“Writing Fiction Allows Us to Build Bridges”: Ian Ross Singleton and Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry in Conversation

Punctured Lines is happy to host a conversation between Ian Ross Singleton, author of Two Big Differences (M-Graphics Publishing, 2021) and Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, author of The Orchard (Ballantine Books, 2022). The novels’ synopses are below, and you can listen to the writers read excerpts here. Both of these works feature post-/late Soviet space, Ukraine in Two Big Differences and late Soviet/post-Soviet Russia in The Orchard. To support Ukraine in its fight against Russia, you can donate here and here, as well as to several other organizations doing work on the ground. If in addition you would like to support Russian protesters, you can donate for legal help here.

Ian Ross Singleton, Two Big Differences: In Two Big Differences, Zinaida is returning to Odesa, Ukraine, after having lived in the U.S., where she met her traveling companion, Valya, a native of Detroit. Having grown up in Odesa, Zina has a sharp sense of humor. Returning home during the 2014 Ukrainian Spring (Euromaidan), she relies on humor as a tool for survival, as she and Valya navigate their way through the confusing and violent conflict. In Odesa, they meet Zina’s father, Oleg, and other characters from her past and present, and each must decide on which side they stand.

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, The Orchard: Coming of age in the USSR in the 1980s, best friends Anya and Milka try to envision a free and joyful future for themselves. They spend their summers at Anya’s dacha just outside of Moscow, lazing in the apple orchard, listening to Queen songs, and fantasizing about trips abroad and the lives of American teenagers. By the time the girls are fifteen, the Soviet Empire is on the verge of collapse, and the fleeting time they have together is cut short by a sudden tragedy. Years later, Anya returns to Russia from America, where she has chosen a different kind of life, far from her family and childhood friends. Haunted by the ghosts of her youth, Anya comes to the stark realization that memory does not fade or disappear; rather, it moves across time, connecting our past to our future, joys to sorrows.  

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry interviews Ian Ross Singleton about Two Big Differences.

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry: What are the origins and inspirations for Two Big Differences? How long did it take you to write it?

Ian Ross Singleton: I have been a student (although not through any university) of the Russian language since 2006, when I met my partner, the poet and teacher Natalya Sukhonos, who is from Odesa, Ukraine. Eventually, we ended up traveling there for part of our honeymoon in 2010 and then again in 2012 to visit a family friend who was dying. As a child, Natalya used to talk to the trees of Odesa. At the dacha of this family friend who was dying of cancer, there were two twin trees in the yard. I suppose the trees told me something back. I stayed a little longer than Natalya that summer in Odesa. When I made the long journey home to San Francisco, where we were living at the time, one early morning I put my jet lag to good use and started writing this novel. It was based on something my father-in-law, also from Odesa, said about two twins, like those trees. One immigrated, and one remained in the post-Soviet world. Since my relationship with Natalya began, my life has more or less become spread across two linguistic modes: American English and Ukrainian Russian.

So, similar to The Orchard, it all starts at a dacha. And it took nine years to publish, which meant a lot of editing and polishing.

KGN: There are many wonderful анекдоты throughout the novel. They remind me of that peculiar “Odesa” humor. Where do those jokes come from? Why are they so important to the story? And if you had to pick a favorite, which one would it be?

IRS: During the last fourteen years since I met Natalya, I also became a student of Odesan humor, which I would identify as a specific category of gallows humor. Jokes often belie inner trauma, of course. They often come from a desperate need to smile, maybe even laugh. On the other hand, constant sarcasm can be identified as a kind of hidden hostility, and I wanted to get this aspect of humor into Two Big Differences as well, such as when Valya first meets Oleg. Humor can harm, and humor can heal. Look at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense twitter account. They use humor and trolling to counter Russian trolling, which is hostile. The Ministry of Defense’s response can be powerful, and it can perhaps be healing. Humor can diminish but also lift up a person in a vulnerable place, such as in a foreign country speaking a language different from the one they’ve spoken their whole life. I had to get the two sides of humor into the novel.

If I have to pick a favorite анекдот, it would be the one about traveling to Yalta at the beginning of Chapter Two. I hope I don’t ruin it in my translation: “Two travelers are on a boat. One asks, ‘Where are we headed?’ ‘Yalta,’ says the other. The first says, ‘You said we’re headed to Yalta because you thought I would think we’re not headed to Yalta. But we’re definitely headed to Yalta. Why are you lying?’”

KGN: I write in a foreign language about my native culture; you write in your mother tongue about a foreign land. Do you find it captivating, rewarding, challenging? Did you have to do any research? Brush up on history?

IRS: I found it very captivating to write about this foreign land that certainly captured me the last time I was there, in 2012, when it was Odessa with a double “s” under Viktor Yanukovych, a place that is now gone in so many ways. I find it very rewarding if a reader enjoys what I have to say about this place that is foreign to me. I find it very rewarding if anybody reads anything I wrote about any place. Many people, including some from Eastern Europe, have said some very kind things about my novel. That is the greatest reward.

Challenging? It’s easier to say what wasn’t challenging: describing Valya’s (and Zina’s when she was in the U.S.) feelings of alienation and isolation. My native culture is that of the U.S., of course. But I’ve lived all over this country, and I have never not felt foreign or like an outsider in any place other than Detroit, where I was born, even though I don’t necessarily feel at home there either. Detroit is unlike most of the other places I’ve lived, like San Francisco or New York City. People, like those in my extended family, are not as transient there. But the fact that I’ve lived elsewhere, even within the same country, has made me foreign even to my home.

I did do research, both formal and informal. It helped to be able to speak Russian and talk to people in Ukraine and the U.S. And it helped to be able to read novels like those of Valentin Kataev and others. I had to brush up on the history of May 2, 2014, when supporters of the Euromaidan Movement clashed with those who wanted to maintain the subaltern status of Ukraine in relation to Russia. This history is still being written and rewritten—like most histories, I suppose. I watched freely available documentaries on YouTube, talked to people from that part of the world. As with so many things Odesan, people have different opinions and are vehemently sure of them, even within the same family. However, differences of opinion about Ukraine’s relationship with Russia ceased on February 24, 2022, of course, when Russia invaded Ukraine and escalated the war from the Donbas to all of Ukraine. Coincidentally, that was the night I did a reading from Two Big Differences in Dearborn, just outside Detroit. Many of the audience members asked me whether there would be an invasion. It didn’t seem believable then.

KGN: What was the hardest thing to write? What was the easiest? Do you personally identify with any of the characters?

Odesa, Ukraine; Google images

IRS: The hardest thing to write was probably Oleg, Zina’s father who lives in Odesa and speaks Russian, with almost no English. So his thinking happens only in the Russian language. While I can think in Russian, it’s very difficult to imagine not being able to think in English. And I believe that my thoughts in English affect my character and, were they absent, would make me a different person. Oleg doesn’t have much English at all; Russian completely forms his personality. There’s one person I can think of in my life who hardly spoke any English. But she was very different from Oleg and spoke Surzhyk, a hybrid language that mixes Ukrainian and Russian words, types of which can vary based on the region of Ukraine from which a speaker comes. So I took different inspiration from her. Now that I’m learning Ukrainian, I’m able to understand more about Surzhyk. And in my family, we speak a kind of Russian-English Surzhyk, or hybrid language, that is now starting to reincorporate some of the Ukrainian of Natalya’s childhood and that is new to me.

The easiest character to write was probably Valya. Of course, I can identify with him most of all. But I often found I had to check myself with him. Any similarities between us shouldn’t have let me not treat him as objectively as any other character. But I like him less than Zina. Zina is me deep down. I love her so deeply, more deeply than Valya, so deeply that I wrote a worse fate for her than I ever did for Valya. The more love I have for a character, the worse I arrange their fate, it would seem. I don’t know what that says about me as a person…

I could also use my identity as a father to help with Oleg. I think that I identify with all of my characters. I’m not sure I could write them without that. Such an idea can be frightening when you have somebody who’s truly horrible (like Anton, a minor character from Zina’s past). But I think that writers must do that, no matter how dark the character’s inner maps.

KGN: You write about Ukraine; I write about Russia. Two big differences! And yet, I couldn’t help thinking that both our novels grew out of love and that writing fiction allows us to build bridges, connect cultures and generations. Despite the horrors of this war, we must find a way to communicate. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Paul D says to Sethe: “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” What will you write next? What kind of books will be birthed in the future? Will there be a future?

IRS: I’m learning Ukrainian as a small bridge, a way of resisting the culture war that Putin’s Russia is waging against Ukraine. My novel was supposed to bridge English and Russian, America and Ukraine (or the Russian-speaking world as represented by Ukraine). I never saw a need to bridge Russia and Ukraine coming. I’m working on something now that comes very much from what I think and feel about the war. And I hope that Two Big Differences can be some kind of bridge. I’m not sure if it can be a tomorrow since it’s so much about the past, at this point the very distant past, because so much has changed since the Russian invasion and had already been changing since 2014. I’ll always be an outsider. But this position gives me an advantage. I don’t have any personal hang-ups about defending Russian culture or the Russian language from criticisms and from those who have abandoned it because of the war. I understand such an attitude of refusing Russian culture, of course. But I don’t share it.

Of places in the world where Russian is spoken widely, I’ve spent most time in Ukraine, not Russia. I was only in Russia for a week in 2008. And I don’t know if I’ll ever go there again. But I’m sure I’ll go to Ukraine again. So my some kind of tomorrow is in Ukraine.

***

Ian Ross Singleton interviews Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry about The Orchard.

Ian Ross Singleton: In your author’s note, you write a lot about loss. Can you talk about how The Orchard is about loss?

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry: As a writer, all I ever want to do is to tell a story the best way I know how. The Orchard is a commemorative tale about a childhood friendship. It is also my attempt at remembering those who died fighting for Russia’s newly fledged democracy in the early 1990s, and who I lost without being able to say goodbye. The novel grew out of that loss, the inability to mourn someone other than through a narrative act. I wanted the readers to feel that loss, wanted to make it as real or palpable to them as it has always been to me. And it took me many years and much heartache to be able to write The Orchard, but I regarded it as my duty, my moral obligation to let the world know what had happened to my generation during perestroika, as well as to our country that no longer exists.

IRS: You write, “I was always amazed how bodies could convey [knowledge], how they could exchange information without words or much sound, how they could protect, nurture, and sustain, the bare tremble of someone’s skin against your own.” You also write about women victims of the gulag: “Most women talked about their bodies existing separately from their minds, as though their heads had been cut off, their limbs numb and distant.” Anya’s reaction to hearing the whole truth about Milka is so visceral and includes no abstraction at all. And there is this: “Sometimes a parent could become a mountain in flat land; other times a mountain could be washed down to a mound of sand.” Finally, there’s: “I remembered my grandmother saying how the earth could make invisible the deepest wounds, hide the thickest scars.” I think you get what I’m pointing out: how does The Orchard interact with embodiment?

KGN: Thank you for singling out some of my very favorite lines, although my answer to your question might not be entirely satisfying. To me, a novel is a live being. As long as people keep reading the book, they keep experiencing all that is happening with/to the characters, and the story keeps on living. I want my readers to be involved, active, paying attention to the use of language and to all the minute details of the story—the landscape, the atmosphere, the food, the drinks, the music, the movies, the clothes, the homes, the feelings of love, lust, pain, grief, longing—so at some point, the readers become part of the narrative and embody the characters. For that experience to take place, all the senses must be present on the page. The readers must know how things look, smell, taste, or feel while being transported into a foreign world, so different from their own. And as a writer, that’s my task—to give birth to that imaginary (but also very real) world, in all its ugliness and beauty, agony and bliss, heartache and loveliness.

IRS: In The Orchard, if individual bodies carry suffering, does the territory where a culture resides experience that too? What does this idea mean in relation to Ukraine today?

KGN: I think the “territory” suffers just as much as its inhabitants. It absorbs everything, all the woes and crimes committed against its citizens or the rest of the world. If you abuse your homeland, it grows hostile, barren, cold, ostracized. It dies, both spiritually and physically. I don’t know what it means in regards to Ukraine, but I do know that Ukraine will survive and prosper, as it has done for centuries. It’s a mighty country populated by mighty people, who’ll spare no effort defending and rebuilding their home.

IRS: In The Orchard, you mention a “rule” that a Soviet woman should have three children, “one for herself; one for her husband; and one for those who’d perished in the war.” Can you talk about this “rule” and Soviet womanhood in particular and how you’ve depicted Soviet womanhood and/or womanhood in general in your novel?

Propaganda poster for heroine-mothers, USSR; Google images

KGN: Twenty-seven million Soviet people died in World War II. To revive the nation, it had to be repopulated. This principle was widely preached, especially to the post-war generation. My mother was born right after the war, but even during her younger years, the same principle applied. To answer the second part of your question: There always existed wonderful camaraderie between women in Soviet Russia, where I grew up. A woman’s world seemed to be very different from a man’s. Womanhood in the Soviet Union was burdened with incessant duties and responsibilities—for your work, your family, your children, your home, your garden. A Soviet woman was also expected to excel in everything she did, including her appearance and education. She had to be well-read, culture-savvy, fashionable, and worldly, which is funny because most Soviet people couldn’t travel outside the country; they weren’t allowed. However, a lot of Soviet women I know are resilient and resourceful, smart, ambitious, fearless, and restless. They carry mountains on their shoulders. It never ceases to amaze me how much they’ve accomplished and how much they’ve endured. Their sense of place, friendship, love, loyalty is astounding. On top of having spectacular careers, they are some of the best mothers and wives/partners I know. The novel’s protagonist, Anya, her mother, and grandmother are those women: righteous, hard-working, selfless, the embodiment of great spirit and care. But there’s also Milka’s mother, who neglected and abused her only daughter, and that’s why I had to write The Orchard—not to revel in Anya’s family, which is the opposite of Milka’s, but to show the difference and what that difference does to a child and her self-awareness, her survival in the world. If a daughter can’t trust her parents, who will that daughter become as an adult? How can one grow into a healthy, confident self when one has been betrayed by the very person who was supposed to love her most? I wanted to explore the lovelessness of Milka’s home, her reality, her everyday life and how it was transformed by her friendship with Anya, its tender intimacy and tragic circumstances.

IRS: What would you say to a reader who might say to you, “That’s not how it was!”?

KGN: No, of course not, but that’s how I imagined it. And that’s the beauty of writing fiction—we get second chances at first things. First love. First friendship. First marriage. We get to do it all over again, only better, with more compassion and understanding, and more humanity too.

Ian Ross Singleton was born in Detroit and has lived in Alabama, Munich, Boston, San Francisco, and New York. He is the Nonfiction Editor of Asymptote and teaches Writing and Critical Inquiry at the University at Albany. His short stories, translations, reviews, and essays have appeared in Saint Ann’s Review, Cafe Review, New Madrid, Fiddleblack, Asymptote, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Fiction Writers Review. The novel Two Big Differences, published in October 2021, is his debut.

A Russian-Armenian émigré, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry moved to the U.S. in 1995, after having witnessed perestroika and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Writing in English, her second language, she published fifty stories and received nine Pushcart nominations. Her work has appeared in Subtropics, Zoetrope: All Story, Joyland, Electric Literature, Indiana Review, The Southern Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, Confrontation, and elsewhere. Gorcheva-Newberry is the winner of the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, the 2015 Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the 2020 Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction for her first collection of stories, What Isn’t Remembered, long-listed for the 2022 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and shortlisted for the 2022 William Saroyan International Prize. Her debut novel, The Orchard, was published by Ballantine Books in March 2022. The paperback edition will be a Penguin Random House Book Club title, forthcoming in March 2023.

To Fairyland: An Excerpt from Yelena Lembersky and Galina Lembersky’s Memoir Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour

Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour (Academic Studies Press, 2022) is a rare dual memoir co-written by Yelena Lembersky and her mother Galina. Born and raised in the USSR, following the death of her prominent painter father in 1970, Galina decides to emigrate with her young daughter and aging mother. In anticipation of her departure, Galina quits her job and becomes a refusenik. Yet, once her immigration papers go through, instead of boarding an airplane, she finds herself behind bars of a Leningrad prison on a criminal charge. Her mother has already left for the United States. Her young daughter Yelena–nicknamed Alëna in the book–is left in the care of friends, in danger of finding herself in an orphanage.

The chapter below is narrated by Yelena, eleven years old at the time of these events. We are deeply grateful to the author and publisher for permission to excerpt a chapter from this revealing and touching memoir. To continue reading, please buy the book from Academic Studies Press.

To Fairyland, by Yelena Lembersky

Mama begins to sort our belongings. She needs to get special permission for the remainder of Grandfather’s sketches and a roll of dark Babi Yar paintings that Grandma didn’t want to take with her when she left. We have to give away much of what we own because it is banned from being taken abroad—old books, cut glass, amber, antique objects, rugs, and archival documents. Every day, friends come to say goodbye and they leave with a piece of my childhood. Aunt Kira takes away Grandma’s hand-cranked Singer that we used together, I cranking the wheel, Grandma guiding the seam. Someone takes our pot-bellied black-and-white TV. The pressure cooker is heading off to a neighbor, good riddance. Our cookbook, with food stains and Grandma’s handwritten notes, goes to Bélochka. All of my picture books and Grandfather’s art catalogues, which he collected by saving money on food and clothes, end up in the used bookstore. Mama’s favorite white-and-blue vase goes to Kiera Ivanovna, a ceramic artist, who had designed it for my grandparents back in the ’60s. It held every rose and carna­tion ever brought to our home, and Grandfather painted it in Mama’s portrait.

By and by, our home becomes empty. Suitcases huddle in the corner. Dust bunnies gather along the walls and when the draft prods at them, they slowly float from place to place. Every day, Mama goes downtown to shop for gifts for people she will meet in America—Russian wooden crafts, tins, trays, enamel brooches, and shawls with bright flowers and mottled fringes, which Russians wear on cold winter days and Amer­icans don’t, but might drape over cupboards holding some forsaken old country samovar they will have purchased at a yard sale in Brooklyn or, years later, on eBay from immigrants’ descendants. She brings souvenir playing cards with pictures of harlequins, theater binoculars that are mostly useless, but she can’t find, let alone afford, the military ones so valued in Rome. And a brown teddy bear, a mascot of the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games. “These are collectibles,” she says emphati­cally. “You may get top dollar for them one day.” Then she brings home a spear gun, an accident in the making.

“Going fishing, Mama? There is no sea in Ann Arbor.”

“There are five lakes nearby—learn your geography. And the Mediterranean Sea in Italy. Okay? Fine. A sales­woman set it aside for me at Gostinniy Dvor, I couldn’t say no. Maybe we’ll sell it at a flea market and have some money to travel. Do you want to see Venice? Can you believe we will soon see the world?”

I don’t know why Mama puts off our departure and why she goes to the center of Leningrad every day.

“Look what I found, Alëna,” she says as she puts down a painted rooster and a horse on the table. “See here, this is the year of the Rooster and it’s our sign in the Chinese horoscope! You take this happy guy with flowers, and I’ll take that sad little horse.”

“Why are you sad, Mama?”

“Who said I am sad? I am just joking, Alën’. Why do you take everything for a silver coin?”

May arrives. I want to go to the May Day parade. Mama says no. The day after, there is a trail of ripped balloons, flags, and candy wrappers trampled in the mud, where the parade had passed.

“I don’t like May,” Mama says. “May is unlucky. We won’t travel in May.”

A subpoena arrives in the mail, a request to make a witness statement for some ongoing and unspecified investigation. No signature required. Sent by the OBKhSS, the state law-enforcement agency for combating economic crimes.

“What should I do?” Mama asks Yuri.

“Get on the next flight out of the country.”

“What should I be afraid of? I have never broken the law. No, I’ll go and answer their questions. This might be about Kosmétika, and maybe I’ll help exonerate someone.”

I remember coming home from school on the day she went there, to find three men scouring our nearly empty apartment, flipping over what’s left of our things—our bedsheets, pillows, our clothes, bedding, books, crafts, and suitcases. Mama stood in our tiny hallway, leaning against a door jamb, looking as if she were not present in the moment. Movers? But these men were not picking up but scattering. Burglars?

“Who are these people, Mama?”

“Go for a walk, Alëna.”

One of the men overheard her and said to his crew, “We are almost done here. Let’s go.”

Another man walks out of the bedroom, carrying a dusty bottle of rubbing alcohol and a couple of small mani­cure sets that I used to trim my Olympic teddy bear’s toes.

“Mama, are these men from your work?”

The men leave. She sits down, lights a cigarette, and stays silent.

“Mama! Mam’ . . . Mam! Mama!”

“They took our visas.”

The Mediterranean. Rome. Ann Arbor. Grandma. A cold feeling of collapse sets in. An ugly double extracts herself from my chest, turns toward me, and points her finger, cack­ling, “You thought you could dream of all that? A loser! You deserve nothing.”

Our empty kitchen shimmers, the walls pixelate and dissolve into white. Mama stays as still as an ancient sphinx, swaddled in a quivering smoke. Her lungs contract and expand, contract and expand, taking in the poison. I keep my eyes wide open, unblinking, fixed on her. She is safe while she stays in the frame of my view. In my eyes, she grows large, the curve of her nape and shoulders become the ridge of a mountain. Then she contracts—a child, whom I failed to protect. My child-Mama. I don’t yet know what is happening, except that disaster is coming. This feeling will never leave me. It will grow with the years and take over my happiest moments—our family holidays, the birth of my children.

“When will they give back our visas, Mama? Let’s go right away.”

“They’ve brought criminal charges against me. We can’t leave, Alëna.”

Yelena Lembersky’s first book, Felix Lembersky: Paintings and Drawings, was devoted to the art of a prominent Leningrad artist with roots in Poland and Ukraine; her grandfather is now best known for his Execution: Babi Yar canvases and his non-figurative work created in the 1960s. Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour, a memoir, co-written with her mother, Galina, is her first work of creative non-fiction. Her short pieces have appeared in World Literature TodayThe ForwardCardinal Points Literary Journal, and The New Yorker. She grew up in Leningrad and immigrated to the United States in 1987. She holds degrees in art and architecture from the University of Michigan and MIT.

Irina Mashinski’s The Naked World, Three Excerpts

Irina Mashinski’s The Naked World, recently published by MadHat Press after many years in the making, is an impressive achievement in the hybrid genre. The collection combines pieces of original and translated poetry and prose that together illuminate not only the author’s past but also her way of seeing. Thematically, this book centers four generations of a Soviet family from the Stalin era to the 1990s and immigration to the United States. Writer, translator, and editor Irina Mashinski has penned ten books of poetry in Russian, and this is her English-language debut that also includes her Russian-language poems in translation by Maria Bloshteyn, Boris Dralyuk, Angela Livingstone, Tony Brinkley, Alexander Sumerkin, and Daniel Weissbort. Mashinski is co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry and of the Cardinal Points Journal.

We are grateful to the author and the publisher for permission to reproduce an excerpt from this remarkable book. The two prose pieces and poem below are included in the fourth and final section, “Borders,” preceded by two epigraphs. The first is a musical one, “The Second Piano Concerto—Rachmaninov/Richter.” The second is a quote from Susan Sontag: “My library is a library of longings.” As Ilya Kaminsky says in his preface, “Irina Mashinski looks at time between this Wednesday and next Friday—and sees eternity.”

The End of an Era. November

All classes have been canceled: Brezhnev, the immortal Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had died. The university administration orders us to stand in one long endless line along a wide desolate avenue on the Lenin Hills, by the University’s main Building built in the 1950s by inmates and German POWs.

We shift from one foot to the other and jump up and down in the frigid air that has enveloped Moscow. They often make us stand like this, stupidly, for hours, in an endless line, so that we could greet the leaders of brotherly socialist states. And then it comes: the stopped cars begin to honk as a sign of obligatory mourning—endlessly, desperately, hopefully, victoriously. We don’t know yet what is coming—all we know is that it is something different.

The arbitrary Soviet realm that had arrogantly pretended to be the only one imaginable, a space both eternal and dead, a space frozen for as long as I have known myself, is now shaken awake, and the outline of the university spire pointing in the white sky becomes blurry.

During the four decades that follow, after each political shock—dispersed demonstrations in Lithuania and Tbilisi, and the power battles that spilled onto the streets, and this or that little victorious war—the system, even after it officially expired and reemerged under a new name, will behave like the mercury in those old Soviet thermometers cherished by expatriates—after being shattered and, you’d think, dispersed forever, it would converge into the same familiar dimly glowing spheres.

The Fold. Photograph by Irina Mashinski

On the Fall of the Tyrants

This night I got up and came out of the trailer.
A strange sound woke me:
as if statues
were falling again and again.

The forest stood solemn, alert. The light sky was an oak trunk away.
Those were leaves, leaves, leaves, falling loudly,
—dictators, chiefs of the secret police, field marshals
all of them falling at last one by one rumbling colossus,

peeling bronze skin,
toppled by crowds
after 74 years—
little dry mummies . . .

Oh how they used to watch, watch from above!
Only birds painted
them with their bold blue,
white, green strokes of shit

(as at dawn a careless camper drops toothpaste
on the perfect grass by the brook),
tried to enliven with their warm dung
dull flat shine—birds flew at the statues,

colliding with merciless bronze.
Leaves were falling, like in August 1991, when
we stood mesmerized by a moment no one had dared dream of,
falling, toppled, each a dry little earthquake.

“Oh, let them, let them go down,” I thought, “let them
roll down that slippery hill, over clay, over breccia, and never
return,
let them pass all the traps of soil and ores,
straight, straight to the core of the naught.

Farewells

On October 25th, the old calendar anniversary of the October Revolution, we left forever. Plodding on foot downstairs from our 9th floor for the last time, I habitually glanced at our mailbox between the last two landings of the stairwell, as if there could be letters, or news—something that would keep me back here. Our crudely painted blue box still bore traces of a red hairy swastika someone daubed on it recently, and the black tar from a burning match someone else threw inside.

We were crossing my childhood city, the one and only city I knew, that was now turning into a hyperactive stranger, booming with flashy neon signs in a new language—neither Russian, nor English or French—with flickering kiosks, storefronts, and traffic lights that somehow seemed different. I was trying to recognize the familiar places that were flashing by—and to say goodbye to each one. The first autumn frost made the crisp darkness that was punctured by blinding lights even brighter. I knew I would never return, but as I was parting with Moscow, I wasn’t sure that the feelings I had were the ones I had expected.

For decades, I hadn’t been able to imagine myself without this city and its inhabitants, my friends, my kindred spirits, the likes of whom, I was sure, I would never find again—after all, one can’t be this fortunate twice,—and without the country itself, its landscapes, the entirety of Russian Nature, although I knew very well that, contrary to the comforting belief instilled in Soviet citizens by the propagandistic songs, these landscapes, with their iconic birch trees, their anthemized fields and rivers, were not unique—one can find very similar ones in other places on Earth.

A Motherland of Books: An Essay by Maria Bloshteyn

Taking your beloved books with you into immigration is intimately familiar to those of us who left the Soviet Union. My parents’ двухсоттомник—”200-volume set”—of Russian and world literature, was quite literally my lifeline to the language and culture that I may have otherwise forgotten, and they are still the editions I turn to today. The covers of the volumes are different colors, and some key moments of my life are associated with them, such as the dark green of Gogol’s Мертвые души (Dead Souls) when I started college. Reading Maria Bloshteyn’s essay was genuinely heart-wrenching, because the experience she describes is that of an acute loss of books that mean so much to us, not just for their content, but perhaps even more so because they have made the immigrants’ journey with us and sustained us in our new homes. In the current moment, this poignant essay is framed by the war in Ukraine, where people like us are losing not just their books, but their lives. If you are able to help, please support translators who are struggling due to the war and this initiative to give Ukrainian-language books to refugee children in Poland. Ukraine’s cultural sphere has been badly damaged by Russian forces, and we will continue to look for ways in which those of us in the West can help. Maria recently participated in the Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada event hosted by Punctured Lines, and you can listen to her read from an essay about reacting to the war in Ukraine while in the diaspora.

Maria Bloshteyn, A Motherland of Books

Written just before the war in Ukraine began, this essay elegizes the home libraries lovingly gathered and treasured by their owners in the Soviet era, these very libraries, with these very editions, that are being bombed today in Ukraine, along with their owners.

Surely our yellowed labels all spell doom

in letters too few learn, too few remember.

Boris Dralyuk, “Émigré Library”

The books are a heartache. I have been dreading this moment for years. My mother, the adored and formidable matriarch of our small family, had moved into a nursing home after struggling with dementia for the past several years. She doesn’t care now what will happen to the family library, but I do. These are, after all, the books that we brought with us from the Soviet Union, when we left it forever in 1979. I grew up looking at their spines both in our Leningrad flat and in our Toronto apartment: light brown for the complete edition of Pushkin, mauve for Heine’s poems, beige for Tolstoy’s collected works. The classics, the translated classics, the poetry chapbooks, the art albums, the subscription editions, children’s literature—they are all here. Once, they provided the continuity between the two vastly different worlds: one that was forever lost to us and the other that we were slowly learning to inhabit. Reading and rereading them kept me sane as I, rarely at a loss for words, found myself suddenly language-poor and unable to either defend myself against nasty verbal attacks I faced in school as the Russian kid, or to express myself adequately to friendlier others. 

These are the books that I am now packing into large cardboard boxes, as I am deciding their fate. Lowering them in, one by one, I think of the books that we weren’t allowed to bring with us as we left: most prominently, unfairly, and painfully, the single volume of Pushkin’s poems that my grandfather, part of the 13th Air Army during World War II, sent to my mother, evacuated to a village in the Urals. We weren’t allowed to take it, because it was published before some arbitrarily assigned cut-off year, which made it, ridiculously, a possible antiquity of value to the State. The passage of years hadn’t dimmed my sense of outrage. 

Dom knigi. Image credit: Google Images

The books that we were allowed to bring were mostly purchased by my parents during the years of their marriage. My father, whose promising law career was tanked by a prison term received as a result of taking the Soviet Codex of Labor Laws at face value, worked as an auditor for Dom knigi, the largest and most famous bookstore in Leningrad, located in a landmark building on Nevsky prospekt. Once a month, he would bring home a list of books available for purchase.  It was a privilege extended to the associates of Dom knigi. And a real privilege it was. 

The Soviet Union proclaimed itself to be the best-read country in the world. This boast was largely true. If you got onto a bus or a streetcar in the seventies, most passengers would be reading. Entertainment at home—where television meant two or three channels of largely boring programming—was also reading. Yet, if you walked into a book store, the selection of books available to an average customer without special connections was pathetically limited. You could choose from Leonid Brezhnev’s speeches and, if you were lucky, Lenin’s collected works. There was, however, a thriving black market for books. Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s collected works, for example, fetched ninety roubles on the black market—the monthly salary of an engineer. Books were a hot commodity and having access to books at the official prices (helpfully stamped onto the back cover) was a coveted benefit. Not that anyone ever resold books in our family—we bought our books for keeps. 

And so my father and mother would sit at the kitchen table, endlessly going over the list, comparing and contrasting, underlining, and debating with each other, as they chose the books that the family would be acquiring. Whichever books they selected, they’d have to make the same decision: would the family money go toward books or toward some needed items, say, for example, new clothes or pantyhose? Every single time, the decision was made in favor of books.

Later, when we would least expect it, my father would arrive home carrying a cardboard box, around which we’d all gather in eager anticipation. The opened box would release the heady smell of printer’s ink and paper—the intoxicating scent of new books. We’d take out the books one by one, resplendent in their glossy dust jackets, and admire them all. Next, we’d find a proper place for them on the bookshelves, among other books already residing there. And then we’d read them. Once the books were settled in, they were all equally accessible. That’s how I got to read Alberto Moravia and Georges Bernanos, whose vicious critiques of Western bourgeois society made them a logical choice for publication in the Soviet Union, as well as the first Russian translation of Jin Ping Mei, a scandalous 16th-century Chinese novel, all at the ripe old age of seven.

Then, in 1979, we left the USSR. We could have, theoretically, sold off the books, though it would have been emotionally wrenching, but the State helped us decide against that. At the time we left, we were only allowed to bring a small, almost symbolic amount of money with us, given that we were forced to sell whatever property we had, including our flat and our dacha. The money we received from the sales could just as well be spent on crates and packing material as on anything else. That settled it: the family library was accompanying us into the unknown. Our journey took us by airplane from Leningrad to Vienna, where we stayed for a few weeks in a seedy hotel previously used by the city’s sex workers, and then by train from Austria to Italy, where we spent both fall and winter in Ladispoli, a sleepy little seaside town not far from Rome, as we applied for entrance to Canada as refugees. We came to Canada in April of 1980 and then, what seemed like an eternity later, crates full of our books and other belongings finally arrived to our first Toronto apartment on Roselawn Avenue. I greeted the books with the joy and relief usually reserved for long-lost family members: here was the cure for loneliness, frustration, and boredom; here was the portal into other worlds that I could inhabit instead of the coldly unintelligible one in which I found myself.  

The books came, however, with an unexpected financial blow. It turned out that the money we had paid in the Soviet Union for shipping the books was not nearly enough. The crates sat in storage for months upon months and we had to pay the shipping company two thousand dollars in order to redeem them. The amount, substantial in any situation, was staggering to new arrivals with no financial reserves. But walking away from our books was not an option. My parents took out an interest-free loan from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Service. The family paid off that loan by sewing shoes—leather loafers. We’d pick up the large bags full of slips to be sewn together from the factory and then returned them there, completed, for $30 per bag. Although, to my shame, I never did get the hang of it, everyone else sewed, including my 80-year-old grandmother. It took about three years of loafer-sewing drudgery to repay the loan, but the books were worth it.

The books were there for us as no friends could ever be—a 24/7 resource to be reached for as support, entertainment, escape, and a source of wisdom. They were there as I grew up, went to university and to graduate school. They were there as I amassed my own library of books, in Russian as well as in English, got married, and had kids. My husband is Canadian-born and has no connections with Russia except through me. My kids read in English. The books that I am taking from the family library now will therefore be for my own use.  I can’t possibly keep all or even most of them—our many bookshelves at home are already overflowing with books and I have given up many of my other books to make space as it is. So now I’m deciding which books to keep and which books to donate to our multicultural resource library. They won’t be put on the library shelves—they’ll go to the book sale section, where anyone can purchase them for a symbolic sum that goes to fund the library. I know the book-sale section well. I picked up all kinds of treasures there over the years, all in fierce competition with other book hunters.

The author holding Anatole France’s collected works. Image credit: Maria Bloshteyn

The books I’m leaving at the book sale will be someone’s windfall to be treasured. Yet, I still feel like I am betraying the books. Their aged, weathered covers exude reproach. I might as well, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, be drowning them deeper than did ever plummet sound. I go again through the books that I’m giving away, pull several out of the boxes and set them aside, take a deep breath, and drive the boxes to the library. One of the librarians is Russian—she knows what I’m going through. If it wasn’t for Covid, I’d get a hug. “Don’t worry,” she says, “they’ll find good homes.” Maybe, but still… I go through the boxes again, just in case. I take the lid off one box and eight volumes of the collected works of Anatole France stare up at me. I never liked Anatole France. I can’t imagine dipping into one of his books for pleasure. But my mother loved his ironic detachment and reread his books more than once. Maybe that’s what I need now, I think to myself—ironic detachment… I pull out all eight volumes from the box, holding them close as I struggle to balance them in my arms. “I’m taking these home,” I say to the librarian. “I’m not letting go of them just yet.”

January 2022

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Toronto when she was nine.  She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Her main scholarly interests lie in the field of literary and cultural exchange between Russia and the United States, with a special focus on Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020).  Her articles appeared in a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals and her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015). 

Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada

We’re happy to share the recording from the event we hosted on May 15, 2022, gathering writers who were born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Canada as children. Currently located all across Canada, from Montreal (Luba Markovskaia) to Vancouver (Maria Reva) with a definite hub around Toronto (Julia Zarankin, Lea Zeltserman, Maria Lioutaia, Maria Bloshteyn), these generous writers shared excerpts from their work and answered questions about living with hyphenated identities and building writing communities. Russia’s war in Ukraine was at the forefront of this conversation, as most of the writers and the participants have family and friends affected by the bombs. This event was a fundraiser, and we encourage everyone to continue donating to the organizations listed below.

Please enjoy this recording and reach out to us with ideas for future projects!

Organizations to support:

Donate directly to Ukraine’s military: https://bank.gov.ua/en/news/all/natsionalniy-bank-vidkriv-spetsrahunok-dlya-zboru-koshtiv-na-potrebi-armiyi

UNHCR Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund: https://give.unhcr.ca/page/100190/donate/1

JIAS Ukraine Refugee Response: https://jiastoronto.org/ukraine-crisis-update/

ROLDA, helping stranded animals/pets: https://rolda.org/breaking-news-ukraine/

Ukraine Trust Chain, helping evacuate civilians out of war zones: https://www.ukrainetrustchain.org/

Questions?

Email: puncturedlines [at] gmail.com

Bios:

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad and emigrated to Toronto when she was nine. She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. Her main scholarly interests lie in the field of literary and cultural exchange between Russia and the United States, with a special focus on Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (University of Toronto Press, 2007), the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters (Slavica, 2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (NYRB Classics, 2015), and the editor of Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (Smokestack Books, 2020). Her articles appeared in a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly journals and her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015).

Maria Lioutaia was born in Moscow and now lives and writes in Toronto. Her fiction has recently appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Gulf Coast, Tin House, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and Conjunctions. She was a Tin House scholar, a finalist for The Iowa Review Awards, and was on the longlist for the CBC Short Story Prize four times. She holds an MFA from NYU, where she was a Goldwater Fellow. Her last name means “fierce” in Russian. She’s currently at work on a novel.

Luba Markovskaia was born in Leningrad and lives in Montreal. She holds a PhD in French literature from McGill University and works as an independent literary and cultural translator. Her writing on language, identity, and immigration has appeared in publications such as Moebius, Spirale, and Nuit blanche, as well as in translation in Maisonneuve Magazine and Quebec Reads, and was shortlisted for the French CBC Nonfiction Prize. In 2021, she received the John Glassco Translation Prize for her translation of Elena Johnson’s Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra. She sits on the editorial board of Spirale magazine. You can visit her LTAC profile and connect with her on Twitter at @luba_mark.

Maria Reva writes fiction and opera libretti. She is the author of the linked story collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear (Doubleday, Virago, and Knopf Canada New Face of Fiction, 2020), which was inspired by her own family’s experiences in Ukraine. Maria’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Granta, The Journey Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. She won a National Magazine Award in 2019 and was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada 2020 Fiction Prize. Maria was born in Ukraine and grew up in New Westminster, British Columbia. She received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.

Julia Zarankin is the author of FIELD NOTES FROM AN UNINTENTIONAL BIRDER. Her writing has appeared in Audubon, Canadian Geographic, ON Nature, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Birding Magazine, Hazlitt, Threepenny Review, and Orion Magazine. She was recently a finalist for the CBC Short Story prize (2020). When not hanging out with a spotting scope at sewage lagoons or working furiously at her desk, Julia lectures to lifelong learners in and around Toronto. Zarankin is currently at work on a novel that features, among other things, a Babushka Beauty Pageant.

Born in St. Petersburg back when it was Leningrad, Lea Zeltserman was raised in Edmonton and now calls Toronto home. She writes about Soviet-Jewish food, history, immigration, and culture. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Tablet, the Forward, Chatelaine, Today’s Parent, Walrus, and others. An essay on Soviet-Jewish food was included in the 100 Jewish Foods anthology from Tablet Magazine. She also publishes the Soviet-Samovar, a monthly round-up of FSU writing. Find her online at https://leazeltserman.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/zeltserman and Instagram: @leazelt.

Yevgenia Nayberg’s I Hate Borsch! (Eerdmans, 2022): A Way to Benefit Ukraine

Yevgenia Nayberg is the author and illustrator of several imaginative and visually stunning children’s books. In Anya’s Secret Society, a Russian immigrant girl who loves to draw discovers that, unlike where she came from, being left-handed is perfectly acceptable in America (left-handedness was considered in need of pointed correction in the Soviet Union, as my maternal grandfather could have attested to). Typewriter is the story of, well, a Russian typewriter brought to America and then abandoned by its owner, that finds a new home in the end. I particularly appreciate these children’s books because as far as I know, they’re the only ones that feature immigrant protagonists from the former Soviet Union. Nayberg’s latest book is I Hate Borsch! (what?! Who can possibly hate borsch?!), about a girl who, indeed, can’t stand the stuff but has a change of heart after emigrating from Ukraine to the U.S. The book includes Nayberg’s recipe for the (absolutely delicious) dish. And given several recent Twitter threads in which native Russian speakers expressed dismay at being told that they don’t spell its name correctly in English, I Hate Borsch! spells it exactly as it should be (for fans of Library of Congress transliteration, “borshch” is also acceptable, and no other spellings are).

Until June 30th, part of the proceeds from the book’s sales go to benefit Ukraine. Support Ukraine, support immigrant writers, support borsch. You can also donate here and here to help bring food to those who need it in Ukraine.

Yevgenia Nayberg is an award-winning illustrator, painter, and set and costume designer. Her illustrations have appeared in magazines and picture books, and on theatre posters, music albums, and book covers; her paintings, drawings, and illustrations are held in private collections worldwide. As a set and costume designer, she has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Endowment for the Arts/TCG Fellowship for Theatre Designers, the Independent Theatre Award, and the Arlin Meyer Award. She has received multiple awards for her picture book illustrations, including three Sydney Taylor Medals. Her debut author/illustrator picture book, Anya’s Secret Society, came out in 2019 and received a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection Award. She’s an author/illustrator of Typewriter and Mona Lisa In New York.  Her latest book, I Hate Borsch! was published this year. Born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine, she now lives in New York City.

You Never Know When Speaking Russian Might Come in Handy …: An Essay by Alina Adams

It would be hard to overstate my love of both figure skating and detective fiction, which admittedly isn’t something one normally thinks of together. It is therefore beyond thrilling to feature this personal essay by Alina Adams, who has written a series of five figure skating murder mysteries (yes, really, and I plan to order every one of them). A prolific writer with several fiction and non-fiction titles, Alina’s most recent novel is The Nesting Dolls, which you can read about in the poignant and humor-filled conversation between her and Maria Kuznetsova that Olga recently organized on this blog. I loved reading the story Alina tells below about working as a Russian-speaking figure skating researcher (she must have had a hand in many of the broadcasts that I avidly watched), and I confess to losing, in the best possible way, some of my time to being nostalgically taken back to 1990s figure skating coverage through the two videos in the piece, one of which features Alina translating (for Irina Slutskaya! You all know who she is, right?! Right?!). Let yourself be transported to that marvelous skating era, get ready for all the figure skating at the Olympics next month . . . and watch out, there’s a murderer, or five, on the loose.

You Never Know When Speaking Russian Might Come in Handy…:
An Essay by Alina Adams

I immigrated to the United States from Odessa, (then-) USSR in 1977. I was seven years old. I spoke no English, only Russian. 

I was the sole Russian-speaker in my second grade class at Jewish Day School. When the other kids spoke to me in English, I responded in Russian. When the teacher gave us a writing assignment, I wrote it in Russian.

I was never, ever going to learn English!

And then I fell in love.

With television.

Television was where the happy children were. The ones who lived in a house with a big staircase to slide down, not an apartment where all the furniture looked exactly like the furniture of every other Russian-speaking family newly arrived in San Francisco (we assume Jewish Federation got a great deal on all the identical chairs, tables, and bedspreads). The ones who ate hamburgers instead of kotlety. The ones who drank bright red, cherry-flavored medicine with cartoon characters on the label when they had a cold instead of laying down to get banki applied to their backs, dry mustard applied to their front, and their feet dunked into boiling water.

I wanted to be like the happy children on television. So I learned English.

My parents still spoke to me in Russian. But what language I might deign to reply in was anybody’s guess.

My love for the happy children who lived inside the television extended to wanting to join them. Not as an actor. I knew I was too funny-looking for that. But I could be the person who wrote the words that the people inside the televisions said. That’s where the real power was.

Brian Boitano and Alina Adams (Photo courtesy of Alina Adams)

And those words would be in English!

Who needed Russian?

Cut to: Me. Freshly out of college with a degree in Broadcast Communication Arts. And looking for a job.

Flashback: I have a younger brother. He was born in the United States. He was a competitive figure skater (1996 U.S. Open Novice Ice Dance Champion). My immigrant parents had better things to do — like, you know, earning a living — than drive him to daily practice or chaperone him at competitions. So that became my job. 

I learned more about figure skating than I ever thought there was to know. 

Which is why, when it came time to apply for a job as a researcher and writer with ABC Sports’ ice skating department, I knew quite a bit.

Robin Cousins, Dick Button, and Alina Adams (Photo courtesy of Alina Adams)

But, guess what — so did a lot of other people (many of them former skaters themselves).

Except those other people didn’t speak Russian. 

And I did.

Suddenly, the language that once kept me from the happy people in the television was the one bringing me into it.

Thus began my years of traveling around the globe, from World Championships to international qualifiers to the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.

And back to the former USSR.

By the time I returned with an ABC crew to shoot profile features on the country’s top athletes, the Soviet Union had collapsed. It was Russia now. And Ukraine. And Belarus. And Armenia and three different Baltics and . . . (A fun game in the media truck was placing bets on which formerly Soviet skaters would declare themselves which ethnicity in order to ensure a place on the competitive team. For instance, the Ukrainian named Evgeni Plushenko and the Georgian-sounding Anton Sikharulidze competed for Russia, while the Russian-sounding Igor Pashkevitch represented Azerbaijan, as did Inga Rodionova. We’re not even counting Marina Anissina declaring herself French or Aljona Savchenko becoming German.)

Alina Adams with Terry Gannon, Peggy Fleming, and Dick Button (Photo courtesy of Alina Adams)

My job as a skating researcher included interviewing the skaters and their coaches to get all those fun tidbits the announcers share on the air: “She began skating at the age of three because her grandmother called her a typhoon and needed to stop her from bouncing around their communal apartment!” or “He is the first athlete from Estonia to win a bronze medal at the European Championships since…” (What? You thought Dick Button and Peggy Fleming generated those fun factoids all on their own?)

It also included visiting the skaters in their homes, interviewing them in Russian on camera, translating their replies and, once in a while, even dubbing their answers into Russian-accented English for the television profile. (You can listen to me doing two versions of the same accent, here. I am playing both Irina Slutskaya and her mother. If you scroll through to the end, you can see me translating her championship interview live on the air, too. On a different note, about six minutes into this video is a profile of Misha Shmerkin, a former fellow Odessa resident now representing Israel. Though you can’t hear me in the piece, I’m the one who asked him all the questions that he is answering on camera.)

The experience was disquieting, to say the least. Not because I was forcing my brain to operate 24/7 in a language I had deliberately pushed to the back of my conscience for almost two decades (and had no one to check my stupidity if I screwed up; the English-speaking production staff assumed everything I told them was accurate). It was because, in returning to the former USSR and going from home to home, interviewing people my age and my parents’ age, I was being confronted with the life I might have lived. 

Not as a competitive athlete. I didn’t have the talent or the drive for that. But as an ex-Soviet citizen, navigating a country that had collapsed around me, desperately trying to figure out what the new rules were while clinging to the old ones because they were the only ones I understood. I entered communal apartment after communal apartment. I ate the food they put out for us, understanding in a way my colleagues did not how hard it had been to get. I nodded as a skater’s mother whispered to me, “Don’t tell them my husband is Jewish,” and barely flinched when, while shooting inside a hospital for a piece on an injured skater, random cats wandered in and out of the wards. 

I was getting a glimpse of the life I might have led if my parents hadn’t made the decision to emigrate in the 1970s, when no one had a clue that the empire had less than twenty years of life left in it, or that return visits would become commonplace. When my parents took the chance to leave, it was like jumping off the edge of the world into an abyss. Nobody knew what the West had to offer or how they might survive there. And everybody understood that there would be no going back. It might as well have been a one-way mission to Mars.

My trips to the former USSR were an ongoing exercise in, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

But I remembered what I’d seen there, and when, in 2002, following the (latest) Olympic judging scandal an editor at Berkley Prime Crime asked me to write a series of figure skating murder mysteries, I jumped at the chance. 

The chance to not only reveal all the behind-the-scenes gossip I couldn’t publish using skaters’ real names, but also to include the observations I’d made about life in the former USSR through the unique lens of elite athletes who’d survived the Soviet days and were now trying to make sense of the present. I could write about those who triumphed and those who slipped through the cracks. I could write about what was, and about who I might have been.

There are five books in the Figure Skating Mystery series. The third installment, Axel of Evil, takes place in Moscow and incorporates everything I saw, everything I heard, and everything I suspected when I worked there.

The first one, Murder on Ice, was based on the aformentioned 2002 Olympic judging scandal, where the Pairs judge was accused of favoring the Russian team over the Canadian one. In Murder on Ice, a judge is accused of giving the Ladies’ gold to Russia’s dour ice queen over America’s perky ice princess. And then the judge ends up dead (that didn’t happen in 2002). Who will investigate the crime? Why, none other than the trusty skating researcher! (Clearly, I subscribe to the policy of: Write What You Know.)

In Murder on Ice, I take all of the clichés that Americans have about Russians and (hopefully) turn them on their heads. In Axel of Evil, I continue that objective, but I do it by putting the American researcher, my heroine, Bex Levy, out of her element and onto Russian soil. Here, people are making as many assumptions about her as she is making about them. Clichés work both ways. In retrospect, I guess I was working out issues of being a Soviet-born American — whose life would have been very different had my family stayed in the USSR — by writing from the point of view of an American digging into the lives of those who left, as well as of those who stayed. I get to be both an insider and an outsider. I get to be the native and the other. I get to play the role of someone born in the US, and someone who grew up in the USSR. Because, in real life, I’ll always be somebody who is stuck in-between.

And I get to prove what my parents said all along. You never know when speaking Russian might come in handy . . . .

Alina Adams was born in Odessa, USSR and moved to the United States with her family in 1977. She has worked as a figure skating researcher, writer, and producer for ABC Sports, ESPN, NBC, and TNT. She is the author of Inside Figure Skating, Sarah Hughes: Skating To the Stars, and the figure skating mystery series consisting of Murder on Ice, On Thin Ice, Axel of Evil, Death Drop, and Skate Crime. Her historical fiction novel, The Nesting Dolls, traces three generations of a Soviet-Jewish family from Odessa to Brooklyn. Visit her website at: www.AlinaAdams.com

Q&A with Lea Zeltserman: Looking at Soviet-Jewish Immigration through Soviet-Jewish Food

Today Punctured Lines features a Q&A with Lea Zeltserman, a Toronto-based writer focusing on, among other things, Soviet-Jewish immigration and food. Lea is a contributor to The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List (Artisan, 2019) with her piece “The Secrets of Soviet Cuisine.” Her two most recent food-related pieces are “TweetYourShabbat is all about embracing diverse – and imperfect – Shabbat dinners” and “Where the Russian Grocery Store Means Abundance,” whereas her “Announcing the Soviet-Jewish Decade: A 2010s Top 10” is a round-up of books, plus a documentary and an album, about Soviet-Jewish culture. Lea answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: You publish a newsletter, The Soviet Samovar, “a monthly round-up of Russian-Jewish news, events and culture,” with the emphasis on (ex-)Soviet Jews in the North American diaspora. What motivated you to start this project? What audience(s) is it aimed at and what do you hope they get out of it?

Lea Zeltserman: When I first started writing about Russian-Jewish issues, there was nothing out there. We were all just starting to get online, starting to come into ourselves as a community. I was excited each time I saw an article about Russian Jews in the media, and I simultaneously realized that there are many things we ourselves don’t know about our history. The Soviet Samovar was a way to bring that together. By now, there’s so much great work coming out of the Russian-Jewish world that I can be more selective. It’s shifted into a more literary, culture and book-focused round-up.

A lot of my work is for broader North American audiences, but the newsletter is aimed at Russian Jews. Though of course everyone should subscribe! The content is for everyone, and articles featured are often published in mainstream publications. But when I’m writing my commentary, there’s a distinct sense of “we, Russian Jews and our experiences, and here’s what we think about the world and our place in it.” I don’t tiptoe around, or hold back if I think something is damaging to our community. Which is not to suggest that it’s a monthly rant. Not even close. There is lots of thoughtful, smart, insightful writing out there, which I’m always excited to feature. There’s much to be proud of in our accomplishments, and The Soviet Samovar is a way to bring that together, draw attention to one another, and hopefully, give us all something to think about – about our history and the people and events that shaped us.

PL: You write a lot about Soviet-Jewish food, specifically how it reflects Soviet-Jewish culture and history. As you say in your essay for Tablet Magazine, “Defining Soviet Jewish Cuisine,” “For most Jews, the first bite of pork is a transgressive, often formative, moment. But for Soviet Jews, pork-laden sosiski [PL: wieners/hot dogs] were an everyday food.” Why the focus on food – what can looking at what Soviet Jews ate and continue to eat tell us more broadly about Soviet-Jewish life, both in the former Soviet countries and in the diaspora? 

LZ: I’ve always been interested in food. When Tablet published their “100 Jewish Foods” feature online, I was surprised to see everyday Russian food on the list (borsch, cabbage rolls, rye bread, pickles, herring) associated instead with “Old World Russia.” This food might be “Old World” for many Jews whose Russianness lies several generations in the past, but for us, this is the food we grew up on. It’s our “now food.” This oversight is symbolic of the frozen-in-time understanding of Russian Jewry that habitually ignores the existence of the contemporary Russian-Jewish community. That really bothered me. So I wrote them, and they were great and very interested, and my article came out of that (and then was included in the 100 Jewish Foods book).

The sosiski, of course. They’re such a powerful image for Jews. For Russian Jews they’re real and nostalgic, and for North American Jews, they were something that was used dismissively toward Russian Jews to question our legitimacy. So yes, you start with jokes about sosiski and suddenly, there’s a whole story about who we are and what we overcame, why we stopped keeping kosher but still felt so strongly about our Jewish identity. And that happens over and over – you ask a few questions about our food and, because everything was so centralized and controlled, entire historical episodes, Jewish and not, come tumbling out.

Many Russian Jews don’t reflect on our food either. I’ve been so touched by the reactions to my writing and my talks on the subject. People really respond to hearing that this everyday “stuff” matters. That what their mothers and grandmothers do (or did) is relevant and weighty, and has significance to Jewish history and Jewish lives. Our dishes get at the story of our lives in a different way, especially for Soviet families, where getting and preparing food was such a major part of daily routine, never mind bigger moments like war, famines, the Shoah.

I also think about it as a parent, and what I want my children to know of their heritage. Kugel, brisket, and knishes aren’t our recent history. I don’t want them thinking that’s their food, or wondering why their food isn’t legitimately Jewish. Our stock list of Jewish food needs a shaking up and I strongly believe that our Soviet-era food, from all the republics, has a rightful place on that list. As for why are we still eating it? That’s something I’m still exploring, that intimate relationship between comfort and familiarity, how it fits into immigration and being refugees, all mixed up with the worst parts of the USSR. It reflects all the complexity and contradictions of our heritage, which we, quite literally, fill our bellies with every day. It’s part of our identity. It would be a betrayal to sweep it away and replace it with knishes and bagels (well, maybe the bagels).

Food is a little scrap of the past that I can touch and taste. I’ll never hear the sounds of the train station from which my paternal grandmother escaped the coming Nazis when she evacuated from Zhitomir. But a pot of soup, I can make an attempt at.

PL: The discussion of Soviet-Jewish pork consumption brings up something else you’ve written about, namely, the often stark differences between (ex-)Soviet and North American Jews. These differences exist not only in terms of food, but more generally: as you point out, they manifest themselves in terms of attitudes toward Soviet-Jewish immigration (“Why Russian Jews Don’t Want to Hear About Being Saved”), experiences of the Holocaust (“On #FirstSurvivor and the Russian-Jewish Holocaust experience”), and more playfully, treasured customs like New Year trees (“O Yolka Tree, O Yolka Tree”). Can you talk about what you see as the main differences between the two communities and also what, if anything, can be done to bring them closer together – or whether this is necessary?

LZ: Hmm, that’s a great question. And an unexpectedly difficult one. I’m going to start with the second question. Which is that, I don’t know anymore what will “work.” As time passes, we naturally become more integrated. Even myself, as an example – I grew up in the mainstream Canadian Jewish community, but always feeling like an outsider. My kids will feel less that way, I imagine. There are more writers now in Jewish media who straddle both worlds and bring a Soviet perspective as the norm – look at someone like Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt at the Forward. But, I still get comments about going back where I came from in response to my work. There are still separate Limmud conferences, as one major example of communal non-integration. If you go to Jewish events, at least in Toronto, there’s rarely anything Russian/Soviet – you have to go to the Russian-Jewish events for that. That’s not always about exclusion though. Those types of communal spaces and events are important for Russian Jews too. It’s a space for us to talk among ourselves, to share experiences and find commonalities (and stop explaining ourselves). There are programs like the J-Academy camp in Toronto, which build Russian-Jewish culture and identity. There’s tremendous value in that separation, too.

On the flip side, there are great examples of “cross-cultural moments,” like Yiddish Glory, spearheaded by Anna Shternshis and Psoy Korolenko, which has been rightfully recognized all over the world and brought legitimacy to our experiences, especially in the Holocaust. (Yad Vashem has a special focus on the Holocaust on Soviet territories, for example; writers like Izabella Tabarovsky have done a lot of work in bringing that history to broader audiences.) I think that it’s partly because Yiddish Glory taps into the Holocaust and yiddishkeit and nostalgia. And to be clear, it’s an amazing project and I talk it up at every opportunity – I’m thrilled it’s received the acclaim it has. But I do think its popularity in the wider Jewish community is partially tied into the reasons above. Hopefully though, these types of projects will start to bridge that gap. It’s changing, but slowly.

There’s increasing interest in Soviet Jews and our experiences. My “Soviet-Jewish Decade” series generated strong interest from a Russian and non-Russian Jewish audience. At the same time, I still see frequent reminders that we’re not part of the mainstream. Minor things like headlines about “old world borsch,” as if we’re not eating that in the here and now. It’s disconcerting to see your everyday discussed as if it’s some relic left behind, belonging to impoverished shtetl immigrants. Other examples are more blatant and angering, but I don’t want to get into a list of outrages here. We remain an afterthought; not part of a broader understanding of what the Jewish community is. We don’t fit tidily into existing narratives of Jewishness. Occasionally, I’ll see a writer who isn’t a Russian Jew mention us as a matter of course in articles about the American-Jewish community. And standout examples like Rokhl Kafrissen, whose Tablet column on Yiddish culture and history regularly includes Soviet Jewry as a “normal” topic. I suspect that this feeling exists across other minority groups within the Jewish community too.

To the first part of your question, I think our differences are muting over time. But we’re still seen as an Other, someone to be remembered or included, but not a group that’s inherently part of the North American-Jewish world. And we’re still referenced as a means to an end, part of the narrative that the Soviet Jewry movement enabled US Jewry to grow, which, well, no one wants their suffering to be someone else’s stage of development. Anecdotally, I’ve talked to many Russian Jews who feel that they’re looked down upon and seen as inferior. Highly successful people in their careers and lives, and yet, this feeling persists. And culturally, there are genuine differences. Language, obviously. Food, history, family stories. Anekdoty [PL: jokes] – those never fully translate. Our fundamental definition of Jewish identity is still different, though that’s several articles in itself.

PL: As a writer one of whose major topics is Soviet-Jewish immigration, do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?

LZ: Absolutely! I’m still amazed at finding all these people, and the many, many points of connection among our experiences. I never had that growing up. Though I mostly felt very Canadian, there were always gaps and differences that I tried to ignore – or often took as a sign there was something wrong with me or my family. I’m still exploring that and still finding a lot of meaning in those connections and the realization that my experiences weren’t alone.

I read a lot of other immigrant writing and I often share it online and find those pieces that I can relate to. But in terms of what I’d consider my writing circle, it tends to be Russian-Jewish online, and more generally friends and other writers in my physical life.

PL: How do you relate to feminist ideas and navigate the gap between the different gender expectations in Canadian vs. Russian cultures? Do you see any shift of Russian gender norms in the diaspora?

LZ: I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I grew up in a city that didn’t have a large Russian community, and we didn’t have a lot of family around. So I was generally shielded from the worst parts of Russian misogyny, and had more of that stereotypical Soviet intellectual experience where everyone was expected to function at a high level, to be well-read, successful in school, go to university and so forth. Most of the gender issues I encounter are more broadly Canadian issues, and will be familiar to anyone in the US.

I get irate when people cheer about how feminist the USSR was, or talk it up on March 8, in particular. And that’s where my food work comes in – the more I delve into food, and read about Russian households and kitchens and labor, I see more clearly how deeply gendered the roles were. Russian women started working and got to “lean in” that much sooner. In fact, I’m working on a personal essay right now about my grandmothers and Russian food, so I’m full of facts and stories about just how hard they worked on keeping their families alive. (Though, to be fair, my grandfathers did too.)

There’s a great book that came out last year, called Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life, edited by Anastasia Lakhtikova, Angela Brintlinger and Irina Glushchenko, with a foreword from Darra Goldstein. It’s a fantastic book, and it talks about food through the lens of literature, film, and popular Soviet culture, so it ticks all the boxes for me.

I’m not sure I can speak to how the broader community has changed. I’m sorry to disappoint but I don’t have direct, personal experience with it, and I think the people I interact with the most are a self-selecting group. With gender issues, I’m just more tuned into, and concerned about, Canada than the Russian community specifically.

PL: Lastly, what are some of your favorite Soviet-Russian-Jewish dishes? If our readers want to find out more about this cuisine – and/or make it themselves – where would you recommend they look?

LZ: Top of my list are tinned sprats, pelmeni [PL: meat dumplings], and grechnevaya kasha [PL: buckwheat] fried up with butter. And then soups – kharcho, solyanka, shchi and rassolnik are all in our basic rotation. My loyalty to mayonnaise as a life essential, I’ve learned, is very Russian, so I have to include that.

For basics, start with Anya von Bremzen and Darra Goldstein. von Bremzen’s Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook, is a go-to in our household, along with Darra Goldstein’s books, A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, The Georgian Feast: The Vibrant Culture and Savory Food of the Republic of Georgia, and her newest, Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore. That’ll give you a thorough grounding in Russian/Soviet cuisine.

And Bonnie Frumkin Morales’ Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking (with Deena Prichep) is a great book and Soviet food explainer. She speaks to a North American audience in a highly accessible way. (Morales has a restaurant and now small shop in Portland – a growing, mini- empire, which I desperately want to visit.) In the UK, there’s Alissa Timoshkina’s Salt and Time: Recipes from a Modern Russian Kitchen, which has just been nominated for an IACP cookbook award. Both of these are more “nashi,” representing the immigrant, diaspora generation. Morales was born in the US, and Timoshkina left her native Siberia for the UK as a teen.

And of course, I’d be remiss if I don’t plug my own work – in addition to my article in Tablet, I recently published a piece on Soviet history as reflected in the Russian grocery store, in Heated. I’ve given several talks on defining Soviet-Jewish food and I’m speaking at a few upcoming conferences this spring.

Q&A with Masha Rumer: Parenting with an Accent (forthcoming from Beacon Press)

Today on Punctured Lines, we have a Q&A with Masha Rumer, author of Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting, whose arrival we previously announced here and are very excited about. Masha answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: Describe, briefly, your process in writing this book.

Masha Rumer: My decision to write the book was pretty simple: I wished there was something like that when I became a parent, and since there wasn’t, I figured I’d write it. I was born in Russia and my partner was born in the U.S., so in addition to navigating differences common to a multicultural relationship, having a baby brought up questions, nostalgia and my awareness of straddling multiple cultural identities. How do I teach my kids Russian, without forcing it?  How do I connect with other parents, even if I lack certain shared childhood experiences? Is a peanut butter sandwich an acceptable meal? How much borscht is too much? The more I spoke to others, parents or not, the more I realized that these concerns are very much shared, but people don’t always feel comfortable discussing it.

Surprisingly, I found no nonfiction book about the contemporary immigrant parenting experience, even though there is a record high of 43 million immigrants in America today and over 18 million kids with at least one foreign-born parent.

I realized there needs to be a research-driven, accessible look at what it’s like for immigrants to raise kids in the U.S., not a “how-to” parenting manual, but a realistic portrait of sorts. The book will have a bit of everything: candid conversations with families across the U.S., personal narrative and interviews with experts in psychology, language development and sociology. And beets. Lots of beets.

PL: What is your relationship with contemporary Russian literature? Who are some of the writers that inspire you?

MR: I really wish I’d read more contemporary Russian literature, but a significant chunk of my reading is in English (unless we’re talking news or kid lit – I try to read Russian books with my children daily). That said, I’ve recently been enjoying the work of Dina Rubina and of the investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich, and have been getting into translation more (just finished a delightful Russian translation of A Man Called Ove [PL: This Swedish title by Fredrik Backman has also been translated into English]).

PL: Do you find yourself working against some Russian cultural stereotypes?

MR: Sometimes I find myself dodging jokes about being a spy, especially in the wake of the 2016 presidential election (I’m not a spy). I’ve also been questioned whether I came to the U.S. “on my own” and “with papers” or if my husband ordered me via a catalog. The people who ask are demure and almost apologetic, but they want to know. Recently, though, a job recruiter was pretty explicit about questioning my immigration status and any political connections. And something many female-identifying Russian speakers have probably experienced – there’s often an assumption that our closets have this secret compartment where we stash sable fur coats and leather outfits from a James Bond movie.

PL: As a writer who addresses stories of immigrant families, do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?

MR: I definitely find myself connecting with other diaspora writers. It’s probably due to the shared immigrant experiences of reinventing and translating yourself and the trauma of having been uprooted. I love the work of Lara Vapnyar and Dinaw Mengestu; they both write so incisively and honestly about diaspora realities. Eva Hoffman and Jhumpa Lahiri were among the first contemporary immigrant authors I read, and it felt so validating. Then there’s the work of Edwidge Danticat, Anya Ulinich and Natalia Sylvester, particularly her recent essay on being bilingual, and the Foreignish blog, run by Yaldaz Sadakova. I’m also excited to read the new collection Like Water by Olga Zilberbourg. It’s thrilling to see that the contemporary immigrant narratives are no longer othered as “niche,” but are becoming a part of the “mainstream” literary canon. 

Forthcoming Book Announcement: Masha Rumer, Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting

From Masha Rumer comes the following announcement:

“Very excited to share that my nonfiction book, Parenting with an Accent, will be published by Beacon Press and distributed by Penguin Random House. There’s no better time for this book, which will explore the everyday stories and challenges of immigrant families as they raise kids in their adopted American home. (And yes, there will be beets.)”

Agent Katelyn Hales, Robin Straus Agency

We’re very excited too. Having read Masha’s work before, we know this will be an insightful and engagingly written book. If you haven’t read her yet, you can do so here:

https://www.kveller.com/what-do-you-do-when-your-beloved-childhood-books-scare-the-crap-out-of-your-kids/