Railways and trains in Russia have always been much more than just pragmatic modes of getting from point A to point B. For a Russian soul, a never-ending train journey across the empty vastness of its land is a state of mind, a meditation, an existential reflection on life itself. One might also argue that Russia, the largest country on earth, is essentially built around a sprinkling of train stops on a single-track railway constructed by the tsars in the late nineteenth century. And then one might ponder whether the Russian national character stands in opposition to the American frontier spirit of personal freedom and yearns to submit to the train driver and his predetermined itinerary, however long he might take and wherever he should choose to stop along the way.
Sergey Grechishkin had what he calls a “normal” Soviet childhood in Leningrad, growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. His grandmother lovingly co-opted his upbringing from his mother, taking over more responsibility for him while his mother and stepfather raised his younger brother.
This book wasn’t at all what I’d expected, and it immediately separates itself from similar stories, memoirs and histories, which often dwell on the grim and serious. That’s understandable, of course, considering the time and place – but Grechishkin’s different tack in storytelling makes this such a unique and enjoyable read. (Not to mention I really needed this book when I read it, on the heels of several depressing yet powerful memoirs about sad situations.) I recommend it for a time when you need something funny and somehow lighthearted while still smart and reflective.
Sergey is relentlessly optimistic and it’s obvious that he grew up with a lot of love, something that must have helped him adjust to life post-Soviet Union as well as some of the normal, everyday troubles they faced. This memoir covers his childhood and adolescence into the beginning of his college career, but ends as he embarks on his first foray outside of the Soviet Union, to China, as part of his undergraduate studies.
We get a preview of the life that’s to come, but for the most part it’s unexplored here, even as several chapters are interspersed throughout as flash-forwards from his adult life: vacationing with his family in Tuscany when he receives news of his beloved grandmother’s death, and the bureaucratic troubles he has returning to St. Petersburg to lay her to rest.
Most of the book is his telling of adorable, amusing stories about youthful exploits with his friends, providing humorous, nostalgic insights about the kind of thinking that characterized their childhood.
Whenever anyone saw a friend playing with some interesting new object, the first reaction was usually to ask what the lucky owner would trade for it, even if one had no immediate intention to trade. It was sort of like a price check.
An interesting aspect of his story is that it covers the time both before and during perestroika, which isn’t always something we get from these first-person accounts. It shows how things changed, and how certain suspicions and cautions remained ingrained in people after so many years of control and persecution. Grechishkin also does something very interesting by chronicling the everyday normalities at this time – whether it’s the price of daily products, the surprisingly intriguing logistics of how institutions within Soviet bureaucracy or schools actually functioned, or what their groceries consisted of.
I loved his description of the Soviet coffee situation – a valuable commodity, it was more readily available (to put it very loosely) as instant coffee, which doesn’t resemble what we’d consider instant coffee at all. This kind of glimpse into Soviet life completely fascinates me, and every time he would launch into an explanation of some detail like this, I was riveted.
Most shops were simply called by the name of the product each sold. Dairy stores had a sign above the door that said, “Milk”; bakeries were called “Bread”; there were also stories called “Meat,” “Fish,” “Clothes,” and “Household Items.” Although if they had been called according to what they really sold rather than pretended to sell, most of those stories would’ve been named “Nothing Much,” “General Disappointment,” and “Fuck Off.”
He also uses his family’s experiences to explain greater trends and shifts in the Soviet Union, and how it began to open his eyes to what the world outside the USSR might be like, including what potential it might hold for him.
Dad’s life trajectory – from gifted poet, to alcoholic dissident, to psychiatric patient, to rural recluse – was not as singular as you might think. Many men and women of his generation, finding no government-sanctioned outlet for their talents, descended into substance abuse and eventually burned out.
Although my family was of the firm opinion that I was nothing like my dad, either in talent or in temperament, I couldn’t help but wonder sometimes, Is this what my life is going to be like? Is that going to be my choice – to either sell out or stay true to myself and drop out of society altogether? Are those the only two options for a Soviet citizen with brains?
His coming to terms with the idea that all is not as it appears, or at least not as the government insists it is, was beautifully done, interspersed with these very evocative examples. He has an easily understandable, often humorous and honest way of explaining the reasoning that led him to doubt the official lines and propaganda.
All Soviet citizens were born, grew up, worked, gave birth, and died under an all-encompassing implied sign: “Pardon Our Dust, Work in Progress.” But in the last years, it had been dawning on people more and more that there was no actual work being done – there was only dust. The USSR was not decrepit and poor because it was putting all its effort into building a bright, shiny tomorrow for all the people, with limitless food, free toys for all children, vacations on Mars, and a room for every person to themselves, in a separate apartment without endless lines for the toilet. It was that way because construction had long stopped.
Elena Gorokhova and Lisa Dickey endorsed the book in review blurbs. I read Russia-related books by both of them last year and loved them, putting them both on my year end best lists. So if they were giving the thumbs up, I thought this must be worth the read, even though I was initially apprehensive because I thought it was self-published.
It’s not (in case you avoid those too.) Originally released last year as an ebook, the publisher is now releasing it in paperback.
It’s truly funny, with a dad joke here and there, but for the most part the humor fits the narrative perfectly. And an interesting concept too – most Soviet memoirs are near devoid of humor, and that’s not a criticism at all, but it’s hard to make the reality of this time lighthearted and funny. It feels strange even writing that a memoir of a Soviet childhood is lighthearted, but it’s been accomplished here. And the effect is pretty wonderful.
Each chapter begins with a cultural joke about the era, the politics, or the people. A favorite:
A woman is taking a bath in a communal apartment and notices a man’s face watching her from behind frosted glass.
“What’s the matter with you?!” she yells.
“Oh please, like you’ve got something I’ve not seen before,” he says. “I’m just making sure you’re not using my soap!”
His memoir draws to a close during his undergraduate time, where he’s earned a coveted place at the university in Chinese studies, allowing him the valuable possibility to travel abroad. Where, we’re left to assume, he came across further opportunities allowing him to immigrate, since the seeds of dissatisfaction with his homeland had already been planted.
Grechishkin’s writing is natural and comes across breezily, even when addressing sentimental or serious subjects. There’s some of the chatty style characteristic of humorous memoirs, but it’s more well written than others that also employ this near-conversational style.
Socially revealing and cleverly told, this is a sarcastic but ultimately sweet, charming and hopeful memoir of growing up to realize everything you’ve always understood as normal isn’t the way things should really be at all. A breath of fresh air in the Soviet memoir genre.
Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid
by Sergey Grechishkin
ebook published 2017
paperback edition published March 27, 2018 by Inkshares
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.