No One Is Guilty, Everyone Is Guilty: An Interview with Elena Gorokhova, by Sasha Vasilyuk

Elena Gorokhova’s A Train to Moscow (Lake Union Publishing) came out earlier this year to praise by J.M. Coetzee, Lara Prescott, and Kate Quinn, among others. Gorokhova was born and raised in Leningrad, Soviet Union, now St. Petersburg, Russia. After graduating from Leningrad State University, she moved to the United States, carrying one suitcase with twenty kilograms of what used to be her life. Elena is the author of two memoirs published by Simon & Schuster: A Mountain of Crumbs (2011) and Russian Tattoo (2015). A Train to Moscow is her first novel. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, New Jersey Monthly, and The Daily Telegraph, on NPR and BBC Radio, and in a number of literary magazines. She lives and teaches English as a Second Language in New Jersey.

Sasha Vasilyuk: A Train to Moscow is the story of Sasha, who cannot wait to escape the small town of Ivanovo for a chance to become an actress in Moscow. The story, as I understand, is partly based on the life of your sister Marina and carries parallels to your memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs. What drew you to turn her story into a novel and how much of it is biographical?

Elena Gorokhova: After writing two memoirs, A Mountain of Crumbs and Russian Tattoo, I felt I’d exposed every detail of my Russian and, subsequently, American life and there was nothing left for me to examine on the page. At that point, two feelings converged: I wanted to write a novel, and I wanted to write about acting.

My older sister was a prominent actress in Russia in the 1960s and 1970s, and the background of the narrator of A Train to Moscow is based on her story. My sister grew up in Ivanovo and was trained in the best drama school in Moscow, just like Sasha. Upon graduation, she also acted at a repertory theater in Leningrad. The plot of the novel, however, is all fiction.

Sasha Vasilyuk: Like every Soviet family of the post-war years, Sasha’s family is plagued by the ghosts of the Great Patriotic War, which is presented through the stunningly written war journal of a missing uncle. Why was it important to you to have the shadow of war woven into the fabric of Sasha’s story?

Elena Gorokhova: In World War II (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War), one in every seven Russians was killed by the enemy. Because of such immense loss of life, the war was the glue that has held the country together. There is no family in Russia that didn’t lose someone in the maw of battle, and mine was no exception. My two uncles never came back from the war: one was mortally wounded and died at his home in Ivanovo; the other was stationed on the border between the Soviet Union and Poland and is still listed as missing in action. The first uncle was an artist, educated at the Leningrad Academy of Arts, just like Sasha’s uncle in the book. In the novel, the two switched places. The artist became the soldier missing in action, and all those What if questions sprang to my mind, laying the groundwork for his story. What if he hadn’t been killed and made it all the way to Berlin? What if he, unlike his communist father, had questioned the infallibility of his righteous motherland and the façade of lies erected and safeguarded by its leaders?

Sasha Vasilyuk: Sasha grows up to believe that Soviet society is built on lies that are propagated not just by the government, but by individuals. As I read that, I viscerally felt not just Sasha’s anger, but the author’s as well. Why is that theme important to you?

Elena Gorokhova: I first explored the theme of lies in my memoir A Mountain of Crumbs. In Soviet Russia, there existed two entirely parallel realities. In one reality, there were best ever harvests, happy citizens marched in civil parades and thanked the Party for their welfare, and life was a paradise that every capitalist country envied. In the other reality, there were empty store shelves and communal apartments where several families shared a kitchen and a toilet; there were closed borders, banned books, and censored plays. The first, a made-up reality, was a huge state-sponsored lie. This split defined my life in the 1960s and 1970s, the same way it defines the lives of every character in A Train to Moscow.

Sasha Vasilyuk: Everyone in the book has a secret. What do you think about the price of secrets? And do you think there is something especially Soviet about secrecy and silence?

Elena Gorokhova: I think all people have secrets, no matter where they live. But there is something especially Soviet about secrecy because it was elevated to the state level in that society, and there was something especially Soviet about silence because it was the silence and complicity of Russians that oiled the Stalin slaughter machine and later, after Stalin’s death, allowed the Soviet state to creak on as long as it did.

Sasha Vasilyuk: Toward the end of the book, Andrei, Sasha’s love interest who works for the Party, has this brilliant line: “Our system is pure genius: executioners and victims are the same people. The engine of death has been in motion for decades, and no one is guilty, because everyone is guilty.” As the war in Ukraine began, I’ve been watching Russian society face issues of complicity and I’ve been thinking that the Soviet system never taught us how to feel guilty, how it absolved us just like Andrei said. What do you think, are we Russians capable of feeling our responsibility for past and present traumas?

Elena Gorokhova: Unlike other societies, Russia has never looked into the face of its grim history and never examined the causes and effects of its Soviet atrocities. (Khrushchev tried, after Stalin’s death, but was quickly removed from power. Gorbachev also tried, but those efforts, regrettably, didn’t lead to a democratic society or a better understanding by Russians of their own history). I think those Russians who are capable of feeling their responsibility for past and present traumas have either left the country or have been taken hostage by Putin’s war and imperial ambitions.

Sasha Vasilyuk: What has it been like to have A Train to Moscow come out right at the onset of the war in Ukraine?

Elena Gorokhova: A Train to Moscow came out on March 1, five days after the war began. In retrospect, I should have thought of a better title because the word “Moscow” has been poisoned since February 24, 2022. One thing never occurred to me as I was writing this novel: I had no idea how closely the country depicted in the book would resemble Putin’s Russia today. Putin has sent history in reverse, and my former motherland is back to where it used to be when the country was called the USSR: a totalitarian society based on lies where life moves along the tracks of two entirely different realities.

Sasha Vasilyuk is a Russian-Ukrainian-American writer and journalist who grew up between Moscow and San Francisco with annual visits to Donbas, Ukraine. She is the author of the forthcoming novel Your Presence is Mandatory about a Soviet Ukrainian prisoner of war and his family (Bloomsbury, 2024). Sasha has an MA in Journalism from New York University and has written about Eastern Europe for The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, BBC, The Telegraph, NBC, Narrative, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Sasha can be found on social @sashavasilyuk and at www.sashavasilyuk.com.

Triple Axel by Yelena Furman, The Willesden Herald’s Story of the Month

Whether or not you watched figure skating at the Olympics this year, or are closely related to somebody suffering from arrhythmia, if you have read Aleksander Pushkin’s The Belkin Tales, this recently published story by our co-founder Yelena Furman is for you. And if you haven’t read Pushkin’s stories yet, you might want to read them, too!

Congratulations Yelena with your new fiction publication!

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

Born in the USSR, Raised in California: Video Recording

Thanks to everyone who could attend our event on Saturday, December 4th, and thank you all for your engagement and for your wonderful questions. For those of you who couldn’t make it, here’s the video recording from the event and links to our work.

Seven immigrant writers read their 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 explore love, life, loss and the nuances of living with a hybrid identity.

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.

Born in the USSR, Raised in California: Immigrant Writers Read From Their Work

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).

Please RSVP to receive the Zoom link on Facebook or on the Eventbrite page!


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.

Crowded Lives and Crowded Stories: Alina Adams and Maria Kuznetsova Discuss their Recent Novels

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?

May 1, 1954, the first May Day after Stalin’s death. Alina’s mother is the little girl in the checkered skirt; the man in the Navy uniform behind the girl is Alina’s grandfather

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. 

1971, Alina and her father in Odessa

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. 

2006, Maria and her grandmother Lana in Kyiv

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 UnbelievableShe 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.

Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots: Review by Herb Randall

Herb Randall, whose essay, “A Question in Tchaikovsky Lane,” Punctured Lines was delighted to publish last year, is back with a review of Sana Krasikov‘s monumental novel, The Patriots (Spiegel & Grau, 2017). Krasikov was born in Ukraine, lived in Georgia, and immigrated to the United States; like other contemporary ex-Soviet Jewish writers, she writes in English on Russian/Soviet-related themes. Her first book, the short-story collection One More Year (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), with settings and characters alternating between the U.S. and the former Soviet space, was highly critically acclaimed, and she has won, or been nominated for, several prestigious awards. The Patriots is her second work and first novel, which has also been lauded by critics and readers.

If you are interested in reviewing a title for Punctured Lines, please see our Books for Review and get in touch.

Sana Krasikov, The Patriots, by Herb Randall

…політика — це далі жити в своїй країні.
любити її такою, якою вона є насправді.
політика — це знаходити слова: важкі, єдині
і лагодити все життя небеса несправні.

…politics is to continue living in one’s own country.
to love it as it really is.
politics is to find words: difficult, unique
and to repair one’s whole life this broken heaven.

— Serhiy Zhadan, “Hospitallers” (trans. Maria Kinash for this review)

One question that has troubled humans for generations is how much of a person’s life is determined by the choices they make, and how much by the environment that surrounds them. This tension between free will and external forces like family, society, and history, has been explored in various literary, religious, political, and philosophical works. Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots is notable for its focus on the consequences of an individual’s choices in the face of near-impossible circumstances, and how the consequences affect subsequent generations.

The Patriots is a gripping, often suspenseful read, despite the reader learning key plot elements early as its parallel narratives wind between generations and continents. The novel focuses on Florence Fein, the granddaughter of Jewish emigrants from the Russian Empire to Brooklyn, and her decision to jettison family and country to live in Stalin’s Soviet Union as the ultimate commitment to her socialist ideals. The second plot line concerns Florence’s son Julian and his own son, Lenny, who, as an American, follows a similar journey to Florence to live in post-Soviet Russia. Much of this plot line focuses on Julian’s reflections on his mother’s choices that left him confined to an orphanage and alienated from her even after they are reunited.

Krasikov weaves real historical events throughout her narrative, so readers familiar with the era will appreciate how skillfully she renders the paranoid, conspiratorial milieu at the personal level of her characters, while unobtrusively explaining context for those less familiar with the Soviet Union’s tumultuous history. Florence’s journey from middle-class Flatbush to Soviet life and the Gulag, her clever subversion of the system that imprisons her to save her own life, and her uneasy return with her Soviet-born family to the United States are all so engagingly told that the reader may occasionally yearn for the return to that plot line during the interlacing chapters about Julian and Lenny. These chapters, though, are crucial for a better understanding of Florence’s character and how her decisions impact not only her own life but the subsequent strained relationship with Julian, which in turn affects his connection with Lenny.

Coming of age during the Great Depression, Florence finds a job at the Soviet trade mission in New York thanks to her Russian-language skills. A temporary assignment lands her in the path of Sergey, a handsome young Soviet engineer who is part of a delegation visiting the U.S., on whose account she loses her virginity, and later her job. Left without work, nursing a deep sense of injustice in terms of American society, and feeling trapped in her parents’ home, she looks to the Soviet Union to find “a life of meaning and consequence.” Florence rejects the incremental politics of reform in the U.S. for her own great leap forward. As the narrator says:

Yes, she could have stayed and waited for all the changes to happen— the decades-long march toward progress. She could have stayed and become part of that march. But she’d had no patience for all that. She had wanted to skip past all those prohibitions and obstructions, all the prejudice and correctness, and leap straight into the future. That’s what the Soviet Union had meant to her back then—a place where the future was already being lived. And so she had fled the Land of the Free to feel free.

However, the third-person objective narrator of the Florence chapters makes it evident that she is a master of self-justification. For although her ideals and hopes for the future are her rationale for the decision to live in the Soviet Union, there is another, much more personal motive:  

But she was too proud to admit to herself […] a fact that might recast her entire noble journey not by the lantern of courage but by the murkier bed lamp of longing.

Leaving behind her parents, whom she would never see again, Florence severs her connection to America, save for corresponding with her beloved younger brother, Sidney. Florence’s journey across the Atlantic finds her in sympathetic company when she meets another young Jewish woman, Essie, from a decidedly less comfortable upbringing in the Bronx, on her way to Moscow to follow similar ideals. Their friendship lasts for years, until Florence becomes bound to Essie by a moral crisis that engulfs them both.

However, unlike Essie, Florence first lives not in Moscow, but Magnitogorsk. She goes there to search for Sergey, but also as a self-imposed trial by fire to remake herself into a true member of the proletariat, worthy of her new home and hoped-for match. It’s a cleverly chosen detail by Krasikov because it encapsulates Florence’s personality: novelty-seeking, serious, brave, clever, but not as clever as she sometimes thinks. The bustling industrial city being forged there is not the proletariat playground of Katayev’s Time, Forward! Instead, Florence finds chaos, squalid living conditions, indifference from her new compatriots, foreshadowing of political problems, and to her horror, bedbugs. What she doesn’t find is Sergey, who has been forced to relocate to Moscow after complaining about corruption at his workplace.

Florence decides to flee Magnitogorsk for Moscow, where she does finally, very briefly encounter Sergey. It is not the reunion she longs for, and in fact he scolds her for her ill-advised decision to come to the Soviet Union. After his rebuke and rejection, Florence reconnects with Essie and is drawn into her circle of friends, including Leon, another idealistic New York Jewish émigré. Florence is initially repulsed by his brash manner, but gradually falls in love with him and they marry. Florence and Leon adopt the Soviet Union as their home by choice, and the Soviet Union in return abducts them by force.

The realization that she and Leon are trapped in the Soviet Union hits Florence suddenly during the late 1930s at a time of increased prewar tension with America and Europe. She hands over her U.S. passport to a Soviet office clerk while applying for continued residency, and it is never returned despite several attempts to regain it. Leon’s passport is also confiscated. It is only after having lost her passport and reading a letter from her brother that Florence feels an urgent desire to return to the U.S. to visit. Issued a receipt with her passport number and told by the residency office she must renew it at the American embassy, she attempts to do that, but the Soviet police blocking the embassy entrance will not allow her through without the original document. She desperately shouts through the gate but in vain.

Even for those lucky few who manage to pass through the Soviet guards outside, the American embassy is unable and unwilling to help, as Julian subsequently relates: 

My parents were hardly the only Americans to be stranded in Moscow after 1936. Hundreds like them were cut adrift in the Soviet Union, comprehending too late that they’d fallen from the grace of the American government. The U.S. Embassy seems to have found every excuse to deny or delay reissuing these citizens their American passports—passports they had lost through no fault other than their naïveté.

Krasikov’s highlighting of this lesser-known aspect of relations between the Soviet Union and America during these years adds further nuance to understanding how little control these expatriates would have over their future after placing themselves in such a precarious position.

Not only is Florence abandoned by the American government in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but, as she later realizes, the Soviet authorities place her under surveillance when she attempts to enter the embassy. She had taken a series of jobs utilizing her native English skills that make her more conspicuous and vulnerable to co-option by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police. Her handler, Subotin, holds out the possibility that her collaboration will earn her an exit visa. She gradually reveals more information about her colleagues and acquaintances, mistakenly thinking she is manipulating him and keeping her family safe from the terror raging around them. However, like the real-life foreigners who were suddenly trapped in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Florence and Leon, although forcibly turned into Soviet citizens, are still seen as outsiders and therefore suspect by Stalin’s regime.

***

The characters’ outsidedness, in various ways, is a crucial theme in The Patriots. Florence, Leon, Julian, and their friends keenly feel the disconnectedness of multiple identities, of “otherness,” most notably in being Jewish. A child of immigrants in America, an American among Soviets, yet seen everywhere as a Jew, Florence never belongs anywhere entirely, even in the country to which she voluntarily devotes her life:

Amerikantsi,” Subotin said as he wrote it down. He was smiling to himself, a smile that suggested he knew just as well as Florence did that—American or not— they had the double blessing of being Jews.

During the Second World War, Florence, Leon, Essie, and their friend, Seldon, work for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, organized by the Soviet government to create propaganda to galvanize political and financial support in the West for the war effort. As victory nears and their usefulness to the regime diminishes, there comes a fresh wave of anti-Jewish sentiment. Florence and Essie recount the sudden rise in antisemitic attitudes even from their close colleagues:

“After all these years, I thought I was finally…”
“One of them,” said Florence.
Essie nodded, her eyes dry now. “But we never will be, will we?”

A generation later, Julian also experiences discrimination, less virulent but still institutionalized in the Soviet Union, when his doctoral thesis is rejected, the quota of Jewish doctorates having already been filled. When necessary to further their aims, the Soviets overlook Florence’s dual identities as “disloyal” Jew and “dangerous” foreigner, while using them as tools to control her, but as Stalin’s regime grows ever more paranoid, she becomes expendable. Florence’s enthusiastic decision to settle in the Soviet Union and devote her life to building communism is not enough to shield her and her family from the midnight knock on the door that all along the reader suspects is coming.

***

Unlike Florence, Julian is a first-person narrator who movingly recounts the story of his abandonment after his parents’ arrests. Spending seven years in a state orphanage, as an adult Julian struggles not so much with that desertion as with Florence’s inability to denounce the system that held them both captive and to admit her mistakes. His yearning to comprehend how Florence could choose to live in Soviet Russia, marry and have a child, while not doing everything possible to protect him is the primary source of momentum in The Patriots, keeping the reader engaged even as the outline of this story is revealed at the outset of the novel. Reflecting on his mother’s actions, he says, “The defining tragedy of my mother’s life was that she’d never had an instinct for family preservation.” When Florence reveals that an old friend had offered them help to flee Moscow and “stay with her relatives for a while, keep low after Papa was arrested,” he is shocked by his mother’s lack of concern for their well being:

“So why didn’t we go?” I said.
But she’d laughed at my dismay. “What was I going to do in a village? Pick turnips? Grow potatoes?”

Compounding Julian’s internal conflict is his adult son, Lenny, who is in Moscow not for any supposed high ideals like Florence, but merely to chase his fortune, precariously and only partially successfully. Julian routinely travels to Russia for business, but he also uses his visits to clumsily try to convince Lenny to return home to America. However, Lenny, who had a special bond with his grandmother, shares her stubbornness:

“Baba Flora didn’t regret her life. And neither do I. She had a front seat on history.”
I thought my jaw might drop. “Is that what she called it?”
“She always said, ‘The only way to learn who you are is to leave home.’”

Like his grandmother, Lenny will not admit defeat regardless of the difficulties. He feels his life in Russia has been an adventure, just as Florence did. Julian, on the other hand, sees only the resulting catastrophe:

“Adventure?” I said. “That’s what they call it when everyone comes back alive. Otherwise it’s called a tragedy. That’s what my father’s life was—a tragedy. And my mother’s, too, for that matter.”
“Yeah? She didn’t seem to think so.”
“That’s because she was a narcissist, Lenny,” I said. “She didn’t think about anybody but herself. She was a grade-A delusional narcissist. Like you.”

The selfishness may have skipped a generation, but Julian must bear the consequences from both mother and son. Just as Florence minimized the many privations and persecutions of her life in the Soviet Union in order to maintain her own fantasy of living with greater meaning there, Lenny is unconcerned about the rough treatment he endures in contemporary Russia and the justified worries of his parents. He is oblivious to both Julian’s childhood traumas and to the fact that, like a child, he still needs his father’s help to escape troubles of his own devising.

***

The catastrophe, when it comes, finds Florence trapped in an impossible moral dilemma, which is largely a product of trying to live in her own idealized image of the Soviet Union. She throws her best friend Essie to the NKVD in a desperate last bid to save herself and her family. However, the net of Stalin’s repressions and paranoia inexorably draws tighter around Florence, her husband, and remaining friends. It is a testament to Krasikov’s skill in creating a truly complex character like Florence that readers will find themselves sometimes sympathizing with her even if she is not entirely sympathetic. They might empathize with her decision to settle in a country with a recent revolution, violence, and state terror in the context of naïve political idealism and the lure of a first romance. However, Florence is unable even decades after her imprisonment in the Gulag to fully admit to herself or her son the extent of the damage she caused by her decision to live in the Soviet Union. Worse still, as Julian points out, the consequences could have been avoided entirely:

“And what about me, Mama? Did you ever think about what would happen to me when they came for you?”
[…]
“Yes, I did think about it. Your father and I talked about it […] [W]e knew that, no matter what happened to either of us, they would never let anything bad happen to the children here. The children were always going to be taken care of.”
[…]
“No matter what happened to you, Mama? […] [B]ut, Mama,” I said, “it didn’t have to happen to you at all! Don’t you get it? None of it had to happen to you, or to anybody.”

Eventually, while in Moscow for work, Julian gains access to his mother’s criminal file that confirms what he already suspected: his mother had been an informer, albeit with the goal of staving off disaster for herself and her family:

[A] victim of her times, of her political beliefs, a victim of her stubbornness and of her illusions. And, certainly, she had been a victim, but until this night I had not considered how she might also have been something else. An accomplice to that very same system that preyed on her. Only now did I allow myself to consider the alternate explanation: that her muteness was not the submissiveness of a slave but the silence of an accessory.

Julian finally realizes that his mother’s inability to renounce her choice to live in the Soviet Union despite the tragic outcome for everyone she cared about was not a rejection of him in favor of her political beliefs. Rather, it was a way for her to deal with the guilt of having been a part of that system of collaboration, denunciations, and betrayals. Tragically, this understanding of her motivations comes too late to repair their strained relationship. Yet Florence unknowingly bequeaths Julian a legacy that brings not only peace to a grieving son, but a way for him to break the generational cycle that he and Lenny are repeating, where now, like Florence’s parents, he is the disapproving father of a child seeking a new life in a foreign country. In her police file, Julian discovers that Florence’s interrogation had ended abruptly, and what could have resulted in a death sentence instead became time in the Gulag with a chance to survive and see her son again. The reason is unclear as Julian reads her file, but Sidney explains how Florence was able to game the system and escape with her life by pitting one of her tormentors against the other. Inspired and impressed by her audacity, Julian uses the same method to extricate Lenny from his legal troubles in Putin’s corrupt Russia. More importantly, Julian comes to understand that, like Florence, full of “[w]anderlust and stubbornness,” Lenny must be left free to follow his own path, even if he feels it is misguided.

***

The final section of The Patriots opens with an abrupt shift to the story of Henry, an American F-86 Sabre pilot in the Korean War, who is downed and ends up in the same camp as Florence, subject to intense interrogation to reveal the secrets of the advanced technology of the fighter jet. Fluent in English, Florence becomes his interpreter, an act that saves her life once again as she uses the circumstances to receive extra rations, rest from physical exertion, and receive necessary medical attention by drawing out the interrogation, with Henry’s cooperation. The pact Henry and Florence make to keep her alive, though, is not entirely sincere on her part. Florence’s symbiosis with the unfortunate pilot highlights the extent to which the life she chose in the Soviet Union results not only in her traumatization by, but her assimilation into, that brutal system. The conclusion of Henry’s story offers a heartrending reflection on the meaning of the novel’s title, as well as a stark personification of the theme of personal responsibility in conflict with the grand sweep of history.

Julian’s uncle advocates the view that the individual is no match for those forces of history that constantly push and pull and sometimes smash:

“The point, my friend,” Sidney said sharply, “is we’re all leashed pretty tightly to the era we’re living through. To the tyranny of our time. Even me. Even you. We’re none of us as free as we’d like to think. I’m not saying it as an excuse. But very few of us can push up against the weight of all that probability. And those that do—who’s to say their lives are any better for it?”
I knew he meant Florence—unpinning herself from one set of circumstances, only to be pinned down by another.

The struggle between fate and free will finds no simple answer in The Patriots. Julian develops a more nuanced understanding of Florence’s tragic life, informed by Sidney’s argument for the inescapability of the system that nearly obliterated their young family. This is not to discount Florence’s responsibility in making her decisions, however: while youthful and naive, they were still hers alone to make. The novel begins with Florence’s creed, “[b]reaking your family’s heart was the price you paid for rescuing your own,” and the enormous, generation-spanning price paid for this outlook lingers in readers’ minds long after reaching the closing pages of Krasikov’s captivating, sensitive work.

Herb Randall lives among the idyllic mountains, forests, and waters of rural New Hampshire and has travelled extensively in Ukraine, Poland, Sweden, and Estonia. He enjoys exploring lesser-known places, reading with a special focus on fiction in translation, and writing about forgotten people and places. His writing can be found in Punctured Lines and Apofenie. Twitter: @herbrandall

You can buy The Patriots here and One More Year here, and of course from your favorite independent bookstore.

Welcome, MumberMag!

In April, as COVID19 was already changing our lives, a new literary magazine entered the world. “Literature pretends only to reflect the way things really are, and it is always there for you when everything else has failed,” writes Harry Leeds in his editor’s note to the first issue. “I hope that our magazine is a distraction while you are stuck the hell home.” Leeds is a writer, editor, a translator from Russian, “cat papa,” and is on his way to becoming a nurse. He has a sick sense of humor, he says, which I think gives him a leg up in the whole literary mag game.

We are so delighted to welcome MumberMag’s stellar Mumber One issue. (Gosh, some sense of humor really went into the making of this mag–and I LOVE IT!) Joining Harry in the editorial team is a much beloved poet D. A. Powell, who serves as a Founding Poetry Editor (here’s a profile of him in The New Yorker).

The first issue holds many wonderful gifts for the readers, and for us, interested in post-Soviet literature, there are Boris Dralyuk’s translations from Julia Nemirovskaya who lives in the U.S. and writes poetry and fiction in Russian, and teaches Russian literature and culture at the University of Oregon. Three poems appear in Mumber One, Lamp, Little Box, and Toilet Paper — “Kin to napkin and book.” (Poets really know what’s important in life, long before any crisis strikes.)

Also included in Mumber One is an interview with Maxim Matusevich, whom we at Punctured Lines had the joy to meet in person during our reading at Alley Cat Books in November of 2019. Matusevich lives in the US and writes fiction, essays, and academic work in English. His particular research interest is Russian-African relationships and I highly recommend the book that he edited in 2006: Africa in Russia, Russia in Africa: Three Centuries of Encounters. He has also published fiction in magazines such as The Kenyon Review and New England Review. In his conversation with Leeds, Matusevich talks about St. Petersburg’s legendary cafe Saigon, Soviet hippies, Soviet questionable attempt at being an ally of “the oppressed,” Russia’s current involvement in conflicts across Africa, and lots more. I recommend it!

Last but not least our MumberMag editors are working on creating their list of Top Literary Magazines Ranked By Influence on Social Media. As a huge literary magazine fan, I deeply appreciate the dedication that it takes to create a list like this — and a sense of joy from the fun of it all. Thank you, people!

Q&A with Lara Vapnyar: Divide Me by Zero (Tin House Books, 2019)

Punctured Lines is thrilled to present a Q&A with Lara Vapnyar, Russian-American writer and author of six works, including her latest novel, Divide Me by Zero. This is also personally meaningful, as I have been reading and writing on Russian-American fiction, very much including her work, for several years. Many thanks to Masha Rumer, whose Q&A we featured previously, for helping facilitate this exchange. Lara answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: Divide Me by Zero is your sixth book. In an interview with Svetlana Satchkova forThe Rumpus, you’ve called it your most intimate and biographical. Has your writing process changed during your work on this novel?

Lara Vapnyar: There is a scene in a Nancy Meyers’ film Something Gotta Give, where the main character played by Diane Keaton is working on a play, typing and sobbing, typing and sobbing… That’s how it went for me, except that I had long periods of just sobbing, and longer periods of paralyzing self-doubt – Is this even a novel? What if this is just a self-indulgent mess?

PL: English, the language of your stories and novels, is your second language, acquired later in life. In her essay for the New Yorker, “To Speak is to Blunder,” Yiyun Li, a writer whose first language is Chinese, talked about how “language is capable of sinking a mind.” “One’s thoughts are slavishly bound to language,” she wrote, and went on to talk about the difficulties she has articulating her feelings. “It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible in my native language,” Li says. In your essay, “The Writer as Tour Guide” in an anthology of contemporary Jewish exile literature, The Writer Uprooted, you said, “By the time I approached writing, I had been reading in English a lot, and whenever I thought about creating something of my own, I caught myself putting my images into words of the English language. I felt most comfortable when writing in English, even though I had to struggle with grammar and vocabulary […] I would even say that I wrote in American, which for me was the language of immigrants.” What opportunities has English provided you with that wouldn’t have existed in Russian?  Alternatively, do you ever find English limiting?  Do you negotiate the space between Russian and English when you write?

LV: English is my first “writing” language. Even though I only started to learn English as an adult, my first attempts to write fiction were in English (I’ve never written anything in Russian), so it feels completely natural. The only situation, when I feel frustrated, is when I have to translate speech from Russian into English. For example, I remember a specific joke my mother made in Russian, and I want to translate it and give it to my character, but it’s just not that funny in English!

PL: The relationship between mother and daughter that you describe in this novel is very touching yet clearly a very demanding one. The cultural conflict is not obviously stated, but it seems to define Katya’s judgment of her ability to mother her children. In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children—and Katya herself grew up in a household presided over by her grandparents. Do you feel that life in the United States has affected Katya’s and her mother’s expectations of each other?

LV: In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children –Absolutely! Katya would’ve probably felt less conflicted, if she was raising her children while relying so much on her mother’s help in Russia.

PL: Unlike works by many other Russian-American writers, male or female, your work directly engages with ideas of gender and feminism. Your novel Memoirs of a Muse charts the transformation of its female protagonist from subservient muse to her writer boyfriend to an independent woman engaged in artistic production; and while Dostoevsky is a key fictional figure in this work, the focus is on his lover, Apollinaria Suslova, herself a writer. Ružena in “Slicing Sautéed Spinach” in your short story collection Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love is a doctoral student in Women’s Studies. Your essay “Hillary’s Underpants: The Sad Tale of ‘Clintonsha,’ or She-Clinton” in Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary directly calls out traditional Russian gender assumptions. How do you relate to feminist ideas and navigate the gap between the different gender expectations in American vs. Russian cultures? Do you see any shift of Russian gender norms in the diaspora?

LV: I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where accepted gender roles differed greatly from what we see in the US and contemporary Russia. Soviet Union was both a feminist and a deeply patriarchal society, where men had all the power, but women did all the work, but still longed for a man in the family like this prized object. My mother, a strong independent woman who made her career and brought me up all on her own, kept telling me that ANY husband is better than no husband.

I think there is a shift of gender norms [in the diaspora] toward the ideal situation, where men and women in the family are equal partners who depend on each other for support and understanding.

PL: As a writer one of whose major topics is immigration, do you find yourself working against Russian cultural stereotypes?

LV: Probably… But in this novel, I feel like I’m working with a Russian cultural stereotype – that you absolutely need true romantic love, that you can’t live without it – against a more pragmatic American view that romantic love is far from being the most important thing in life, and chasing after love is selfish and childish.

PL: Who are some of the writers that inspire you? Do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?

LV: There are so many writers I deeply admire within the diaspora and beyond. But for this novel, the most influential was Elena Ferrante. She taught me how to turn yourself inside out for the sake of larger truth.

Upcoming Book: Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva

I came across Maria Reva’s short story “Unsound” in a copy of McSweeney’s, catching up on my reading over the holidays. It’s a striking piece of fiction that’s set in a fictional orphanage in the Soviet Union, where infants are rated according to a disability scale and judged accordingly. Notwithstanding, the orphan who emerges as a protagonist of the story, Zaya, has a lot going for her–a certain resilience of the spirit that makes her narrative particularly endearing.

Judging by quality of Reva’s previous publications and the reception this particular story has received–it was listed in a major magazine award that McSweetney recently won–this book has a very big future ahead of it. The pub date is March 10, 2020, and it’s already available on pre-order.

A bureaucratic glitch omits an entire building, along with its residents, from municipal records. So begins Reva’s ingeniously intertwined narratives, nine stories that span the chaotic years leading up to and immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union. But even as the benighted denizens of 1933 Ivansk Street weather the official neglect of the increasingly powerless authorities, they devise ingenious ways to survive.

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/609447/good-citizens-need-not-fear-by-maria-reva/

A bonus: Reva’s story “Novostroika” was published in the Atlantic. This looks to be a section from the upcoming novel.

Publisher: Doubleday

Pub date: March 10, 2020