From the bestselling author of A Mountain of Crumbs, a “brilliant and illuminating” (BookPage) portrait of mothers and daughters that reaches from Cold War Russia to modern-day New Jersey to show how the ties that hold you back can also teach you how to start over.
Elena Gorokhova moves to the US in her twenties to join her American husband and to break away from her mother, a mirror image of her Soviet Motherland: overbearing, protective, and difficult to leave. Before the birth of Elena’s daughter, her mother comes to help care for the baby and stays for twenty-four years, ordering everyone to eat soup and wear a hat, just as she did in Leningrad. Russian Tattoo is the story of a unique balancing act and a family struggle: three generations of strong women with very different cultural values, all living under the same roof and battling for control. As Elena strives to bridge the gap between the cultures of her past and present and find her place in a new world, she comes to love the fierce resilience of her Soviet mother when she recognizes it in her American daughter.
“Gorokhova writes about her life with a novelist’s gift,” says The New York Times, and her second memoir is filled with empathy, insight, and humor.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I wish I could clear my mind and focus on my imminent American future. I am twelve kilometers up in the air—forty thousand feet, according to the new, nonmetric system I have yet to learn. Every time I glance at the overhead television screen that shows the position of my Aeroflot flight, this future is getting closer. The miniature airplane is like a needle over the Atlantic, stitching the two hemispheres together with the thread of our route. I wish I could get ready and dredge my mind of all the silt of my previous life. But I can’t. I can’t help but think of my mother’s crumpled face back in Leningrad airport, of her gaze, open, like a fresh wound, of her smells of the apple jam from our dacha mixed with the sharp odor of formaldehyde she’d brought home from the medical school where she teaches anatomy. I can’t help but think of my sister Marina’s tight embrace and her hair the color of apricots, one fruit that failed to grow in our dacha garden my grandfather planted. Ten hours earlier, I said good-bye to both of them.
In my Leningrad courtyard, where a taxi was waiting to take us to the airport, a small girl with braids had crouched on the ledge of a sandbox: green eyes, slightly slanted, betraying the drop of Tatar ancestry in every Russian; faint freckles, as if someone had splashed muddy water onto her skin. As the plane taxied past evergreen forests and riveted itself into the low Russian sky, I longed to be that girl, not ready to leave, still comfortable on the ledge of her childhood sandbox.
When I am not watching the plane advance westward on the screen, I talk to my neighbor, a morose-looking American with thin-rimmed glasses and a plastic cup of vodka in his hand. He has just warned me, between sips of Stolichnaya, that I will never find a teaching job in the United States. He is a former professor of Russian literature, bitter and disillusioned, and, as we glide over Greenland, he dismisses my approaching American future with a single wave of his hand. “You should go back home,” he says, staring into his glass and rattling the ice cubes. “It’s 1980, and what you’re looking for in the U.S. no longer exists. You’ll be happier with your family in Russia.”
My family in Russia would applaud this statement—especially my mother, who thinks I’ll be begging on the streets and sleeping under a bridge, as Pravda has informed her.
I know I should tell this Russian expert that my new American husband is waiting for me at the airport, probably with a list of teaching jobs in his pocket. I should tell him to mind his own business. I should tell him that no one in Russia puts ice in drinks or ever sips vodka. But I don’t. I am a docile ex–Young Pioneer who only this morning left the Soviet Union, a ravaged suitcase on the KGB inspector’s table with twenty kilograms of what used to be my life.
In the sterile maze of Washington Dulles International Airport, an official pulls me into a little room, tells me to sit down, and points a camera at my face. A flash goes off and I blink. Another man in uniform dips my index finger in ink and presses it to paper. “Sign and date here.” He points to a line, and I write my name and the date, August 10, 1980. “Here is your green card,” he says and hands me a small rectangular piece of plastic. I don’t know why he calls it a green card. It is white, with a fingerprint in the middle to certify that the bewildered face is mine.
I feel as if I were inside an aquarium, sensing everything through layers of water, clear and still and deeper than I know, with real life happening to other people behind the glass. They are pulling suitcases that roll magically behind them; they are waiting for their flights in docile, passive lines—all without color or sound, like a silent film. With a new identity bestowed on me by the card between my fingers, I float out of the immigration office, the weight of my suitcase strangely diminished, as though the value of my Russian possessions has instantly shrunk with the strike of the immigration stamp. The sign in front of me points an arrow to something called restroom, although I can see it is not going to dispense any rest. The floor gleams here, the hand dryers whir, and the faucets sparkle—restroom is a perfect word for this luxury that seems to have emerged straight from the spotless future of science fiction. I think of the rusty toilets of Pulkovo International Airport I just left, of their corroded pipes and sad, hanging pull chains that never release enough water to wash away the lowly feeling of barely being human.
In the waiting crowd I make out Robert, my new American husband, a man I barely know. He is peering in my direction through his thick glasses, not yet able to see me among the exiting passengers. It feels odd to apply the word husband to a tall stranger in corduroy jeans and tight springs of black hair around his waiting face. And what about me? Do I want to be a wife, the word that in Russia mostly conjures standing: on lines, at bus stops, by the stove?
Five months earlier, Robert came to Leningrad to marry me, to my mother’s horror. We stood in the wedding hall of the Acts of Marriage Palace on the Neva embankment—a small flock of my mortified relatives and close friends—in front of a woman in a red dress with a wide red ribbon across her chest, who recited a speech about the creation of a new society cell. The speech was modified for international marriages: there was no reference to our future contributions to the Soviet cause or to the bright dawn of communism.
To be honest, the possibility of leaving Russia was never as thrilling as the prospect of leaving my mother. My mother, a mirror image of my Motherland—overbearing and protective, controlling and nurturing—had spun a tangle of conflicted feelings as interlaced as the nerves and muscles in her anatomy charts I’d copied since I was eight. Our apartment on Maklina Prospekt was the seat of the politburo; my mother, its permanent chairman. She presided in our kitchen over a pot of borsch, ordering me to eat in the same voice that made her anatomy students quiver. She sheltered me from dangers, experience, and life itself by an embrace so tight that it left me innocent and gasping for air and that sent me fumbling through the first ordeals of adulthood. She had survived the famine, Stalin’s terror, and the Great Patriotic War, and she controlled and protected, ferociously. What had happened to her was not going to happen to Marina and me.
Robert and I met last summer, during the six-week Russian program for American students at Leningrad University, where I was teaching. For the last two weeks of classes—the time we spent walking around the city—I showed him my real hometown, those places too ordinary to be included among the glossy snapshots of bronze statues and golden domes. We walked along the cracked asphalt side streets where crumbling arches lead into mazes of courtyards, those wells out of Dostoyevsky that depress the spirit and twist the soul into a truly miserable Russian knot. If the director of the program, or her KGB husband, had known I was spending time with an American, I wouldn’t now be gawking at the splendor of the airport in Washington, DC. After four months of letters, Robert came back to Leningrad in December to offer to marry me if I wanted to leave the country—on one condition: I had to understand that he wasn’t ready to get married.
He wasn’t ready to settle down with one person, Robert said. He wanted to continue seeing other women, particularly his colleague Karen, who taught Russian in Austin, where he was working on his PhD in physics. We would have an open marriage, he said. “An open marriage?” I repeated as we were walking toward my apartment building in Leningrad. It was minus twenty-five degrees Celsius and the air was so cold it felt like shards of glass scraping inside my throat as we clutched onto each other because the sidewalk was solid ice.
I didn’t know marriage could be paired with an adjective gutting the essence of the word’s meaning, but then I didn’t know lots of things. I didn’t know, for example, that my mother, who has always been in love with propriety and order, had two marriages before she met my father—two short-lived, hasty unions, of which neither one seemed perfect or even good. I didn’t know, before my university friends told me, that it was legal to marry a foreigner and leave the country. My mother had diligently sheltered me from the realities of Russian life; my Motherland had kept all other ways of life away from everyone within its borders. We were crowded on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain, clad in ill-fitting garb and ignorant about the rest of the world.
“I understand,” I said to Robert on that frosty day in Leningrad—words that hung in the air in a small cloud of frozen breath—although I really didn’t.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Russian Tattoo includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elena Gorokhova. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In her bestselling memoir A Mountain of Crumbs, Elena Gorokhova describes coming of age behind the Iron Curtain and leaving her mother and her Motherland for a new life in the United States. Now, in Russian Tattoo, Elena learns that the journey of an immigrant is filled with everyday mistakes, small humiliations, and a loss of dignity. Cultural disorientation comes in the form of not knowing how to eat a hamburger, buy a pair of shoes, or catch a bus. But through perseverance and resilience, Elena gradually adapts to her new country. When her mother arrives from the Soviet Union to help care for her infant granddaughter, she ends up staying twenty-four years. Initially provoking conflict, the arrival of her mother is the catalyst for a growing sense of understanding and redemption. A poignant memoir of three generations of strong and strikingly different women struggling with separation and loss, humor and grief, and power and powerlessness, Russian Tattoo is a story of empathy, insight, and reconciliation.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In Russia, what qualities in Elena caused Robert to be drawn to her?
2. On the plane from Russia to America, Elena mistakenly assumes that the uncooked mushrooms served in the lunchtime salad must be poisonous. After incredulously asking Robert about this, she reflects that “what may have seemed interesting to Robert in Russia—my exotic ignorance—was now silly and annoying, a liability rather than a charm.” What are other examples of Elena’s “exotic ignorance”? Is Elena correct in thinking that Robert now sees her cultural missteps as less than charming?
3. Discuss “the pretending game called vranyo” that Elena describes as something played by every Russian. What is this game? Discuss moments in the story when Elena, too, plays the game of vranyo. Do you think people in America play it, too?
4. As a citizen of the former Soviet Union, Elena has formed a sense of self very different from that of most Americans. She wonders if Americans “are born with an inherent knowledge about themselves as individuals—not as part of various collectives.” Do you detect an absence of personal initiative in the Russians among whom Elena lived? How does her sense of self evolve after she moves to America?
5. In Russia, Elena says, “you knew how everyone felt about everything,” whereas in America, she often cannot read people’s true feelings. What other differences does Elena take note of in her new country?
6. Elena describes herself as “damaged by her Motherland.” What does she mean? Do you agree? Do you think Elena still views herself this way later in life?
7. Robert and Andy both pursue Elena, albeit in very different ways. Compare the two men’s approaches, both to wooing Elena and to introducing her to America.
8. The narrative moves back and forth between Elena’s American present and her Russian past. Did you like her digressions into that past?
9. When Elena’s mother comes to America, the two women clash over many things. Do they agree about anything at all in this new life together? How, ultimately, does she come to terms with her family’s intrusion on her personal life?
10. Elena has a tumultuous relationship with her own daughter, Sasha. What causes the distance between them? How does Elena eventually reconcile their differences?
11. After Elena’s sister Marina comes to America, Elena and her family must adapt to their new roles: Elena’s mother “as the hostess in her own apartment,” Marina “as caretaker and newcomer,” and Elena as “a guest, a translator, and a cultural advisor.” How do the new roles differ from their old roles in Russia? How does each woman adjust to the present?
12. Language plays an important part in the story; for example, Elena often uses and explains a Russian word in detail when a simple translation will not suffice. How does language increase the distance between the characters? How does language bring them together?
13. Elena has a recurring dream of getting on an Aeroflot plane to Leningrad. What is its significance?
14. Elena’s mother exclaims at the “beautiful tattoo” displayed by an ice skater on American TV. Why is Elena so surprised to hear her mother speak those words? Why do you think Elena chose Russian Tattoo as the title of the memoir?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. It is often said that America is a nation of immigrants. Share a story of your own or relate a story you’ve heard from a relative or friend about coming to this country from elsewhere. Do you find similarities to Elena’s experiences?
2. Suppose you were hosting someone coming to America for the first time. How would you introduce life in your own hometown?
3. For a close understanding of day-to-day life in post-Soviet Russia, read Elena’s previous memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs.
A Conversation with Elena Gorokhova
How did you decide to write a follow-up to A Mountain of Crumbs?
Initially I had a different project in mind, a story based on my sister’s life: her growing up in Ivanovo and becoming an actress after World War II. But I received so many emails from readers who wanted to know what happened after the protagonist said good-bye to her family and country and got on the plane headed for Washington that I was inspired to write the second half of the story. It was also my attempt to figure out, through writing, the dynamics of my own relationship with my mother and my daughter.
How did writing Russian Tattoo compare to writing your previous memoir? Ws it more difficult to write about this more recent part of your life?
It was a very different process. A Mountain of Crumbs required a long time to take shape and find its voice. I had been writing snippets of stories to see if they would congeal into something unified by bigger themes. Russian Tattoo took only about three or four years, and I think it was the death of my mother in 2012 that gave the book its ending. Only after she died could I look back and evaluate my relationship with someone against whom I had defined myself my whole life.
What advice would you give to a young Elena Gorokhova just arriving in America?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be a Young Pioneer who does only what she is told, who salutes the good and never comments on the bad. I would tell her that Americans are open and generous people who take pride in helping others, and I would advise her not to be afraid to connect with them. The people around her are going to help her understand the essence of the culture and the soul of the new and unfamiliar place.
Are there any writers who have influenced your work? Do you have a favorite memoir writer?
There are three writers (and all three wrote memoirs) who are both my favorite writers and who, in different ways, have influenced my work. I would give a lot to have lived at the turn of the twentieth century and been able to send my stories to A. P. Chekhov, who, in addition to being an extraordinary explorer and master interpreter of the human soul, was a generous mentor to lesser writers. I am grateful to J. M. Coetzee, who graciously took the time to read both of my books, and while I will never approach his masterful precision of language, I hope I have learned from him the courage to explore the visceral and the uncomfortable, to shine a light into those places in our souls that may better be left in the dark. And finally, my memoirs would not be what they are without Frank McCourt, as brilliant a teacher as he was a storyteller. He taught me about “hot spots,” those momentous tectonic shifts that realign and alter our lives. He taught me to dig deeply into the loam of memory and resurrect the ghosts of the past.
What do you find easiest to write about? Do you have a strategy to extract yourself when you get stuck in the writing process?
It is easy for me to write about places. It is not so easy to write about people. People are complicated and unpredictable. They never stand still, powered by the blood flow of their desires. Trying to write about people, I often get stuck crafting dialogue or threading motivation. How do I extract myself? I watch people and ask myself why they do what they do. I read Chekhov and Coetzee. I get help from my psychotherapist husband, who—luckily for me—knows about people.
Are there any things about living in the United States that still surprise you, even after all the years you have been here?
The people’s curiosity and courage still surprise me. The openness to different ideas and the tolerance of otherness still surprise me. The New York City energy still surprises me. If I were given a choice to live anywhere, I would choose to live right here, in New York.
The story you tell is split into five parts: the first four are named for people essential to the story (Robert, Andy, Sasha, and Mama), but the last you name for Petersburg. Can you explain the thoughts and reasons that led to this structure?
This memoir focuses on different characters as time progresses: first husband, second husband, daughter, mother. The last character is the city where I was born and to which I returned, Petersburg. In my mind Petersburg is a character, just as all the others are. I see it as a living entity. It changes, yet holds onto its history, eager to accommodate everyone it has touched—both its present and its former residents—into the fabric of its multilayered memory.
In the book you push Sasha not only to learn about your family’s past but also to speak and read Russian. Why did you feel it is so important to pass down this cultural heritage, when you tried so hard to leave it behind?
I think there is a difference between the system I tried to leave behind (the Soviet Union, with its dogmas and its lies) and the Russian culture, with its literature and its language. I love Russian literature, and Russian is my native tongue. I wanted my daughter to be able to speak and understand my language, to want to read the poems and novels I read. Foolishly, I wanted her to be like me. But she isn’t me. She is a different person, with her own roots (American), her own experience and knowledge, and her own soul.
Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction? Will your next project be a novel or a memoir?
I think I’ve revealed as much of my life as there is to reveal. I hope my daughter will still speak to me when she finally reads the book (so far, she has refused to read it). I hope other people who are characters in my memoirs see events as I do. But since I can only tell the story one way—the way I remember it, the way it left an impression in my heart—I think my next project will be fiction. Writing fiction is safer because you make it up. No one can accuse you of distorting the truth, which is never pure or simple. It is as tangled and complicated and narrator-specific as life itself.