Week 3: (Nov. 12 to 16) – (Julie @ JulzReads): Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
One of my favorite reading topics is all things Russia-related. Within the memoirs-of-Russia genre, there are life stories inextricably linked to the monumental social and political events and upheavals of Russia and the Soviet Union, but that take a strictly personal approach to storytelling. Everyday memoirs that aren’t written about wartime experiences or major historical events; rather ordinary people in what feels to them like ordinary times, who have quietly extraordinary stories to tell. The influence of history is there, but these have other primary focuses: childhood experience, traveling in Russia as a foreigner, cooking their homeland’s food after decades abroad, and impressions of a changing foreign land while on exchange.
So I’m choosing to be the expert and recommending seven memoirs of Russia that tell slice-of-life stories without the lens of war, revolution or political involvement. Ones that reflect on everyday life or impressions of it. But it’s an ask the expert too, as I’d love any suggestions in this category!
A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova: I was struck by how much I learned about life in Soviet Leningrad from it. It seemed more than I’d absorbed from most straight-up history books. It was also touching, sometimes funny, and beautifully written. Gorokhova tells of her childhood and early adulthood as she realizes her best possibilities are abroad, and the tough decisions she makes to get there. Her voice is elegant and introspective, the kind of writing you like to pause and take your time with.
Black Earth City: A Year in the Heart of Russia by Charlotte Hobson: Hobson studied abroad and chose provincial Voronezh over Moscow, the more popular option. The glimpse of a lesser-known location makes this one unique, not to mention the time – it was late 1991 and the Soviet Union was crumbling. She tells the dramas of college dorm life so compellingly, and that’s not a topic I gravitate towards. Despite the alcohol-soaked spin, Hobson makes deeply poignant observations on culture and life as she witnesses it in her tightly-knit Voronezh community. It’s sometimes hilarious, other times somber, and different than anything else I’ve read.
Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid by Sergey Grechishkin: The author does a simple but amazing thing by emphasizing how normal his childhood felt, despite the difficulties he faced growing up in the 1970s-80s in Leningrad. He has the perspective of both pre- and post-Soviet Union, which makes for interesting comparative storytelling. It’s also funny and completely charming, bright and hopeful, and seamlessly weaves in social history alongside childhood observations.
Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia by Lisa Dickey: American Lisa Dickey traveled across Russia from Siberia to Moscow three times, each journey ten years apart. This uniquely positions her to observe the changes in various locales between each visit, including among people she befriends and revisits. It’s enlightening, well-written and an expansive travelogue that makes intelligent political and social observations, including on US-Russian relations and perceptions, always from a very personal perspective.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen: The author, a food writer, immigrated to the US as a child. Her career and love of cooking are strongly influenced by the cuisine of her heritage and the foods that hold special significance – either culturally, in memory, or because of the deprivation she experienced. With her mother, she begins cooking through classic Soviet dishes and telling the stories of generations of her family in historical context. The stories are wonderfully detailed and as someone who loves the food/memory combination, it appealed greatly, although many Soviet foods did not. But that’s part of the quirky charm! Still, I made borscht for the first time using her recipe here, and now I make it throughout the winter every year since reading this.
The House by the Dvina: A Russian Childhood by Eugenie Fraser: Fraser grew up in a cultural mix of a Scottish-Russian family. This is her sprawling family story, laden with all the elements of a classic novel of the time – adventure, tragedy, shifting fortunes, romance. Fraser evokes this old world so vividly with her child’s perceptions of growing up in the Russian countryside, interspersed with travels to Scotland, where they would eventually settle while fleeing Revolution. It’s immersive, detail-rich and evocative of the era, with a certain nostalgia for a way of life that was lost.
The Girl from the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: I was sometimes uncomfortable because Petrushevskaya, a much-loved author, tells stories about growing up under Stalin’s communism that are often disturbing, but without the humorous glaze of Everything is Normal or the considered, eloquent introspection of A Mountain of Crumbs. Her stark tone in describing extreme deprivation is jarring, but that’s her method – sharing experience matter-of-factly. These vignette-ish, impressionistic stories are different from the linguistically rich and emotion-focused memoirs I usually prefer but very affecting. The author’s strength is admirable and she has a singular voice.
Have you read any of these? Are there any other life-in-Russia memoirs you recommend?