A jaundiced eye cast on the foibles of communism and capitalism results in deft tales of life in the USSR and USA, one of a Brandeis series on Jewish women.
Shtern, a Russian-trained geologist turned US writer and radio host, emigrated from the USSR with her husband, daughter, and mother almost 30 years ago. Following the misadventures of her alter ego, Tanya, Shtern relate episodes from her life in chapters that are basically self-contained with a telling event at the core of each. She begins on the day of her birth, May Day, when she was delivered by a hospital staff that was robustly celebrating the Soviet holiday and consequently left half of her face paralyzed for the first three months of her life. Nevertheless, she was well on her way to becoming a model (if somewhat bored) Soviet citizen when Uncle Paul (an American film producer filled with romantic notions about the Russia he fled 30 years earlier) arrived for a visit. That triggered an interview with the KGB, who asked her to spy for them. She refused and awaited the terrifying consequences. The KGB ignored her. Not so Tanya’s schoolteachers, who, enraged by her defiance, attempted to have her expelled, leading her to a suicide attempt. The pace and the farcical aspects pick up considerably as she describes life in a communal apartment building, the escapades of a philandering neighbor, and a geological field trip where she was jailed in a Marx Brothers scenario of mistaken identity. When she finally arrived in America, she had to learn how to get a job (it was all about contacts, just like back home), and she spent a weekend in a “Realization” workshop (where playing dead was part of being reborn). There was a happy ending: She and her family, including two grandchildren, all found fulfillment in America—and Leningrad has no more hold on her.
Memoir lite, but Shtern has a keen eye for the ridiculous and for people’s idiosyncrasies—and this makes for diverting reading.