the novel? What else do you know about the ancient sage?
7. Young Sergei has lost his parents and grandparents. In Sara Abramovich he first finds a mother. During his journeys, he meets a series of father figures-Chief Instructor Ivanov, Heschel, Benyomin, Alexei Orlov, Razin, and Serafim. Many (if not all) of these men also serve as teachers in Sergei’s life. What key lessons does he learn from each man? How do they each influence Sergei’s beliefs and actions? From whom, by the novel’s end, has he learned the most?
8. Dmitri Zakolyev calls our protagonist “Sergei the Good.” Is Sergei comfortable with this title? Why or why not? What roles do Good and Evil play in the novel? Is Sergei always “Good”? Is Dmitri always “Evil”? How does Sergei’s resolve to seek revenge change his conceptions of Good, Evil, and Justice? How do his years of study with Serafim further influence his views?
9. How does Serafim’s influence change Sergei’s vow and mission? Serafim tells Sergei, “You fight the dragonŠyou become the dragon.” Do you agree? Is it possible for anyone to fight evil without becoming the dragon? What distinction does Serafim draw between man’s responsibilities and God’s? How does Serafim suggest Sergei can find peace?
10. How does Dmitri Zakolyev resemble totalitarian leaders like Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong? Why did men follow him? Why did they eventually tire of his leadership? Was Zakolyev’s character shaped by his personal history or something more? How were Sergei and Zakolyev similar? Is Zakolyev also searching for peace? Could he have found redemption? Might Sergei have taken Zakolyev’s path or was there an innate difference? What might that difference be?
11. How do the women characters-(Natalia, Esther, Valeria, Anya, Shura, and Paulina)-show strength and courage? How do they influence the men in their lives? What draws Anya to Sergei? How is Valeria Panova different from Sara Abramovich? In what ways do these women shape the story (if they didn’t exist, how would the story be different)?
12. Near the end of the story, the young couple leaves Sergei to begin their own life. Why do they need to part ways with him? Does Sergei understand their decision? How have his travels and struggles enabled him to make peace with his memories, weather the pain of the present, and accept the uncertainty of the future?
13. What is a warrior? Who in The Journeys of Socrates are warriors? What qualities make them so? At what point in the novel does Sergei become a warrior? (When he is chosen for initiation into the elite guard? When he leaves the Nevskiy Military School? When he completes training with Serafim? When he defeats Zakolyev?) Is young Paulina a warrior? When she chooses to stop fighting, does she stop being a warrior?
14. What is a “peaceful warrior”? Why does Heschel call Socrates the Greek a peaceful warrior? How does a peaceful warrior differ from a warrior? When does Sergei become a peaceful warrior?
15. How does Sergei Ivanov (Socrates) change over the course of the novel? Who has he become by the novel’s end? Serafim has suggested that the true warrior must “fight for a cause larger than” himself. Has Sergei discovered this cause? Do his battles continue in a new arena, or has he found peace? Socrates is about to begin a new journey-where might he go next?