Leaving Leningrad: The True Adventures of a Soviet Emigreby Ludmila Shtern
Although women writers have held a conspicuous place in the history of modern Russian literature, they have been slow to find their true voices in exile. Ludmila Shtern, a geologist/writer who emigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1975, offers a completely fresh, unsentimenal look at daily life in the former Soviet Union and in the US in the second half of… See more details below
Although women writers have held a conspicuous place in the history of modern Russian literature, they have been slow to find their true voices in exile. Ludmila Shtern, a geologist/writer who emigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1975, offers a completely fresh, unsentimenal look at daily life in the former Soviet Union and in the US in the second half of the 20th century. Her memoir, part comic bildungsroman, part picaresque adventure, shows its heroine, Tatyana Dargis, growing up in the USSR, falling in love, running afoul of the KGB, and finally moving to the US where capitalist rather than communist absurdities prevail.
Whether coping with the intrigues of neighbors in an overcrowded Leningrad apartment or enduring that quintesentially American experience, a self-actualization workshop, Shtern's cheerful sense of irony wins out. An amalgam of bittersweet understatement and mordant wit, Shtern's prose is shaped by her ear for a wide range of human voices and the stories they tell.
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What are the main events in a person's life? Birth and death, no doubt. Since it would be a little unconventional to start the story of my life with my death, I'll take the more traditional route and will tell you about my birth.
On the day I was born, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which at that time encompassed one-sixth of all dry land on the globe, was splendidly decorated. Printed slogans, posters, and huge portraits of gloomy men with square shoulders and low foreheads littered the gigantic spaces of my homeland from the capital city of Moscow down to the tiniest villages that aren't even on the map. The color scheme was predominantly red. Military marches drowned all the other sounds. As for smells ... Well, suffice it to say that the two-hundred-thousand-strong nation was drinking vodka like alcoholics unanimous. Was all that in my honor? Not exactly. The day happened to be May 1, International Labor Day.
When Americans, my new compatriots, ask me the astrological question, "Under what sign of the Zodiac were you born?" I answer out of politeness, "Taurus." But the truth is that I was born under the "Sign of the Four." A huge banner with the profiles of the Great FourMarx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalinwas hovering atop the Leningrad Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology, where my mother was to give birth to me.
On that May Day, the doctors and nurses in the hospital did not abstain from joining in the celebrations. They gathered in the internship ward, drinking ethyl alcohol and munching on marinated smelts. They tolerated my mother's cries for a while, but when they eventually got to her they saw that I was stuck in the birth canal, demonstrating inappropriate reluctance to be born. I still wonder what tool they finally chose to pull me outa crowbar, a shoehorn, or maybe sugar tongsbut as they yanked me out head first they slightly twisted my face into a semi-pretzel shape.
And so, amid the full swing of a national celebration, I arrived in this world with a smashed look that in medical circles is known as "unilateral facial paralysis." A nurse rinsed me off in a chipped basin and showed me to my mother.
"My goodness, what a wretched sight! She is so ugly!" poor Mama whispered in horror.
"You're not such a beauty yourself!" the nurse snapped, pressing me to her ample bosom.
Actually that was not true. Both of my parents were quite handsome and could count on producing a decent-looking offspring. Even as a newborn I apparently was offended and disgusted by my mother's remark. Moreover, I'm certain that this episode, interpreted in the light of modern psychoanalysis, was and still remains the cause of a lifelong clash between my mother and me.
Now I ought to explain a few major differences between Soviet and American hospitals. In the Soviet hospitals, fathers are absolutely forbidden from being present when their babies are born. They are not even allowed to visit their wives and brand-new babies inside the hospital walls. The reason for this rule is strictly hygienic. Hospital administrators are paranoid about viruses and bacteria that fathers and grandparents could easily bring along from the outside world. Therefore a crowd of relatives invariably gathers in the lobby downstairs, sending up notes, fruit, cakes, and flowers with all imaginable viruses and bugs inside and outside the envelopes, packages, and bouquets.
To spare my father's feelings, my mother didn't let him know how really hideous their long-awaited newborn looked. When my father finally came to pick us up a week later, clutching a lavish bouquet of roses, he didn't know what to expect as he raised a corner of the silky baby blanket. Petrified, I stiffened and cringed, expecting yet another insult, but instead tears of admiration glistened behind Papa's spectacles.
"My little beauty!" he whispered.
"Thank God, my dad is nearsighted," I thought, and, breathing a big sigh of relief, I fell asleep.
For the first three months of my life, I could have posed as a model for Salvador Dali. The right side of my face was white and dead. My right cheek drooped, my right eye was sealed. My lips on the right side were pressed tight, and I couldn't even fully open my mouth to cry. The left side of my face was a healthy pink and was able to express my pains and joys. My father's salary was siphoned into the pockets of the medical stars. They would come, look me over, shrug their shoulders, and shake their heads. They had no consoling words.
Once my mother's aunt Pauline, a pediatrician, came from Siberia for a visit. She was a loud, sloppy, and optimistic chain smoker. She hardly said hello, burst into my bedroom without knocking, and froze by my crib, staring at me. Then she poked her tobacco stained fingers in my face, bent all my limbs, and turned to my parents.
"Throw out all her medications. Stop walking around with tragic faces. This ugly duckling will be a beauty someday. Mark my word."
It happened on the day of her departure. I screamed. Pauline choked on a mouthful of strudel and dropped her cup of tea on the floor. "Do you hear? Do you hear how she cries? Listen, it's round. Her cry is round."
Everyone rushed to me. I was yelling at the top of my lungs, and my mouth wasn't a crooked, narrow crack any longer but round like a capital letter O.
"Come on, baby, more." Pauline pinched me and pulled my nose until I went into a real frenzy. "Smart girl." With her Siberian strength she scooped me up, and I shut up immediately, gazing out at the world for the very first time with two wide-open eyes.
However, my "childhood disease of Leftism" never really vanished completely. I was always left-handed and left-footed. My view of the world shifted more and more to the left, until I couldn't stand the looks of the "Sign of the Four" anymore. Emigration was the only solution.
Now it should be kept in mind that in Russia we so-called dissidents were considered to be left wing. But when I crossed the Atlantic Ocean I discovered, to my great surprise, that in the West I wasn't left wing at all butwould you believe itquite right wing!
But let's go back to my childhood. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I heard this question for the first time when I was three years old and many times after that. I have asked myself this question time and time again, and even now, in my twilight years, I'm still not quite sure. But my first inclination was toward poetry.
I composed my first poem at the age of thirteen. We had gone to Moscow to celebrate my birthday, which coincided, you remember, with May Day. My father's friend, a high-level official, took me to a military parade as a birthday treat. Comrade Stalin, the last of the Great Four, stood on the tribune of Lenin's mausoleum, with the body of comrade Lenin himself, another member of the Great Four, lying inside, beneath him. Suddenly, a strong wave of creative ecstasy burst from me, resulting in the following lines:
Dearest Stalin, our beloved
Teacher, father and brother,
You greet us from the tomb
In the summer heat, and at the same time
In the rain, snow and sleet
And we're endlessly grateful
That you allow us to be born,
To breathe, to live, and finally to die!!
Unbeknownst to my parents, I sent my poem to the official children's paper, Lenin's Sparkle, and it was published!
A very wary look appeared on my father's face when, taking off his glasses and bringing the newspaper close to his eyes, he read my poem out loud. "Congratulations," Mama said with a sadness incomprehensible to me. "We've raised our own Soviet poetess laureate." And my shy muse fell silent and faded away. Except for minor poetic spurts that overcame me during school romances. As for prose, there was honestly nothing much to write about.
I grew up in an ordinary communal apartment, studied in an ordinary secondary school and then in a second-rate university. I worked in a boring design bureau with a name that consisted of eleven hissing consonants. I defended my boring thesis on "The Structure and Texture of Weak Soils." My only accomplishments in life were that I got married to Tolya Dargis and gave birth to a wonderful daughter, Katya. "Not so bad," you would say, but I was too young and too restless to fully appreciate my life. Rather, I continued to move inexorably toward retirement, dying of boredom.
I had no passions in my life except for the passion with which I hated my job. Nothing ever happened to me that deserved to be immortalized. I didn't fulfill a single Communist dream. I never climbed the Stalin Peak in the Pamir Mountains, lugging along a marble bust of Lenin, or the Lenin Peak in the Caucasus, pressing a bust of Stalin to my heart. I wasn't lucky enough to get my arms and legs frostbitten while exploring the North Pole. I didn't make a round-trip or even a one-way trip into outer space. A dull stream of colorless years passed as I was being dragged along like an empty can. All sorts of Soviet heroes were quacking on the radio, waving from magazine covers, applauding one another in conference halls, but those were not the kind of heroes I was tempted to emulate.
Finally, something really important did happen. At the end of 1976, sick and tired of the Great Four and their ideological followers, I left my home and the country of my birth, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and landed in the United States of America. Eight months later, I found myself employed by a company with a name even less pronounceable than the eleven Russian hissing consonants. And once again, life was bypassing me.
Obvious signs of depression appeared: insomnia, crying fits, and an irresistible urge to pick a bone with my husband or mother. What would I have done if I had been home in Leningrad? Gone to a shrink? No way, never. I would have called my friend Natasha, or Nina, or Olga. I would have rushed to one of them in a taxi at 1:30 in the morning. (We Russians insist on this particular time when we brag to Americans about the depth and inviolability of our friendships.) We would drink vodka as I cried my heart out to my friend. Around five o'clock in the morning it would become apparent that my troubles were nothing compared to hers. Having comforted Natasha, or Nina, or Olga, I would part with her till the next emotional crisis.
Until very recently the Russian people were afraid to see psychiatrists; the very reference to such a visit in one's medical record could spell trouble for the rest of one's life. If one disagreed with Soviet ideology, so-called corrective psychiatry could be applied, during which the dissident would be institutionalized and subjected to forced psychiatric treatment. Times have changed, however. According to the latest statistics, people of the fallen empire no longer hesitate to go to shrinks. Here is what my old nanny wrote to me: "Vanya, my nephew, has become a complete alcoholic. He went to a psychiatric clinic. The doctor was kind, talked to him for a while, and prescribed some pills. Vanya ate the pills and came back for more, but the doctor was already dead, may he rest in peace. He hung himself during a drinking spree. But Vanya is too ashamed to go to another doctor and now drinks worse than ever."
I decided to see a shrink. Dr. Vincent Rodriguez was short and bald, with an unruly salt-and-pepper mustache. "What has been troubling you?" he asked in a velvety baritone.
"Everything," I said, suppressing a lump in my throat. "First, I have frequent headaches."
"Just think, I do too," answered the doctor as he rubbed his temples.
"Second, I'm feeling irritable and disgusted with my family and friends."
"And how about `Oh God, I'm getting old?'"
I nodded, overwhelmed by his astuteness. Dr. Rodriguez enumerated all my other symptoms and diagnosed my illness: "There is nothing really wrong with you," he said, "just a banal case of JWM/MAC Syndrome."
"My God, what is it?"
"Jewish Women's Mania and Middle Age Crisis. It's very common. I will put you on Prozac and advise you to do something positive and constructive. Can you remember what you wanted to do when you were, say, five years old?"
"Oh, that's easy. I wanted to be a writer."
"An excellent idea and, truly, very positive. Go for it!"
I went to the drugstore to get my Prozac and also bought some paper, thus launching myself on the road to recovery.
Within a couple of weeks I had accomplished a few things:
Composed and typed out my first short story, which was accepted for publication;
Sang an aria from Rigoletto while washing dishes;
In response to Mother's usual "Put your coat on, it's rather nippy today," didn't bark back but answered, smiling, "I'm not cold"; and
Upon seeing my husband's socks strewn all over the living room, did not have a crying fit and instead quietly threw them into the hamper.
Other miraculous signs of recovery appeared. The strongest among them was the overwhelming desire to write about my life. And thus this book was conceived.
Excerpted from Leaving Leningrad by Ludmila Shtern. Copyright © 2001 by Brandeis University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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