Memoirs of Family and Leaving the Soviet Union

There are few things I love more than a good memoir of Russia. Recently I’ve read two, both around emigration to the US and the lingering ties to family and country that remain.

The park looked well kept, even cheerful, as darkness settled over the tress. Here, history inundated every square centimeter of ground — it seemed more real and urgent than the present — and yet the ground under my feet didn’t quake. No one wailed. Here in a city that was allegedly remarkable only for being unremarkable, it was a warm autumn night and somewhere farther in the park a radio was playing “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” Someone on the benches laughed and the wind blew so loudly through the lindens that for a moment I couldn’t hear the music.

In Young Heroes of the Soviet Union, writer Alex Halberstadt describes discovering studies indicating that “markers attached to certain genes are influenced by one’s environment.” He was intrigued by what this might indicate about his own family, considering his grandfather had been a bodyguard of Stalin’s, and his family sure had been through a lot of hardship since.

The studies seemed to speak to something I was coming to believe, something I wanted to believe because I sensed it so acutely — that the past lives on not only in our memories but in every cell of our bodies. It was a deterministic notion to be sure, but it helped explain certain recurrent and mystifying experiences shared by the past three generations of my family: ruptured relationships, presentiments of disaster, clinical depression and anxiety chronic sleep disturbances, a proclivity for keeping secrets and an ever-present sense of danger.

Alex emigrated to New York with his mother and grandparents as a child. His father stayed behind, and they had only sporadic contact. Alex eventually travels to Russia and Ukraine, where he interviews his grandfather about his experiences working with Stalin. He begins to see how the men in his family have closed themselves off emotionally: describing his father finally opening up, he says “it felt like the giving of a heavy door.”

His research tours through earlier generations of the family’s history as Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union during tumultuous, frightening times both to live there but especially to be Jewish while doing so. Then the narrative doubles back to New York and Alex’s childhood and adolescence there, with evocative anecdotes around his classmates taunting him with “Better dead than red,” his mother having an affair with the poet Joseph Brodsky(!), and his own relationships and coming out to his family.

As the story went on, I found it wandered farther away from the idea of whether trauma is inherited and passed generationally, and just ended up being a fantastically told generational family saga of upheaval, loss, joy, and love.

It’s emotional and beautifully written, if some parts do move a bit slower and the amount of people in different branches of the family spells some occasional confusion, especially as the narrative stretches further into the past. I also thought that it strayed a bit far without returning from the studies that initially sent Halberstadt on this research journey, about whether trauma is inheritable and our parents’ hurts doom us to flinch at the same things, but that’s how these journeys often seem to go.

The many photographs scattered throughout brought the distant past to life vividly and helped in tracking the key players. Halberstadt can paint a scene in an extraordinary way, his writing was a delight. In parts it reminded me of Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure, not only in similar subject but that it can be funny, irreverent, and deeply moving in turn.

Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: A Memoir and a Reckoning, by Alex Halberstadt, March 10, 2020, Random House. I received a copy in a Goodreads giveaway (my first and only win!) for unbiased review.

I loved that Robert had lifted me above the collective and I could be the opposite of what we all were in Russia, cynical and meek. The opposite of what our souls had become, cleaved and schizophrenic. I could heal and fuse the two parts of me together, I thought.

Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs is one of my favorite memoirs of life in Soviet Russia. It is so eloquent, descriptive and well written. I love everything about it. I waited to read her second memoir, Russian Tattoo, for a few reasons, one of which was that I wanted to save it for a time when I needed something marvelous. 2020 is obviously that time.

Although I did love being in Elena’s world again with her, which is what it feels like since her storytelling makes her seem so close and familiar, I didn’t adore this like its predecessor. Elena resumes her narrative after emigrating to the US with her new husband Robert, an American student she met while he was studying in Leningrad. They had a fling and he offered to marry her so she could emigrate, but with the caveat that he wanted an open relationship. She was amenable because she wasn’t that taken with him, more with the idea of the new life in America.

But once living together, as he continues dating a colleague, the discomfort in this arrangement, coupled with the inevitable dawning of how little they knew each other, becomes overwhelming. They eventually split when she meets her true love, which is a heartwarming story although the divorce and whatever it meant for her immigration-wise is skimmed over at warp speed and/or avoided.

She marries for love and has a daughter, Sasha, who provides the link to the tattoo of the title, and of course the metaphorical one Elena feels marking her. Although I preferred another simile she uses to describe the unbreakable link to her homeland: “Russia, like a virus, had settled in my blood and hitched a ride across the ocean.”

Eventually her mother and her sister, both troubled in their own ways, are able to come to the US too, although Elena’s feelings about this are mixed. This is one thing I love about her writing — she writes so honestly about things that are tough to reveal or admit about oneself and teases out the psychology behind it and her thought processes so elegantly and relatably.

She also writes movingly about the immigrant experience, and being out of place in your new homeland, with its many opportunities for new humiliations and reminders that you’re never really at home.

Elena is also confronted with major upheavals in her life, even beyond the breakup of her green card marriage, including conflict with her teenage daughter and her mother’s aging. She writes everything in her even, measured voice, with her learned Russian stoicism around emotional events, but always allows her feelings to break through eventually — again, something I love so much about her writing.

Sometimes the thoughts that she turns over, like around losing her mother, resonate powerfully, like that no one will ever be as happy to see her as her mother was. My heart!

It’s a beautiful book, exquisitely written as I expected it to be, but I think what was lacking in comparison to Mountain of Crumbs was excitement. Russian Tattoo is the drama of the suburban household, family conflicts, lingering emotional trauma, and the constant pain of immigration even when you’ve left home for a better life, not the exciting drama of a taboo relationship with a foreigner in Soviet Leningrad, the prospect of leaving, and her richly detailed descriptions of life there.

The detail is all still here, I was constantly invested in her story and I adore her voice, and this is still heads and tails above the average memoir. It just felt like the stakes were lower from this perspective of a safe, middle-age existence in New Jersey compared to her youth in Soviet Russia. Is that even fair to say? I’m glad she has security and love and peace of mind; it’s just less exciting to read about. (I feel like a jerk!)

Russian Tattoo: A Memoir, by Elena Gorokhova, 2015, Simon & Schuster

10 thoughts on “Memoirs of Family and Leaving the Soviet Union

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  1. I love that more recent nonfiction can include pictures! It really does make a story feel more real.

    I don’t think you’re a jerk at all for saying that a situation with possible life and death stakes is more exciting than suburban New Jersey. Of course it is! Still, I also feel weird about critiquing the plot (or worse – disliking the ‘main character’!) in a memoir 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, I just felt bad that I couldn’t be as enthusiastic about the emotional/family drama as her other story, even though it had its quiet elements as well. I was struggling to put it into words without sounding like a monster! I’ve been finding lately that it’s better if I just abandon a memoir when I’m really disliking the author and can’t separate that from the content. It’s such a tough situation!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it just the worst? I mean, even a lesser book by this author is still really good because she’s such a gifted writer and storyteller. I just wanted it to be as magnificent as her first one, which I can’t recommend enough!! (Sorry to make your list even longer though!)

      Liked by 1 person

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