Artful memoir about the angst and joys of growing up behind the Iron Curtain.
Gorokhova vividly evokes the bleak years of the latter half of the 20th century in Russia, when the Great Patriotic War was followed by the Cold War and food shortages were the norm. The author blends cultural history into her narrative of daily life in cold Leningrad. She recalls gathering mushrooms with her mother, a professor of anatomy, and her sister, an actress. She dreamed of fishing in the Gulf of Finland with her father, a loyal party functionary. A sympathetic uncle once wrapped a stolen kotlety, complete with mushroom sauce, in a newspaper for her. She learned to join the longest queue she saw because something worthwhile might be at its end. She absorbed the teachings of Checkhov, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Lenin. She built friendships and nurtured adolescent crushes. Even though privacy was an unknown concept—there was no word in the Russian language for it—kissing, notes the author, was the same on either side of the cultural divide. Because of the author’s proficiency in the English language, including “the twelve tricky tenses,” she landed a job in the House of Friendship and Peace and also worked as a guide for foreign tourists. It was her language skills that facilitated emigration, and marriage provided the ticket to the unknown West. Now, years later, oligarchs have replaced apparatchiks, Leningrad is St. Petersburg again and Gorokhova is content in her new home. “In our private American space,” she writes, “we can splice the cleaved halves of our souls and heals; we can change if we want to—transform ourselves, as my actress sister knows how to do—and no one will say we’ve betrayed the collective. We can simply live, and keep the door open, and wait for whatever enters.”
Articulate, touching and hopeful.