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.
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.
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.
Punctured Lines is delighted to bring you our next event–a reading and a Q&A with six established authors who were born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Canada as children. In their fiction and nonfiction they explore topics of multicultural identity, life under communism, Jewish culture, food, history, and making a home in a strange land.
We began planning this event before Russia’s renewed, full-scale attack on Ukraine, and we want to acknowledge that this war is resonating deeply throughout the diasporic community. We feel that it’s particularly important for us to come together at this time, to listen to each other’s stories and to amplify each other’s voices and resources in support of the people of Ukraine in their fight against the Russian totalitarian regime. We also want to extend our support to those citizens of the Russian Federation resisting and fleeing from this regime.
*** This event will be recorded. ***
*** This event is a fundraiser and we encourage everyone to donate money directly to organizations supporting Ukraine and Russian protesters. Suggested donation starts at $5.
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 Lioutaiawas 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.
Dear Punctured Lines readers — come meet us on Zoom, and help us celebrate the publication of Masha Rumer’s book! (In San Francisco? Come meet us in person, details below.) We’re so happy to welcome Masha’s newly published Parenting With an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children (Beacon Press). Punctured Lines published a Q&A with Masha when this book was still in the proposal stage, and we’ve been following Masha’s Twitter posts about its development with great interest and anticipation. Now that this book is out and available for all to read we are ready to party (and encourage all of our readers to buy it)!
This upcoming event will feature Masha Rumer herself and our blog co-founders Yelena Furman and Olga Zilberbourg alongside the brilliant Maggie Levantovskaya, Vlada Teper, Sasha Vasilyuk, and Tatyana Sundeeva, all immigrant writers, all born in the USSR.
We will read excerpts from our fiction and nonfiction related to immigration, identity, family history, and the mother tongue(s). Let’s talk about buckwheat and pickled herring with beets. What do you do if your children refuse to eat traditional foods? Or when your dying grandmother forgets English and Russian and begins speaking to you in Yiddish? Does a Soviet-era secret still matter when the country no longer exists? We will explore love, life, loss, and the nuances of living with a hybrid identity.
Mark your calendars for a Zoom event on December 4, 2021, at 4 pm PT, hosted by Folio Books in San Francisco!
In San Francisco? Come meet Masha Rumer and Olga Zilberbourg in person. On Sunday, December 5, 2021, at 11 am, they will be at Folio Books signing books! Olga will be signing her book LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES (WTAW Press).
Masha Rumer’s nonfiction book, Parenting with an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children, is forthcoming from Beacon Press in November 2021. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Moscow Times, Scary Mommy, and Parents, winning awards from the New York Press Association. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. You can connect with her on Twitter @mashaDC and on her website and order her book here.
Sasha Vasilyuk is a Russian-American writer who grew up between Moscow and San Francisco. With a MA in Journalism from New York University, she has written for Harper’s Bazaar, The Telegraph, Narrative, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, and Reed. She has won the Solas Award for Best Travel Writing and a NATJA award. Sasha lives in San Francisco where she is working on a novel. You can connect with her on social @sashavasilyuk and find her work highlights here.
Tatyana Sundeyeva is a Russian-Jewish writer and novelist originally from Kishinev, Moldova. She writes short fiction, travel writing, and Young Adult novels and has been published in Cleaver and Hadassah Magazine. She is also on the Executive Committee of San Francisco’s Litquake Festival. You can find her at Tatyanawrites.com or @TeaOnSundey
Yelena Furman was born in Kiev and lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches Russian literature at UCLA. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative, book reviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Baffler, and articles on Russian-American fiction, contemporary Russian women writers, and Virginia Woolf’s translation of Dostoevsky in various academic venues. With Olga Zilberbourg she co-runs Punctured Lines, a feminist blog on post-Soviet and diaspora literatures. You can connect with her on Twitter at @YelenaFurman.
Maggie Levantovskaya emigrated from Kiev, Ukraine, to San Francisco at the age of ten. She’s a nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Michigan Quarterly Review, Catapult, and Lithub. She teaches in the English department at Santa Clara University. You can find her work on her website and connect on Twitter @MLevantovskaya.
Vlada Teper’s essays have been featured in “Perspectives” on KQED. Her poetry has appeared in the Oberon Poetry Magazine and TulipTree Review, among others. A writer, teacher, and entrepreneur, Vlada is the recipient of the 826 Valencia Teacher of the Month Award, and the founder of I M U. She is currently completing her debut novel about being a substitute teacher in a Sex Ed high school class. You can find her on Twitter at @VladaTeper.
Olga Zilberbourg is the author of LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES (WTAW Press) and three Russian-language story collections. She has published fiction and essays in Electric Literature, Lit Hub, Alaska Quarterly Review, Confrontation, Scoundrel Time, and elsewhere. She writes book reviews for The Common, co-edits Punctured Lines, and co-hosts the San Francisco Writers Workshop. You can find her work on her website, connect on Twitter @bowlga, and order her book here.
Julia Zarankin is the author of a memoir Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder(Douglas & McIntyre, 2020) that was warmly welcomed by both the birding and the literary communities. She was born in the Soviet Union and as a child immigrated to Canada with her family as part of the Jewish refugee movement. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and taught in the US before returning to Canada. She lives in Toronto and publishes essays and short fiction in English-language magazines both in Canada and in the United States.
Punctured Lines:Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder combines elements of an immigrant’s memoir with a love story with a self-help guide to finding a perfect hobby, and last but not least is filled with information about birds and stories of bird sightings—and the different genres brilliantly mesh together to create a page-turner. How did you come up with the structure for this book and did it change during the writing process?
Julia Zarankin: Thank you so much for calling my book a page-turner, that is so kind of you to say and is the greatest compliment. Writing process: before the book, there was a humorous blog called Birds & Words, which I started writing immediately after seeing my first bird and realizing that I had plunged head-first into a bizarre and unlikely subculture. Starting my blog was the only way I could make sense of birds and birding. I wrote about all my adventures in misidentification, I pontificated about avian coiffures. But slowly, I noticed that my posts were growing beyond the length of a jocular blog post. I remember a specific turning point: after chasing (and finding) a spotted towhee that had flown way off course, I started wondering whether the bird felt lost or displaced in this unfamiliar landscape. And suddenly I found myself feeling a sense of kinship with the bird; thinking about the spotted towhee led me to contemplate all of my own peregrinations—some more successful than others—and the migratory journeys undertaken by my own family. This moment of seeing myself in birds—a wholly unscientific endeavor by the way; one isn’t supposed to anthropomorphize!—was a sign that I had to take my writing about birds more seriously and that I was probably writing something more meaningful than a series of blog posts. That’s when I started working on the book in earnest; I always envisioned it as a series of essays, and the more I wrote, the more I started seeing connections between my life and the lives/experiences of birds. I played with the order of the essays as I started to envision the book as a whole, with a solid narrative arc.
Punctured Lines: You place your personal story in the context of the migratory urge of certain birds, normalizing, to some extent, human desire to change our circumstances. Are you making a distinction here between immigration that stemmed from political tensions and the general human desire to be in motion?
Julia Zarankin: I think I’m fascinated by both of these desires. As a person, I’m wildly afflicted by wanderlust. Falling in love with birds gave me a sense of home that I hadn’t experienced before; now that I know where birds can be found in Toronto, I feel much more at home in the city and feel less of an urge to escape and run away at every opportunity. In a sense, birds have really taught me how to be present, stay put, and enjoy it! When I started volunteering at a migration monitoring station and began reading about bird migration, I came across this fantastic German word Zugunruhe, coined by natural historian Johann Andreas Naumann, to describe the migratory restlessness of caged songbirds. I realized that the word itself applied not just to birds, but also to my own life and the trajectory of my family’s history. Suddenly I felt that there might be an explanation for my own near-constant feeling of migratory restlessness. Migratory birds are hardwired to live a life in constant motion, and their journeys are perilous! Their lives are dictated largely by a quest for food and a desire (biological imperative) to reproduce. My personal migratory restlessness is of a different nature. Initially politically motivated (my family fled several political regimes), my desire to be in motion could also be summarized by a quest to find a home and to escape the familial curse (or gift?) of being forever displaced.
Punctured Lines: You have devoted much of your professional life to the study of Russian literature. In the book, you mention how after you became a birdwatcher, you started noticing references to birds everywhere, including the chickens in Uncle Vanya:
“I had always focused on the play’s larger message and hadn’t ever paid much attention to the chickens. Yet there they were. And rereading the play, I saw that the chickens [. . .] depicted continuity, the small, mundane actions that we cannot live without, the ones that give contour to our lives.”
Do you find that, as a birdwatcher, you approach books differently, bringing a different quality of attention to the pages in front of you?
Julia Zarankin: I’ve certainly started reading Chekhov and Tolstoy differently now that I’m a mad birder! I used to skip over nature scenes and snipe hunts (shh! don’t tell anybody) because I found them lacking in action, but now those scenes come alive for me in new ways. They are so often a locus of epiphany. I feel like birds have also helped me get to know Chekhov differently—as more of a prescient environmentalist. Birds have definitely taught me to slow down in almost everything I do, including how I read: to attend to words, scenes, details differently and more deliberately. The connections between birds and Russian literature are surprising (and plentiful). I’m fascinated by the fact that Velimir Khlebnikov is the son of a really famous Russian ornithologist, Vladimir Khlebnikov (not only that, but he accompanied his father on ornithological expeditions). All of this now makes sense to me, because it feels like in Khlebnikov’s futurist verse words are literally taking flight, often away from sense, toward a new way of experiencing language and poetry.
Punctured Lines: The narratives about human relationships with animals have a long history. One book that came to mind in relation to yours and that had enjoyed an enormous popularity in the USSR was Gerald Durrell’s My Life and Other Animals, a humorous account of a young boy transplanted with his family from Britain to the island of Corfu. What were the books that were influential for you during your writing process?
Julia Zarankin: Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “My Bird Problem,” was the piece that made me want to try my hand at birdwatching. Franzen writes about how falling in love with birds made him less cynical, and I think I read that essay at the right time—I was going through a career transition, auditioning hobbies, searching for something that would give me inner peace and improve my patience (without having to do yoga and spend time in the downward dog position). I’m very much indebted to Kenn Kaufman’s work (especially Kingbird Highway), and also Simon Barnes’ curious little book called How to be a Bad Birdwatcher. Barnes gave me permission to make (sometimes egregious) mistakes and taught me that there is no right way to be a birder; as long as one cultivates the habit of looking, one is doing it right. I reread Chekhov often, both for his attention to detail and narrative craft, and also for his reminder not to take oneself too seriously because at its core life is fundamentally absurd.
Punctured Lines: You write about growing up in a family of professional musicians and, being trained as a musician yourself in childhood, having to participate in music competitions. As a musician, a writer, and an academic, one must learn to bear the extremely competitive nature of these fields. Though birdwatching, too, as you say, can be a very competitive pursuit, it seems that for you it has been an opportunity to transform your relationship with competition itself. I was fascinated by your suggestion that birds teach you how to deal with disappointment in other areas of life. Do you find that birdwatching helps by teaching you how to reframe your ambitions, or that the sheer unpredictability of the birds’ behavior habituates you to waiting and helps you to avoid blaming yourself for everything that doesn’t go as planned? Or?
Julia Zarankin: I really believe that birding is the perfect antidote to smugness. Whether you like it or not, birds force you to take a Humility 101 masterclass (over and over again). Birding helped me undergo an apprenticeship in failure, because so much about birdwatching is learning to become comfortable with your (constant) mistakes. It only dawned on me much later that one cannot learn to identify birds without simultaneously learning to misidentify them (and recognizing what your mistakes are). Whereas I used to be ashamed of my mistakes and tried to hide them, birding showed me how mistakes are part of the learning process. Unsurprisingly, this also really helped me as a writer!
Punctured Lines: An important thread of this memoir has to do with the question of having children, with you trying to balance your desire to become a parent with factors that preclude you from doing so. This aspect of the book seems to resonate with a lot of contemporary writing by women on the difficult set of decisions that they face around motherhood. (I’m thinking, for instance, of Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood). Do you see your book in dialogue with the books that problematize the notion of traditional motherhood?
Julia Zarankin: Thanks so much for asking this question. I wrote this book as I was also coming to terms with the fact that I would never become a parent. In a sense, the book is also about learning to find meaning in midlife when one’s life doesn’t go as planned (or as one expected). I’m the first woman in five generations of my family (at least!) not to have a baby by age 21, and although my parents and grandmothers were kind and never mentioned that fact (at least not directly), I felt the weight of it on my shoulders and felt like I was failing or disappointing my entire family line. The book traces my journey of coming to terms with the fact that there are many ways to live a fulfilling and rewarding life. I really credit birds and birding for helping me see that.
Punctured Lines: Because I know that you hate this question yet ask it of everyone else: What is your favorite bird at the moment?
Julia Zarankin: I’m answering these questions from a farm in the Eastern Townships, in rural Quebec (this was as close as we could get to a trip to Vermont, since the land border is still closed to Canadians), and every morning this week I’ve been waking up to three American kestrels sitting in a bare tree outside my window. They’re gorgeous birds, with bright orange and blue and a wild, zebra-like face pattern. How nature came up with this bird, I do not know, but it’s magical. Too bad they terrorize (read: eat) the tiny songbirds, but hey—nobody ever said that nature was for the faint of heart. Yes, kestrels are definitely my favorite bird at the moment.
We are delighted to present a conversation between Alina Adams and Maria Kuznetsova, whose recent critically acclaimed novels make significant contributions to the body of Russian-American literature. Both Adams and Kuznetsova were born in the USSR and immigrated to the US with their families as children, though some years apart. In their novels, the authors turn to USSR’s history to tell their stories. Adams is a professional writer on topics from figure skating to parenthood and a New York Times bestselling author of soap-opera tie-ins. In The Nesting Dolls(Harper, 2020), she focuses on three generations of Soviet-Jewish women in a story that moves from Odessa to Siberian exile to the Brighton Beach immigrant community. Kuznetsova is a writer, an academic, and a literary editor. In her second novel, Something Unbelievable (Random House, 2021), she alternates between the perspectives of a grandmother and a granddaughter: between the story of a WWII-era escape from the Nazis taking over Kiev and the experiences of a contemporary New Yorker adjusting to new motherhood.
Alina Adams: How much of Something Unbelievable is autobiographical, or based on the experiences of your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents? How did you tackle writing historical fiction—was it based on anecdotal stories, research, or a mixture of both? What was the process of envisioning the past in your book like for you?
Maria Kuznetsova: When my grandmother was five, her family did indeed evacuate to the Ural Mountains like Larissa’s did in Something Unbelievable—and some moments from the book, like her having to hide under a train to avoid being bombed by Nazis, or starving so badly that the meat started to sink off her arms, really did happen. So I used her story, as well as some research into the time period, as a way to establish the background and set pieces of Larissa’s arc, while knowing that I’d have to make up most of the drama—a love triangle, jealousy between sisters, and so on—to carry her story forward. As for the story of her granddaughter, the contemporary actress who put on a play based on her story while being a new mom, I made all of that up, though of course I drew on my own experience of being a new mom while trying—unsuccessfully—to still be an “artist” and not lose my mind.
How about you with The Nesting Dolls? While my novel navigated two time periods, World War II and the present, yours actually had multiple time periods in Odessa and beyond (like nesting dolls themselves!), following Daria in the 1930s and Natasha in the 1970s, and finally, Zoe in 2019. Did you have a different relationship to each of these characters and periods in your writing? Did you feel closer to Natasha because her story was more recent? And how about Zoe?
Alina Adams: My research for The Nesting Dolls consisted of equal parts reading first-hand historical accounts and eavesdropping. I was that kid who always tried to make myself as small as possible at the corner of the kitchen table so the adults wouldn’t notice I was listening. But I was listening, and many of the stories I heard ended up making it into the book. The 1930s section is my grandparents’ generation. My grandfather was from a tiny village outside of Odessa. At age 13, he moved to the city alone to live in a boarding house, work in a factory during the day, and go to school at night. His father, who spoke no Russian, wrote a letter to Comrade Stalin—in Yiddish!—thanking him for his generosity in allowing a Jewish boy to get an education. That incident is referenced in The Nesting Dolls.
The 1970s, on the other hand, are my parents’ generation. My parents are the ones who told me how difficult it was for a Jew to pass a university entrance exam (though I already knew about The Jewish Problems). My father was the one who was told that he couldn’t study to be a doctor because he wore glasses and doctors couldn’t have less than perfect vision… by a doctor who wore glasses. Both my parents told me about working in a kolkhoz, how public baths worked, and communal apartment living, where neighbors might pour your soup down the drain or throw your clean laundry out the window. My father is the one who, once upon a time, jerry-rigged a shower by rerouting a pipe from under the sink. But, I am proud to say, I was the one who remembered about public fountains which dispersed soda water for one kopeyka, and sugar-flavored for three—and everyone lined up to drink from the same glass!
For the third section, the one taking place in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, it was extremely important to me to present Soviet-Jewish immigrants the way I knew them, and not the way they were usually portrayed in popular media. Growing up, if I saw Russian Jews in movies or on TV, they were the “Fiddler on the Roof” generation or “An American Tail,” basically huddled masses yearning to breathe free… while wearing kerchiefs and being precious. Modern day Jews, on the other hand, were either “The Nanny” or something by Phillip Roth. I couldn’t relate to either of them. (I kind of still can’t; the TV family we relate to most these days is actually the Asian one from “Fresh off the Boat.” For some reason, my kids find the immigrant mother on that show, strangely familiar!) What kind of images of Russian immigrants did you see growing up, Maria? How did you relate to them, and did they affect the characters you created in your books?
Maria Kuznetsova: Honestly, most of the depictions of people in the USSR or who emigrated from there that I saw were kind of what Natasha, the actress in my book, auditioned to be—either prostitutes or spies. In any Blockbuster-type movie, like the the Rocky movies or “Air Force One,” they were always the villains, whether as athletes or terrorists, and I vaguely remember Boris and Natasha in the cartoons when I was a kid. So this definitely did not speak to my experience, though it perhaps explained why the kids in my new American schools would call me a “Commie” and make fun of me! I came to America when I was five, so I was obviously not aware of how Americans viewed Soviet immigrants or the Cold War or the way Russians were depicted in the media, but as an adult, I can look back on moving to America in the early 90s and understand why I was so confused by my classmates’ ideas of who I was.
Alina Adams: Yes, me too! I came in the late 1970s and heard, “You’re a Communist! Why don’t you go back to Russia?” For some reason, second graders had a difficult time grasping the nuance that, if you left Russia, you were likely not a Communist. (And let’s not get started on, “I’m not from Russia, I’m from Ukraine…”) No wonder you didn’t engage!
Maria Kuznetsova: Indeed! Five-year-old me didn’t quite have the sophistication to say, “We fled the country as Jewish refugees—so we could escape the Communists! And we can’t exactly go back because we gave up our passports into the country, duh!”
Anyway, until probably late into college, I mostly read the classics, rarely anything written after Catcher in the Rye or Lolita (though there’s a nuanced, complicated, and flawed immigrant for a protagonist!), and it was only in my early twenties that I discovered Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, and even USSR immigrants like Gary Shteyngart and David Bezmozgis, and realized that I could write about immigrant characters, too! Until I read these books and a college professor asked why all my characters were American, I didn’t really realize that my fiction could draw a little more from my own childhood experiences—and the very colorful experiences of my parents and grandparents, too—even though that seems so obvious now.
Alina Adams: I grew up watching soap operas and reading the glitz and glamour books of the 1980s, so when I first started trying to get a book published, I also wrote about white, Christian Americans. Ironically enough, the first book I sold, to Avon in 1994, The Fictitious Marquis, was a Regency romance novel set in England between 1795 to 1837 à la Jane Austen—can you get more white and Anglican than that? But I managed to sneak a whole Jewish family into it. Twenty years later, the Romance Writers of America named it the first Our Own Voices Jewish historical. So I was apparently being a trailblazer without even knowing it! Because, like you, I assumed the way to go mainstream was to write about the mainstream. It didn’t occur to me to, like you said, draw from my family experiences, until my agent said, about four years ago, “Russia is so hot right now!” (I wonder why?) When I started thinking about the story I wanted to tell, I decided to set it in Odessa, where my family is from, and to populate it with the types of people I knew, many of whom I wanted to see in popular culture, but rarely did.
On that note of identification, both of our books touch upon the topics of being (grand)daughters of Soviet (grand)mothers, and the mothers of American children. What has that dual experience been like for you? How does it come out in your latest novel?
Maria Kuznetsova: As my American husband once told his friends, “You won’t realize how Russian Maria really is until you meet her parents.” I’ve always had this split identity—the “Russian” (which is what we considered ourselves when we emigrated from the USSR, though we came from Ukraine) part of me that comes out around my family, but where I also actually feel the most American, since my pronunciation of most things is inaccurate, I miss a lot of Soviet references, and get teased for my “American” accent, and so on. And then there’s the American part where I’m around Americans and seem American, but often find myself feeling like this outsider because I missed out on many cultural references, grew up eating different foods, had many superstitions people teased me for, and so on (heaven forbid someone tried to step over me at a sleepover—I would be terrified I wouldn’t grow!). Having a three-year-old with an American husband, and having lost all of my grandparents at this point, and therefore having no close relative in my life with whom I’m “forced” to only speak Russian regularly, has definitely made me feel like the Russian part of myself is getting more and more diluted.
I beg my parents to speak Russian to my daughter, and I do think she understands them still, but they switch to English because they say she doesn’t understand them. My novel felt a lot more Russian than I am—not only because of the historical parts, but because Natasha, who is married to a Russian and auditioning for mostly Russian parts and living in New York, is a lot more Russian than I feel right now. I live in Alabama, and the only time I heard a woman speaking to her kids in Russian, I ran over to her immediately like I had witnessed some kind of miracle. So I guess my writing is this space where I can return to sometimes connect with my Russian heritage, even if sadly I feel like I could be better about doing it in real life!
In The Nesting Dolls, you’ve got Zoe, contemplating what her life would be like if she married either a Russian man her family loves, or his African-American friend and co-worker, whom she seems to like a lot more. What was it like to explore those ideas about finding a man who shares your background vs. following your heart in your novel, and perhaps in your real life too?
Alina Adams: A reviewer on Goodreads called The Nesting Dolls ending, where Zoe’s Soviet-born family accepts her African-American boyfriend without threatening to throw themselves out of a window “unrealistic.” My husband of almost 23 years is African-American. (Though, as our oldest son said, “Gideon grew up in Harlem, went to private school, and then CalTech. Dad grew up in Harlem, went to private school, and then MIT. So they are totally different people!” My 14-year old daughter, on the other hand, said that the Gideon and Zoe section was her favorite: “I just imagined you and Daddy. Both so adorably nerdy.”) No one in my family threatened to throw themselves out of a window. (As my husband said, “I live in New York, and I’m an engineer. I’m basically Jewish.”)
To me, the relevant thing is that we are raising our children in two non-majority American cultures. They identify as Jewish and African-American. How I see the world is heavily influenced by my being a Soviet-Jewish immigrant. But it’s also influenced by my husband’s perspective as an African-American, and our children’s navigation of both. In a nutshell, I think marrying a man from a culture different from my own, and raising children in multiple different cultures added more depth to how I portrayed America in The Nesting Dolls.
Maria Kuznetsova: I love how your children are old enough to read your books and to respond to your fictionalized version of you and your husband—it makes me excited and terrified for the time when my daughter might read my books! Though even in Oksana, Behave!, the husband is portrayed as a Russian guy, not as the Californian my husband really is. Though he’s white and not an immigrant, I think the way we also unite as feeling a bit like outsiders is by being nomadic academics—first living in Iowa and now Alabama can definitely make us feel like we don’t quite fit in anywhere, which is a healthy perspective for writing complicated fiction.
Anyway, both The Nesting Dolls and Something Unbelievable feature parents, grandparents, children, and love interests, but the same character might be a child in one section, a lover in another, and a parent in the third. How did you keep track of all the characters and make it so readers could keep track, too? In my writing workshops, I always heard the critique that I had too much going on, and one of the reasons was that I had so many characters I was always managing, which reflected my upbringing: though I had a pretty small family, there were millions of family friends and “ghosts” of past family in the room, always reflected in stories, so my life felt very crowded. Did you have a similar experience, and how did you transform this into fiction? Your book has a framing device, so readers know they’ll be coming back to the opening. How did you keep the timelines from getting confusing?
Alina Adams: “Ghosts”—that’s such an interesting way to put it! In addition to family stories, I also added stories I’d heard from other people (all that surreptitious listening at the kitchen table). I even asked my mother if people recognized themselves after they read it. As for “too much going on,” as you said, I worked in soap operas for decades (as my father said, “We didn’t realize all those years you spent watching soaps was actually professional training!”), and I am used to and pretty much require “too much going on.” Also, as a historical family saga reader myself, I love seeing the same character at different stages of their lives. Just like one of my characters says, there is no such thing as the right man, only the right man at the right time; there is no such thing as one personality. We all change in response to our situations.
The funniest part is, in the original draft that went to the editor, the story was told in alternating chapters. After the prologue set in present day, Chapter One was Daria, Chapter Two was Natasha, Chapter Three was Zoe, then back to Daria and so on until the end. I liked seeing the echoes among the generations closer together, but my editor convinced me it worked better read straight. Did anything similar happen to you? Did you ever have to change major plot/structural things to accommodate everything “going on?”
Maria Kuznetsova: My book was first told only from Larissa’s perspective, and once I finished her story, I realized it was missing something because there was no contemporary character really receiving the story—Natasha was just kind of a listener then, without a rich inner life. So then I added her perspective, but of course with that came complications, because now she had parents, exes, friends, two lovers, acting frenemies, etc. to keep track of, and so I expanded both her and Larissa’s stories to include all the possible characters they could, and gave those characters depth, and then cut, cut, cut ruthlessly until I had what the story needed to move forward. The list of characters at the front wasn’t just there for my readers, it was honestly there for me, too! One of my professors, Lynn Freed, talked about getting everyone on stage and letting the audience clearly see who belonged at the front of the stage and who was more in the background, so part of my writing and revising process was about making it clear that the women in the book were at the front, while the men who hovered around them were more in the background.
Alina Adams: That’s such an interesting way to look at it. I just assume readers will figure out that the character talking the most is the most important one (it’s also kind of how I live my life). But since we’re discussing imagery and what readers “see,” let’s talk about book covers. My book, The Nesting Dolls, was obviously asking for a nesting doll on its cover. But with your first one, Oksana, Behave! it wasn’t as obvious, yet that’s what the editor went with anyway. How did you feel about that representation, since it’s such an overused short-hand which screams “Russian!” and pigeonholes both the novel and the writer?
Maria Kuznetsova: At first, I felt kind of torn about it, because I felt like it was this Russian kitsch image of our culture, kind of like the Boris and Natasha cartoons instead of reality, except we all really do have these around the house. So it took me a minute to see that it was cool and funny to have it on my first book cover (since it’s on a middle finger), because it presents this mix of “serious culture” and a more American flipping off of it—Russians don’t give the middle finger using this gesture, of course. How about you? How do you feel about having this image on your book cover, and as the title for your book?
Alina Adams: While I was writing the manuscript, it’s working title was Love Is Not a Potato, an expression I heard all my life. (Why is love not a potato? Because, when it goes bad, you can’t throw it out the window. Trust me, it rhymes in Russian.) But my agent thought it sounded like a children’s book. So the title under which we submitted it was Mother Tongue. A major theme of the book is communication between generations. Children growing up in America just can’t fathom why their parents and grandparents don’t see the importance of being “authentic,” of “being yourself.” They don’t understand what it meant to live in a country where what you said was always being monitored so closely that the idea that what you uttered in public and what you thought in private should be the same thing just made no sense. “Mother tongue” refers to your first language, and I thought it was evocative of the communication differences all the parents and children had in the story. My editor, on the other hand, thought it sounded like a non-fiction title. She wanted something that was evocative of Russia, the Old Country, family, etc…. None of us could think of anything. Eventually, I turned to Facebook, and it was a friend who came up with The Nesting Dolls, which seemed to hit all the right beats. In fact, the cover turned out so well, they ended up using it on the Italian edition, and on the paperback. How about you, Maria, how did your title and cover for Something Unbelievable come about?
Maria Kuznetsova: The two main choices I had for this new cover was of a frying pan killing a rabbit to echo Larissa’s opening monologue about killing Natasha’s injured animals out of mercy, or the one I chose, which was the slightly more subtle image of a train in the mountains. Honestly, I was torn—I thought the pan and rabbit was funny, weird, and bold, like the cover of Oksana, Behave!—but I decided I wanted to try something more open-ended to appeal to people who might be interested in historical fiction more generally who could be put off by the dead rabbit—even if that’s the cover I might have been more inclined to pick up myself!
As for the title, the phrase came to me fairly late in the editing process. The original title was The Station, because so many things happened around a train station in the book, but I realized that was kind of plain and forgettable. Then it struck me that the phrase “something unbelievable,” which Larissa—and my grandmother—says when something is truly astounding, was the perfect phrase to show my wonder at the trajectory my life has taken, and it also reflects how Larissa was this World War II evacuee who lived long enough to see her granddaughter be an actress in New York, playing stereotypically Russian parts to make ends meet. How did I get here, a Soviet refugee from Kiev, teaching in Alabama with a three-year-old with a Southern accent? I wonder at it still!
Alina Adams: I periodically wonder what my life would have been like if my parents hadn’t made the decision to emigrate when they did. Like I say in The Nesting Dolls, different life situations create different people, so I know I’d have been different if they’d left a decade later, like your family, and certainly if they’d never left at all. In that sense, I think both of our books aren’t just products of who we are, but of who our parents and grandparents were and the choices they made.
Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kiev, Ukraine and came to the United States as a child. She is the author of the novels Oksana, Behave! and Something Unbelievable. She is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University and is the fiction editor of the Southern Humanities Review and The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature. You can follow her @mashawrites or learn more about her at www.mariakuznetsova.com.
Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, romance novels, and figure skating mysteries. She’s worked as a writer and producer for ABC, NBC, TNT, CBS, E! and ESPN. She immigrated to the US with her family from Odessa, USSR in 1977, and currently lives in New York City with her husband and three children. Her first historical fiction novel, The Nesting Dolls, follows three generations of a Russian-Jewish family from Odessa in the 1930s, Odessa in the 1970, and present day Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Her website is: www.AlinaAdams.com.
Most of us who grew up in the Soviet Union will remember Samuil Marshak’s rhyming dramatic tale Koshkin dom — The Cat’s House. A wealthy angora cat builds herself a new residence. Two destitute kittens show up at her doorstep, begging her to share her house with them: We’re your nephews, they say. We’re poor orphans. Won’t you let us in and feed us? The wealthy angora cat has her servant shoo them away, setting off the action of the drama in which the angora cat eventually gets her punishment for refusing help to the kittens in need, and the orphan kittens prove to be in the position to give her shelter.
Marshak’s rhymes were at the tip of my tongue while I was reading Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva (Academic Studies Press, 2019), as though Doba-Mera and her brothers were the original orphans, the prototypes behind Marshak’s dramatic tale — except their life’s story didn’t make room for happy endings.
Doba-Mera Gurevich was born in 1892 in the shtetl of Khotimsk on the eastern edge of Belarus and the Pale of Settlement — that part of the Russian empire where Jews were allowed to live. Her mother died in 1903, when Doba-Mera was eleven, and as she was dying, she left Doba-Mera this parting message: “From the moment I close my eyes, the whole world will reject you. Because only happy children are loved.”
This is, indeed, what happened: Doba-Mera had to leave school to take care of her brothers; Doba-Mera’s father, a teacher, remarried, and because his new wife didn’t have the resources to raise the children from his previous marriage, Doba-Mera and her two younger brothers went from relative’s house to relative’s house, working and suffering their way through their childhood. Several years later, her baby brother, of poor health from birth, succumbed to an illness and died.
Doba-Mera describes one occasion on which, after spending time with their grandfather for High Holidays, she and her brothers were sent by a hired wagon to their uncle’s house:
Uncle himself came out and asked in a saccharine way, “Who are these children you have brought me?” “They are the orphans of your younger sister Rokhl”… “So why did you bring them to me? asked Uncle. “You, Veniaminovich,” said the driver, “take them off the wagon, warm them up and feed them — they are hungry and wet — then ask your questions. Look, the poor little ones are frozen stiff.”…. And Uncle stood by the door and stroked his beard and said, addressing the driver by name: “I have nowhere to put them, but they have an aunt here, their father’s sister. They don’t live very far; take them there.”
Eventually, Doba-Mera’s family put together the money to apprentice her to a tailor, and after learning how to fend for herself in a male-dominated environment, she acquired a trade. She witnessed a pogrom and was lucky to come out unscathed physically. She married a distant relative whose parents hated her and made her married life very difficult. She describes years of fear, poverty, and anguish during WWI. After October 1917, she and her husband were eventually able to leave their shtetl and settle in Leningrad, improving their fortunes somewhat, but then came WWII and its attendant horrors.
I won’t overstate the matter if I say that this was a relentlessly sad book down to the very last page. In fact, the most horrific incident comes in a footnote on that page: in this footnote, Michael Beizer, Doba-Mera’s grandson and the force behind the publication of this book, recounts a story told by a resident of the town of Klintsy (not far from Khotimsk), who had been forced to bury the dead after the Nazi shooting of the Jewish residents. I won’t tell this story here — it’s painful. I have to admit, at first, I was deeply angry at Beizer for leaving me with this story on the last page of Doba-Mera’s book, and it’s only with time that I came to realize how appropriate it was to end the book with this Holocaust story. Though Doba-Mera and her children had been able to escape it, it is the Holocaust and the loss of so many lives and so much knowledge that necessitated if not the writing than the publishing of her book. It still hurts to recall that story though.
Doba-Mera began writing her memoirs in the 1930s, living in Leningrad and wanting to tell her children something about her past. Having left school at the age of eleven, she clearly took a lot of pride at her abilities as a learner and deeply regretted that life hadn’t allowed her to use those skills more. She wrote in Russian and addressed herself to her Russian-speaking children and grandchildren, explaining Jewish customs and a way of life. The memoir comes to us in English in a deeply nuanced translation by Alice Nakhimovsky, who in her accompanying note marvels at Doba-Mera, ascribing to her membership in “a vanishingly small group of memoirists who are neither elite nor highly literate but whose observations from the ground cast a vivid light on a lost world.” Nakhimovsky helps to illuminate that world by bringing into English Doba-Mera’s particular idiom, a Russian infused with concepts and a particular cadence taken from Yiddish — the memoirist’s first language.
To me, this memoir feels valuable also because of the way Doba-Mera not only captures her personal experience but constantly connects it to the larger social structures that governed her life. For instance, this is how she recounts life at the edge of the Pale of Settlement (her town was apparently right on the border of what is now Belarus and Russia):
One summer day after work I went with my girlfriends to walk along Barabanovka Street. The street was on the other side of the river, where everybody used to go walking. Jews were allowed to walk but not to live there. A landowner lived there by the name of Robert. He couldn’t stand Jews, but as our stetl was in Mogilev Province, and Jews were permitted to live there, he got the government to make his street part of Orel Province, where Jews were forbidden to live. And he got all the Jews sent away from there. The empty houses where the Jews had lived were boarded up, and nobody would buy them because the Russians were confident that they would get everything anyway.
So on the Sabbath and holidays everybody would stroll there. The street was beautiful, with a lot of greenery, and so everybody liked to stroll along it.
This moment from the year 1907 is probably one of the happiest in Doba-Mera’s life. She goes on to describe her encounters with various socialist revolutionary groups during this period of her life. She wasn’t a revolutionary herself — she had her brothers to provide for — but she recalls going to underground gatherings and gives us the outline of the underground activity in her area.
The other distinct pleasure of reading this memoir is the candid way Doba-Mera writes about her own emotions, including the times when they turned ugly. She doesn’t shy away from describing her feelings of regret, sadness, jealousy. In one particularly devastating moment, she drops her work for several months to travel with her ailing father to Kiev, in the vague hope that he might be saved by the doctors there. She gets recommendation letters to distant family members and with trepidation approaches them upon arrival, encountering in their way of life such luxury and wealth that she hadn’t seen in the Pale.
I was seized with anger and at the same time envy, because [a relative’s son] was a student and could get nothing but Cs and was given everything he could possibly need, while I studied so well but had to become a tailor and live a life of piteous need and, to make matters worse, turn up in a big, unknown city where Jews weren’t allowed to live with a sick father, without money, wondering every minute whether I would get him home alive. At every step I cursed the day of my birth and came to the conclusion that only rich people should have children, because poor people get only suffering from them and the children also suffer.
The bitterness of Doba-Mera’s voice felt deeply familiar to me and eventually I realized that it was bringing back the intonations of my grandmother’s speech. My grandmother Raissa (Reesya) was born in Tikhinichi, another Belarusian stetl, about 130 miles from Khotimsk in 1912 or 13, about the same time as Doba-Mera’s first child. Like Doba-Mera, Raissa received her first education in a male cheder (elementary school where boys learned to read Hebrew and studied the Torah), though being a generation younger and having her mother to help her, she was able to continue her education in Leningrad. Nevertheless, life, to Raissa was a series of trials and punishments for sins she didn’t commit, and though she believed that she improved her lot by hard work and sacrifice, she refused to talk about things like “love” and “happiness.” When I tried to ask her about these things, the most she would tell me was pozhivesh–uvidish, which loosely translates as “just wait and see what life is really like.”
As a child in the 1980s, I resented this attitude and was only too happy to have a chance to escape “my lot” by moving to the United States. I have escaped, and so completely that I needed Doba-Mera’s book as a reminder of this way of thinking. Today, I find myself deeply grateful to Michael Beizer and Alice Nakhimovsky and to Academic Studies Press for this brave book. Its nonconformity to the expectations we place on the genre of the memoir (tell us what your struggles have taught you; or in any case, please land on an uplifting note) is liberating and feels deeply true to my ancestors’ ways of conceptualizing their own lives.
Katja Petrowskaja grew up in Kiev, studied in Estonia and Moscow, and lives in Berlin. Maybe Esther was written in German and first published in Germany, in 2014. It was translated to English by Shelley Frisch and published in 2018. She came to the Bay Area Book Festival about a year ago, and I went to her talk and picked up this book. When I started reading it, frankly, I wasn’t sure I was going to finish it. As far as family stories go, this one felt too similar to my own–and why read about something I already know so well, from living it?
I stuck with it because Petrowskaja’s a good storyteller, and a tenacious one, because she has followed her family story several more steps than I have ever done with mine, and because on the page she’s able to capture the complex emotions of following these heartbreaking stories. Of course, in actuality, her family’s story isn’t anything like mine. The similarities begin and end with this: We both grew up in Jewish families in the Soviet Union and emigrated after the Soviet Union fell apart. I write in English, she in German. If it felt like a familiar story at first, it’s precisely because I haven’t read enough books like this. I’ve only read just a few that focus on the Soviet Jewish family saga with any degree of depth (Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog in Lisa C. Hayden’s translation being the most recent, and wildly different from Maybe Esther), and they feel the same only because the gap between Kiev and Leningrad Jews in the 1980s is a lot narrower than, say, between Petersburg Jews and New York Jews. That is, it feels close enough to home.
There are a few main characters in Petrowskaja’s family saga. The story of Grandmother Rosa provides the main through-line. She grew up in a Jewish family, and her father, Ozjel Krzewin was born in Vienna, lived in Poland, and then died in Kiev, and ran a private school for deaf-mute children throughout his life–Rosa, too, inherited the profession of educating deaf-mute children. Rosa’s husband and Katja’s grandfather, Ukrainian Vasily Ovdiyenko during WWII was captured and became a prisoner of war in German labor camps. When he returned from the war, he met his wife briefly, but then went to live with another woman and stayed with her for more than forty years. Shortly before his death, he came home to Rosa–who was still waiting for him.
In writing the book, Petrowskaja follows the story of the Jewish side of the family, and then she also traces Vasily’s journey through the German labor camp system throughout Austria–it was a brutal three-year journey that few survived. She visits several labor camps that also served as death camps for Hungarian Jews, to arrive at an epiphany: it must’ve been something that Vasily witnessed in the camps that made his return to his loving family, a wife and two children, impossible after the war.
I don’t know where this conviction stemmed from, but it was right here in this small camp that something happened after everything that had happened already that made my grandfather’s return home impossible, so that he, back in Kiev, could not stay with his family, not with his daughter and not with his wife, Rosa, whose mother and sister lie in Babi Yar, which makes a person Jewish forever, I know that his failure to return had something to do with the death march of the Hungarian Jews
That sentence doesn’t have a period and it doesn’t need one. I should add, that actually this relative’s experience Katja and I, too, have in common: my grandfather, Jewish, was a POW in a German labor camp, and survived. He did return to the family, and one of the things I’m forever trying to write about is what his survival looked to the rest of us, his family, living with him. I finished the book grateful to Katja Petrowskaja for finding the words to unpack some of her experiences.
In 2015, Steven S. Lee published the monograph The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures & World Revolution. It may seem strange to write about a book four years after its publication, but the continued lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies makes Lee’s work more relevant than ever. Today we should consider The Ethnic Avant-Garde as not only a valuable source of information and analysis on a much neglected topic, but also as a springboard for reconsidering the field’s methodologies, as well as dominant political discourses on the region and its Soviet past.
WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?
Lee defines the “Ethnic Avant-Garde” as referring to the diverse artists and writers who engaged with the Soviet Union from beyond its borders, but his central contention is that the phrase defines a “largely unrealized utopian aspiration […] the dream of advancing simultaneously ethnic particularism, political radicalism, and artistic experimentation, debunking the notion that particularism yields provincialism.” The Ethnic Avant-Garde, he adds, “foregrounds a distinct way of seeing – a ‘transnational optic’ that, for the contemporary reader, makes it possible to discern unexpected connections among radical artists and writers from many different countries.” The book does not idealize the Soviet system or its minority policy, but rather argues that foregrounding the Ethnic Avant-Garde facilitates a “minority and Soviet-centered remapping of global modernism” and “provides for new scholarly and creative communities in the present day.”
Chapter 1 analyzes the cultural exchange between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Langston Hughes by looking at the way in which the latter translated and adapted the poetry of the former. Chapter 2 considers Sergei Tretyakov’s play Roar, China and its reception in the United States. Chapter 3 looks at Hughes’ famous dismissal of the planned Soviet movie about African American struggles, and Chapter 4 addresses the complex attitude of American Jews towards socialist internationalism. Overall, the book covers the inter-war period from 1918 to 1939.
REVIEW OF THE BOOK
The strongest suit of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is the multitude of significant, but little known, examples of cultural interaction between Western ethnic minorities and the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most emblematic of these is Lee’s analysis of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Black & White” (1925) – a poem in which Willie, a black sweeper at an American cigar company in Havana, slowly gains awareness of racial inequity – and its subsequent translation into English by Langston Hughes in the 1930s. Through analysis of word choice, form, and rhythm, Lee reveals the cultural collaboration that took place between these seemingly disparate authors (even though Mayakovsky was no longer alive by the time of Hughes’ translation), and highlights the way in which Hughes not only translated Russian into English, but also represented Afro-Cuban culture in a way that was comprehensible to an American audience. Another strength of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is that its content – the book covers multiple ethnicities, including African American, Asian, Afro-Cuban, and Jewish – reflects Lee’s mission to “delineate an avant-garde grouping that cuts across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries.”
This ambitious motivation is, in part, responsible for the book’s shortcomings. The concept of the Avant-Garde is inherently abstract (think of Kazimir Malevich’s paintings), so it is not surprising that Lee’s writing style is heavily theoretical – his use of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919 – 1920) as a visual metaphor for the Ethnic Avant-Garde is a prime example of this tendency. The plethora of abstract concepts with which Lee grapples frequently leads to dense and obtuse paragraphs that would make little sense to a reader who was not well-versed in the theoretical underpinnings of modernism. Terms such as “Freudian melancholia” and “Now-Time,” for example, receive little explanation. This trend carries through to the final chapter which, instead of bringing the book’s narrative to a close, offers yet more theorization – this time, focusing on how Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010) negotiates the “eternal idea” of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its reality. While the discussion of Yamashita’s work is rigorous, it does feel like something of a non sequitur in a book that primarily discusses the Soviet Union.
WHY IS IT SIGNIFICANT?
Let’s turn to methodologies. Russia studies, like every field of area studies, is an umbrella term that houses multiple disciplines – namely, international relations, political and social science, history, literature, art, and language. Yet, while Russia studies is a broad church, there is a strange lack of interdisciplinary dialogue, particularly when it comes to the international relations and political science strands. For scholars of literature and art, it is natural to draw on the research in these fields in order to understand the backdrop of, and worldview encoded in, the work. However, there is little in the way of reciprocal influence due to the unfortunate tendency among IR and political science scholars to see their disciplines as detached from the “softer” realm of cultural studies. The Ethnic Avant-Garde embodies the fruitful results of this kind of interdisciplinarity work. Lee himself is an Associate Professor of English Literature at Berkeley, but he uses the techniques of literary analysis in order to draw wider conclusions about the social and political nature of the relationship between the Soviet Union and ethnic minorities abroad.
Interdisciplinary methodologies, in turn, prompt a rethinking of Western political discourse on the Soviet Union. Understanding the cultural ties and, indeed, the cultural attraction that it exerted for Western ethnic minorities invites a critical reassessment of the traditionally antagonistic Cold War rhetoric. The dominant U.S. rhetoric of the Cold War period posited the Soviet Union as the antithesis to American ideals of democracy and capitalism. Encoded in this rhetoric, however, was the pervasive inequity in racial relations, especially regarding the African American community. Thus, anti-Soviet discourses erased the experiences of those ethnic/racial groups who were not included within these “patriotic” ideals. Granted, The Ethnic Avant-Garde does not technically cover the Cold War (i.e. post-World War II) period. However, its final chapter does suggest that the People’s Republic of China – founded in 1949 – offered a beacon of hope for Western ethnic minorities. The nuancing called for by Lee’s work, in turn, spotlights the ever growing need for greater diversity among the practitioners and scholars who study the region.
THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL
The iconic slogan of the 1960s and 70s women’s movement has been repeated to the point of banality over the last six decades, but this does not mean that it is any less relevant today. Academic book reviews rarely mention the author’s personal biography, but in this discussion of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies it is salient to point out that Lee himself – as he writes in the Acknowledgements – is the child of Korean immigrants to the United States. He is among the few ethnically East Asian scholars in Russia studies (other examples being Notre Dame’s Emily Wang and UPenn’s Brian Kim). Lee’s personal background makes The Ethnic Avant-Garde political: beyond its specific content, the very fact that a seminal contribution to the field has been made by a person of color is, in itself, worthy of celebration. Most significantly, however, is that The Ethnic Avant-Garde points to the way diversity in the profession can facilitate a dramatic reinterpretation of the Soviet Union’s place in the global cultural space by foregrounding the inter-ethnic and inter-racial connections that the present Eurocentric scholarship has overlooked.
We congratulate our own Yelena Furman on her first ever fiction publication. Her story “Naming” appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Narrative Magazine. It centers an immigrant protagonist — Sofia, Sonia, Sonechka — who moves back to Moscow in 1992 for a job copyediting “one of the many publications springing up in the newly liberalized atmosphere now that the Soviet Union had collapsed.” This is a delightful tale of search for identity, romance, a connection with the place, and, of course, books.
The story is available online after a free registration to the website. If it resonates with you, please leave a comment on the website, write back to us or to the author directly. Publishing short stories can be a lonely business, and the most effective way to support a writer is to comment on the work you love.
From early on, the most significant episodes of my life were bound up with books. I was reading Eugene Onegin when we left the Soviet Union, The Seagull when I lost my virginity, and the Russian realists when I fell in love, a process that spanned several authors. I was in my last year of college, in 1992, when I met Daniel, a graduate student. I caught him looking at me during our first class meeting for a seminar on nineteenth-century Russian fiction. He didn’t look away when I met his stare, which betrayed too much self-confidence on his part yet was oddly intriguing. We didn’t speak, but for the next few weeks I would continually feel his bright-green eyes on me. Daniel’s eyes were his most striking feature; they had the ability to bore into you with an unearthly intensity and leave you feeling as though you’d just been seen through to the inside.
It is hard to overstate just how much Aleksandra Brushtein’s autobiographical novel about Aleksandra (Sasha) Yanovskaya, a young Jewish girl growing up in Vilna at the turn of the century, was beloved by generations of Soviet children. At a time when I have completely forgotten plots of books I read much later, I can still recall various episodes from this one. A copy of the book, which my family took with us when we left the Soviet Union, is one of my prized possessions. My mom loved this book so much she wanted to name me Sasha (an attempt ended by my great-grandmother Aleksandra’s announcement post my birth that Ashkenazi Jews cannot name children after living relatives). A remarkable thing about this novel is that it has a Jewish protagonist and depicts Jewish life but still became so popular in a country as anti-Semitic as the Soviet Union. Its popularity has endured in contemporary Russia, where “since 2005, a new printing of the book by different publishers has appeared almost every two years,” including an annotated edition.
Yet as Liza Rozovsky’s article notes, Brushtein “is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world.” To date, there is no English translation. If there is a translator out there who could take on this project, many in the diaspora would be eternally grateful on behalf of their children and their English-speaking friends’ children. In any case, it’s great to see this book being written about at length and we — and our inner younger selves — are thrilled to highlight it on Punctured Lines.
“The book that is imprinted in my memory as a moral and political compass, and the book I would like my children to know, is a Soviet-era work for children and juveniles titled “The Road Slips Away into the Distance.” It’s an autobiographical trilogy by the Jewish children’s playwright and memoirist Aleksandra Brushtein, who is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world. The first volume of the work was translated into Hebrew in the 1980s, but Brushtein (1884-1968) remains unknown in Israel, too. In the Soviet Union, where it ran through many editions of tens of thousands of copies each, the trilogy achieved cult status.”