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

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

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

To Fairyland, by Yelena Lembersky

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you sad, Mama?”

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

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

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

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

“What should I do?” Mama asks Yuri.

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

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

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

“Who are these people, Mama?”

“Go for a walk, Alëna.”

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

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

“Mama, are these men from your work?”

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

“Mama! Mam’ . . . Mam! Mama!”

“They took our visas.”

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

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

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

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

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

A Motherland of Books: An Essay by Maria Bloshteyn

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

Maria Bloshteyn, A Motherland of Books

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

Surely our yellowed labels all spell doom

in letters too few learn, too few remember.

Boris Dralyuk, “Émigré Library”

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

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

Dom knigi. Image credit: Google Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 2022

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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