Sis­ter in Rus­sian, Cousin in English

New England Review - - Testimonies - Natasha Lvovich

She is walk­ing on Park Av­enue, el­e­gant and slim, ir­re­proach­ably fash­ion­able, drum­ming Si­na­tra’s “New York, New York” with her high heels. Her al­lure is busi­nesslike and con­fi­dent: she is fo­cused on her des­ti­na­tion, on the pot­holes in the as­phalt, and on count­less rushed yet im­por­tant thoughts, while at the same time she talks into her phone. Only real Man­hat­tan­ites, for­tu­nate to have been born on this cel­e­brated land—firmly grounded, per­fectly well-ori­ented, per­pet­u­ally over­booked, and mul­ti­task­ing with ease—move with such a gait. She mur­murs into her phone in a lan­guage that has been for cen­turies, for mil­len­nia, for eter­nity, her own: “Honey, don’t wait for me, just or­der your­self some Chi­nese. I’ll be home in a lit­tle while. Yeah, I know, I know. I’ll get you some. Love you.”

The trace of a Rus­sian ac­cent is al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble. Thank good­ness for those caramel English words, which make her a dif­fer­ent per­son and a dif­fer­ent mother than her own, less dra­matic and less rough around the edges, with the sweet­ened tex­ture of an Amer­i­can mom raised in an Up­per West Side apart­ment. She looks at her watch; she checks her mes­sages; she passes her hand over her plat­inum hair as if to make sure the makeover hasn’t melted away.

But no, the magic of the dis­guise is last­ing and has grown into her skin, re­mind­ing me of An­drei Tarkovsky’s So­laris, in which the earth­lings have to face their past and guilt by deal­ing with haunting flesh-and-blood crea­tures gen­er­ated out of their mem­o­ries by godly So­laris. In one scene, the pro­tag­o­nist en­coun­ters a re­pro­duc­tion of his dead wife, and when he at­tempts to undo the laces of her dress he re­al­izes, in shock, that the laces have no ends. His “wife’s” clothes have been “cre­ated” as part of her body, out of his mind’s im­age. In or­der to undo the laces, he has to cut them off with scis­sors. Sur­pris­ingly, the ghostly crea­ture does not ex­press any re­ac­tion to this odd in­con­ve­nience—she is not aware that her clothes are sup­posed to be sep­a­rate from her body.

In Rus­sian, cousin is a two-word ex­pres­sion, dvoyurod­naya ses­tra, lit­er­ally “cousin sis­ter” (the male ver­sion is “cousin brother”), but my “cousin sis­ter” had shrunk into one word— ses­tra, sis­ter, my only sib­ling, my twin. In our pre­vi­ous Rus­sian life, there was no dis­tance what­so­ever be­tween us, just as there was no dis­tance be­tween our moth­ers, who were born less than two years apart. What in English is called an “en­meshed fam­ily,” im­ply­ing its in­abil­ity to be au­ton­o­mous and in­de­pen­dent, was a nor­mal fact of life in Rus­sia. What is termed “emo­tional sup­port,” care­fully mea­sured and dis­tilled by drops in Amer­i­can cul­ture, was an in­te­gral, on­go­ing, and at times ex­haust­ing con­nec­tion be­tween fam­ily and

friends. What is la­beled in the West “the cul­ture of the col­lec­tive,” the fam­ily and com­mu­nity dy­nam­ics and psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects of sur­viv­ing coups, wars, and terror, was soul kin­ship, spir­i­tual in­ti­macy, and brother- or sis­ter-hood.

In the Rus­sian con­scious­ness, there is no con­cept of—or even word for— “pri­vacy.” Through­out Rus­sian history, mu­tual sup­port has been a vi­tal ne­ces­sity, a mat­ter of sur­vival, the only cur­rency that could “buy” help when money had no value. Although it has sel­dom been eco­nom­i­cally pos­si­ble, in­di­vid­ual pri­vacy was not—and is not—con­doned, and has long been con­sid­ered an un­nec­es­sary lux­ury, even dur­ing the most peace­ful Soviet times.

Soviet ped­a­gogy was orig­i­nally based on An­ton Makarenko’s con­cept of “com­mune,” a ro­man­ti­cized re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fa­cil­ity for ju­ve­nile delin­quents, a rig­or­ous au­thor­i­tar­ian chil­dren’s col­lec­tive in which young com­mu­nists were to share work, food, and per­sonal lives. This ped­a­gog­i­cal model failed later in Soviet prac­tice, but its Or­wellian no­tion of sub­mis­sive face­less­ness was im­ple­mented nev­er­the­less, as it helped con­sol­i­date and main­tain power and dis­cour­age in­di­vid­ual think­ing. As a re­sult of the com­bi­na­tion of eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal hard­ships, sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple who lived un­der so­cial­ism were as­sim­i­lated into large and small col­lec­tives, at home, in school, in sum­mer camps, and at work. In spite of our­selves, we, like the Borg en­tity in Star Trek, spoke in cho­rus. When we were chil­dren, Nina and I lived to­gether with our par­ents and grand­par­ents in one apart­ment on Pod­sosen­sky Street in Moscow. I con­sid­ered all eight peo­ple my nu­clear fam­ily. Since most fam­i­lies lived with strangers in large com­mu­nal apart­ments, ours was an en­vi­able hous­ing ar­range­ment. My par­ents and I oc­cu­pied a room near the front door and my aunt’s fam­ily lived in the liv­ing room, in a cor­ner sep­a­rated by a cur­tain. All four adults went to work early in the morn­ing and re­turned in the evening, and Nina and I stayed with grand­par­ents, our pri­mary care­tak­ers. Nina was blond, pale, thin, freck­led, and timid, and I was dark-haired, olive-skinned, big-boned, and ram­bunc­tious. Babushka (grand­mother) called us be­liy and chorniy— white and black—be­cause of both our con­trast­ing ap­pear­ances and our rad­i­cal per­son­al­ity dif­fer­ences. I was rest­less, al­ways busy with a game or an ac­tiv­ity, and very so­cia­ble. Nina was quiet and painfully shy.

Ac­cord­ing to a preva­lent eth­nic the­ory of good health, chil­dren had to spend many hours out­side, at any age, in any weather, tem­per­a­ture, and sea­son. Ba­bies had to be out­side al­most all the time be­tween meals, whether on bal­conies in their car­riages or in a yard or a park with their care­tak­ers. That was called “walk­ing the baby,” the ex­act equiv­a­lent of “walk­ing the dog” in English, a tran­si­tional verb di­rect­ing ac­tion to an ob­ject, whether a pet or a child, who doesn’t have his or her own will and must be dis­ci­plined and sub­mis­sive.

Un­til Nina and I reached school age, we were “walked” ev­ery morn­ing by

Natasha Lvovich

Sofia Moyiseevna, an older but very en­er­getic heavy-set woman with a mous­tache and an in­con­gru­ously co­quet­tish old-fash­ioned hat that she wore side­ways cov­ered with a woolen scarf. Tak­ing a few chil­dren to a nearby park was her lit­tle pri­vate (of­fi­cially for­bid­den) en­ter­prise, which com­ple­mented her mea­ger pen­sion. While Babushka and De­dushka (Grand­fa­ther) bought them­selves a few hours of free­dom, my sis­ter and I filled our lungs with fresh air. Our lit­tle gang would run around and play in the snow, ex­cept for Nina, who, in her stiff silent pos­ture, would cling to Sofia Moyiseevna, try­ing to hide her­self, her face cov­ered with her gloved hands, like an ostrich in the sand. Alas, she was never left alone.

Babushka, whom we called Baba Mina, cooked for the fam­ily of eight, not an easy task in a coun­try of food short­ages, long lines, and poor food qual­ity. Putting her nat­u­ral in­ge­nu­ity and sur­vival ex­pe­ri­ence into ac­tion, Baba Mina pre­pared unimag­in­able blends that we lov­ingly called smeshki: jams with fruit, two dif­fer­ent com­potes, stews with roast leftovers, and un­think­able com­bi­na­tions of veg­gies. She worked in the kitchen all day long, peel­ing and clean­ing, boiling and re-boiling what had seemed to be ined­i­ble gro­ceries. Her cre­ativ­ity had no lim­its and ex­tended to other crafts, like al­ter­ing her own clothes, adding new col­lars and but­tons, cut­ting out lace from her un­der­wear to adorn a dress, and even re­mak­ing her shoes.

Ev­ery day, af­ter we re­turned from the park, Baba Mina served us din­ner. One, two, three—and I was fin­ished with her de­li­cious hot con­coc­tions, but Nina no­to­ri­ously re­fused to eat, and Baba Mina got ready for a bat­tle. Feed­ing Nina in­cluded cook­ing her fa­vorite kotlety (beef pat­ties), chop­ping her food into tiny pieces or even shred­ding it, and promis­ing to take her to see a bal­let with her fa­vorite dancer, Maya Pliset­skaya (who, to Nina’s sur­prise, was Jewish, like us). If noth­ing else worked, Baba Mina pro­ceeded to tell her Vovochka sto­ries.

The pre­cur­sor of to­day’s multi-episode TV movies for young au­di­ences, the Vovochka se­ries that Baba Mina im­pro­vised for Nina was a saga of ad­ven­tures that ended in sus­pense at the end of each meal, so that Nina would open her mouth to lis­ten—and to eat. Vovochka (in­for­mal for Vladimir, in­ci­den­tally Lenin’s name) was a bad or a good boy, depend­ing on whether or not he ate his bortsch or kasha. More of­ten than not, he sat there with his mouth full, which was ex­actly what Nina did, rolling her food from one cheek to the other un­til it be­came a dis­gust­ing fla­vor­less mass. Baba Mina would stop talk­ing im­me­di­ately, and Vovochka’s ad­ven­tures would freeze in mid-sen­tence. Nina’s strat­egy was to hide her food in her cheek so that she could open her mouth to trick Baba Mina into con­tin­u­ing the story. Then, her mouth over­stuffed, Nina made hor­ri­fy­ing faces and chok­ing sounds, show­ing with all her might that she was about to spit the sch­mutz out. That was the usual dra­matic end­ing to the scene, with Nina weep­ing, Grandma scream­ing “Mis­chugeh!” while clean­ing the ta­ble, and me beg­ging for the story’s end­ing.

How­ever, Baba Mina would not give up that easily; one more at­tempt was in or­der. A po­lice mo­tor­cy­cle would pick up Vovochka and take him to the po­lice sta­tion, and then and then . . . Babushka would move in the di­rec­tion

of the win­dow, pre­tend­ing she heard a mo­tor­cy­cle roar­ing. “Swal­low! Swal­low quickly! Hear that? Vroom! Vroom! The mo­tor­cy­cle!” Nina would start shak­ing while she forced her own food down her throat.

While Nina was swal­low­ing a pho­bia of the author­i­ties along with her food, I sat across the ta­ble with my mouth open, ad­dicted to Vovochka sto­ries. I did not un­der­stand my sis­ter’s prob­lem, nor did I un­der­stand the adults’ prob­lem with cre­at­ing a prob­lem, but I looked for­ward to find­ing out to which abom­inable place the mo­tor­cy­cle took the anorexic Vovochka.

The mean­ing of Baba Mina’s un­con­scious work of imag­i­na­tion has be­come ap­par­ent to me only re­cently: in Vovochka sto­ries, evil and pun­ish­ment were rep­re­sented by the coun­try’s own po­lice force. In her ex­pe­ri­ence, the in­ter­nal terror of svoyi (our own) must have been more trau­matic than any other neme­sis, even the Nazis. The home­grown trauma had filled ev­ery cell of her mind and body, ev­ery tiny cor­ner of her ex­is­tence, and spilled out, in small and dis­guised droplets, here and there, onto her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.

Most ar­rests, called “pick ups” in Stalin-era lingo, took place in the mid­dle of the night to cre­ate an ef­fect of sur­prise. In the an­tic­i­pa­tion of a “pick up,” Baba Mina, like scores of oth­ers, spent sleep­less nights prick­ing her ears to the sound of a slam­ming car door down­stairs. She had packed for her hus­band a small suit­case and kept it un­der the bed while the cir­cle of ar­rests and dis­ap­pear­ances of friends, fam­ily, and neigh­bors closed in on them dur­ing what she called “strash­noye vre­mya” (ter­ri­ble time)—or did she mean the Time of Terror?

Vovochka must have been taken by a mo­tor­cy­cle to Lu­bianka Street—to the base­ment of the KGB build­ing, ru­mored to ex­tend mul­ti­ple floors down— and judged by a “triad,” the tri­bunal of three judges writ­ten into law by Stalin. He would even­tu­ally dis­ap­pear in Siberia, per­haps shot or frozen to death in Siberian woods. This was a typ­i­cal end­ing to most fam­i­lies’ sto­ries. What else could Babushka do but pro­tect her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren by force­fully feed­ing and “walk­ing” them, mak­ing de­ci­sions for them, fiercely con­trol­ling them, and keep­ing them to­gether, next to her—pass­ing on the “en­meshed” sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ships, for­ever and ever? In one of our pic­tures, Nina and I, two sis­ters, two op­po­site poles, be­liy and chorniy, are hug­ging each other and laugh­ing, our faces com­i­cally touch­ing, like Si­amese twins. Ob­vi­ously pic­tures don’t pro­duce sound, but I know that at that mo­ment we are shout­ing into the cam­era: “We are sis­ters!”

We at­tended the same school and then the same col­lege, Mau­rice Thorez Col­lege of For­eign Lan­guages, ma­jor­ing in French stud­ies. In Nina’s sec­ond year of col­lege, the fam­ily ap­plied for an exit visa.

Stand­ing next to my mother in the col­lege pres­i­dent’s of­fice, Nina was vis­i­bly shak­ing—and who wouldn’t be?—while my mother, the fam­ily com­mis­sar, tried to get the pres­i­dent’s sig­na­ture on Nina’s col­lege with­drawal ap­pli­ca­tion, which

Natasha Lvovich

con­tained the manda­tory line “. . . due to ap­pli­ca­tion to live per­ma­nently in the state of Is­rael.” Such a with­drawal meant that a be­trayer had been nur­tured in the very heart of a Soviet “ide­o­log­i­cal in­sti­tu­tion,” and the pres­i­dent, a colos­sus whose very shadow spread fear, stamped her feet and spat out ex­ple­tives. Com­rade Boro­d­ina’s sig­na­ture was the end of Nina’s lin­guis­tic ca­reer and of her “nor­mal” Soviet life.

There was no of­fi­cial immigration from the happy Soviet king­dom—who would want to leave it?—but Soviet Jews won a lucky ticket in cold war pol­i­tics as lever­age in the trade-offs be­tween the US and the USSR. The num­ber of mis­siles to be re­duced in the arms race and the price for grain were ex­changed for hu­man rights and fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion. At the end of the day, the ques­tion was: How many Jews will be let out?

In or­der to ap­ply for an exit visa, a Jewish fam­ily first needed an of­fi­cial in­vi­ta­tion from a “rel­a­tive” in Is­rael cer­ti­fied by the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment—not an easy task since all cor­re­spon­dence was cen­sored. Once such an in­vi­ta­tion was pro­cured, the process of gath­er­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion for the ap­pli­ca­tion would be­gin. Although the ac­tual de­par­ture was still far from be­ing guar­an­teed, at the time of ap­pli­ca­tion Soviet Jews had to be of­fi­cially ex­cluded from col­lege, school, or day­care, fired from work, and pub­licly de­clared be­tray­ers whose moral­ity was in­com­pat­i­ble with the al­le­giance to Com­mu­nist ideals. That was done at public meet­ings, at which the “in­com­pat­i­ble el­e­ment” was ver­bally stoned, shamed, and pro­claimed Zion­ist (in­ci­den­tally, a low­er­case let­ter in Rus­sian, sim­ply a eu­phemism for “filthy Jew”).

Ev­ery sig­na­ture re­quired for the ap­pli­ca­tion was lit­er­ally bat­tled for, as in Com­rade Boro­d­ina’s of­fice. Once the “Zion­ist” was ex­cluded from all pos­si­ble af­fil­i­a­tions and mem­ber­ships and de­clared hors-la-loi (out­side the law), hav­ing lost pro­fes­sional, fi­nan­cial, and so­cial stand­ing, end­less bu­reau­cratic ob­sta­cles were cre­ated for more stamps and cer­tifi­cates, which were im­pos­si­ble to get with­out other stamps and cer­tifi­cates. In end­less lines for stamps and cer­tifi­cates, the word “Is­rael” was loudly ut­tered to pro­voke anti-semitic skir­mishes. It would take at least a year to get through this Kafkaesque hor­ror, by which time the Is­raeli in­vi­ta­tion could ex­pire—and one would have to start all over again.

In the best-case sce­nario, if the ap­pli­ca­tion had been suc­cess­fully sub­mit­ted, ap­pli­cants would be­gin the wait­ing pe­riod, called byt’ v po­dache (to be in ap­pli­ca­tion mode), an awk­ward gram­mat­i­cal struc­ture in Rus­sian em­pha­siz­ing the idea of process. That nom­i­na­tive syn­tax, which could not be ren­dered by a verb, ex­pressed with sub­tlety the sit­u­a­tion of ex­clu­sion as a modus vivendi. Next on the list of sim­i­lar gram­mat­i­cal ne­ol­o­gisms was byt’ v otkaze, to be in rejection mode.

By 1979, when the Soviet Union in­vaded Afghanistan, its re­la­tions with the West dra­mat­i­cally de­te­ri­o­rated. In this cli­mate of in­ter­na­tional ten­sion, there was noth­ing to trade Soviet Jews for. Jewish ex­o­dus from the Soviet Union abruptly stopped. Jews were de­nied exit visas and be­came otkazniks, known as re­fuseniks in the West, out­casts who were si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­nied the right to leave and the

right to stay. Be­sides open hos­til­ity and marginal­iza­tion, re­fuseniks faced years of poverty, pro­fes­sional stag­na­tion, and ed­u­ca­tional im­passes for their chil­dren. The fight for em­i­gra­tion took a larger po­lit­i­cal scope, and many re­fuseniks walked a fine line be­tween be­ing out­laws in Moscow apart­ments and in­mates in Siberian camps.

My aunt’s fam­ily hap­pened to ap­ply for their exit visa right be­fore the Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan. Their ap­pli­ca­tion, among many oth­ers’, was re­fused re­fused re­fused re­fused re­fused re­fused re­fused re­fused re­fused re­fused re­fused for ten years.

For all those years, my aunt, Ilia, a PHD in bi­ol­ogy, tried to make ends meet by free­lanc­ing as a trans­la­tor of English-lan­guage ar­ti­cles for an agron­omy jour­nal. My un­cle, Mark, a for­mer air­craft con­struc­tion engi­neer, worked for a few years as a se­cu­rity guard (which was in­deed a typ­i­cal em­ploy­ment for a re­fusenik). My par­ents, who made a de­ci­sion not to ap­ply in this des­per­ate cli­mate, pro­vided them much needed fi­nan­cial sup­port. My sis­ter bus­ied her­self learn­ing English and par­tic­i­pat­ing in re­fusenik ac­tiv­i­ties, which con­sisted in clan­des­tine Jewish cul­ture sem­i­nars, risky meet­ings with for­eign jour­nal­ists, and or­ga­niz­ing. She helped with com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the West and trans­la­tion, and so did I. This se­vere Rus­sian win­ter stretched into years, with­out so much as a whiff of thaw in the air. Sev­eral years into this limbo, the fam­ily made a rad­i­cal de­ci­sion to get Nina out of the coun­try at any cost, even if it meant sep­a­ra­tion. By that time, she had been a stu­dent at a nurs­ing school, a med­i­cal in­sti­tu­tion that granted an as­so­ciate’s de­gree and over­looked her re­fusenik sta­tus. The med­i­cal field was an en­tirely new venue, but my omni-tal­ented sis­ter ex­celled in her stud­ies and ad­justed well to a so­cial en­vi­ron­ment in which her peers had never heard of Ge­orges Brassens or Mar­guerite Duras. Most im­por­tantly, they knew noth­ing about re­fuseniks.

As a re­sult of many peo­ple’s ef­forts, a “fi­ancé” was found on the other side of the Iron Cur­tain. He was a good-look­ing young man in his early twen­ties, with curly red hair, green eyes, and charm­ing dim­ples. Dennis, who lived in the US, had been raised in Mexico and was a Mex­i­can citizen. His Mex­i­can (and not Amer­i­can) pass­port was a stratagem to smooth the sit­u­a­tion, since Soviet re­la­tions with “broth­erly Mexico” were more re­laxed. The right con­tacts had been made in the Mex­i­can em­bassy in Moscow and the Mex­i­can at­taché d’af­faires had been be­friended. Hav­ing con­sumed lots of caviar and smoked fish in Ilia’s house, the dig­ni­fied lady and her deputy as­sured us that the Soviet author­i­ties would not sep­a­rate le­git­i­mate spouses.

Dennis was fun to spend time with while nec­es­sary ar­range­ments were made, pa­per­work col­lected, ap­pli­ca­tions sub­mit­ted, and the wed­ding sched­uled. Our time to­gether felt very much like court­ing a movie star rather than get­ting to know an or­di­nary per­son. If he was Mex­i­can, why did he live in the US? How

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was it pos­si­ble to have a Ger­man Jewish fa­ther and a Mex­i­can mother? What was it like to be flu­ent in English, Span­ish, and Ger­man? The idea of di­vided loy­al­ties was be­yond our monog­a­mous Soviet com­pre­hen­sion, as was Dennis’s burst­ing joie-de-vivre and un­in­hib­ited in­sou­ciance. He was in­vis­i­ble to us through the thick ar­mor of his Western para­pher­na­lia: his chew­ing gum, Marl­boros, blue jeans, broad white smile, and faint au­re­ole of erotic per­fume, the fra­grance of an unattain­able world.

We fell in love with Dennis or per­haps with the idea of Dennis, of the West, and of Amer­ica. As a clan, we toured, fed, and en­ter­tained him. With so much un­de­served at­ten­tion and so much vodka with Rus­sian del­i­ca­cies, he got play­ful and flir­ta­tious. In our eyes, a busi­ness trans­ac­tion was turn­ing into the most real, the most au­then­tic thing a Rus­sian can think of—a novel, in Rus­sian, ro­man, the word also stand­ing for ro­mance. Who wouldn’t fall for an en­chant­ing happy end­ing of a story im­bued with so much suf­fer­ing? Who wouldn’t want to own this utopia? Nina blos­somed and made plans for the fu­ture. The fu­ture fi­nally ex­isted!

Ro­man­tic faith—or call it col­lec­tive hal­lu­ci­na­tions?—had en­er­gized our grand­par­ents and nor­mal­ized our par­ents’ lives dur­ing war and terror, and it was ro­man­tic faith again that pushed us out of our realm into a myth of the West, the utopian Imag­i­naire, a term coined by French his­to­rian Serge Gruzin­ski, who at­trib­uted a spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance to the for­ma­tion of per­sonal and col­lec­tive mythol­ogy to sat­isfy the hu­man need for whole­ness. In the face of so­cial trauma dur­ing Stal­in­ism, as well as dur­ing Brezh­nev’s “stag­na­tion era,” adopt­ing the dy­nam­ics of il­lu­sion, adap­ta­tion, and hope as a ther­a­peu­tic cop­ing mech­a­nism al­lowed mil­lions to sur­vive men­tally and phys­i­cally within col­lec­tive and per­sonal myths. Per­haps it is in the lyri­cal work­ings of the Imag­i­naire that one can see what is com­monly re­ferred to as “the enig­matic Rus­sian soul.”

There was a cer­e­mony, guests, flow­ers, a bor­rowed dress, bor­rowed wed­ding rings, and a full-blown wed­ding party. The pur­pose of this staged per­for­mance was to demon­strate to the Soviet author­i­ties and to the Mex­i­can em­bassy work­ers the mar­riage’s au­then­tic­ity, which, like a good work of fic­tion, rang true to its au­thors. In what felt like an over­pro­duced Spiel­berg movie, where lav­ish pho­tog­ra­phy over­shad­ows di­a­logue, we lov­ingly acted out a wish for Nina’s hap­pi­ness, with Nina her­self liv­ing this wish as a real event.

Our naïve sce­nario of Nina’s lib­er­a­tion quickly turned into yet another de­ba­cle. Nina’s ap­pli­ca­tion for an exit visa to join her le­git­i­mate hus­band in Mexico was de­nied. Upon her re­quest to pro­vide an ex­pla­na­tion, she was openly told that the author­i­ties would not be fooled by her Jewish tricks. The Mex­i­can em­bassy tried to help but stum­bled upon a cat­e­gor­i­cal Soviet nyet! And a comic twist com­pleted the drama: now on top of her Jewish­ness and re­fusenik stigma, Nina had ac­quired an un­ut­ter­able hy­phen­ated Span­ish-ger­man last name with which she had to sur­vive in a mono­lin­gual xeno­pho­bic coun­try. Dennis never called or wrote, not even once, de­bunk­ing wishes, il­lu­sions, and hopes. He van­ished some­where too far for us to imag­ine—per­haps into the bor­der­lands

of his own Imag­i­naire, Mex­i­can, Jewish, Ger­man, Amer­i­can . . . We never saw him again. Like bread and wine af­ter a fu­neral, learn­ing kept my sis­ter afloat. She was liked and highly re­spected in her nurs­ing school. Another round of tor­tu­ous ef­forts was re­quired to get her di­vorced and to have her name changed back. We laughed with re­lief at the irony of the sit­u­a­tion, evok­ing an old joke about a dirt-poor Jew at the end of the rope who was ad­vised by the rabbi that he should buy a goat—and then sell that goat—to dis­cover his hap­pi­ness . . .

Pre­dictably, min­gling among her fel­low re­fuseniks, Nina fell in love, pas­sion­ately and deeply, with one of them, a med­i­cal doc­tor, much older than she, who was part of a dis­si­dent group. He had been ar­rested; he was of­ten fol­lowed by se­cret po­lice; his phone was tapped; his apart­ment was of­ten searched. A new ar­rest was im­mi­nent. As dan­ger en­flamed pas­sions, this Soviet style ro­man noir was close to a de­noue­ment. Nina was an inch away from se­ri­ous trou­ble.

Mean­while, with the aid of her mother’s for­mer doc­toral stu­dent who lived in Che­bok­sary, a town seven hun­dred kilo­me­ters east of Moscow, Nina was ac­cepted into the Che­bok­sary med­i­cal school, which was a real mir­a­cle for a re­fusenik.

How­ever, it also meant she had to leave Moscow. As op­posed to in the US, where higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions of­ten ex­ist out­side of big cities, and where one can thrive in less pop­u­lated ar­eas, in Rus­sia the move from cen­ter to pe­riph­ery is noth­ing but ex­ile. There is an enor­mous gap be­tween big cities and small towns, es­pe­cially be­tween Moscow and St. Peters­burg, on the one hand, and the rest of the coun­try, on the other—des­ig­nated by the Rus­sian word “province.” Feu­dal serf­dom had not been abol­ished in Rus­sia un­til the 1860s, in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion was slow, and the Rus­sian pe­riph­ery, the heart­land, the es­sen­tial Mother Rus­sia, re­mained parochial, back­ward, xeno­pho­bic, and psy­cho­log­i­cally and cul­tur­ally closed off. Go­gol’s and Dos­toyevsky’s scenes of stuffy pe­tit­bour­geois pro­vin­cial life still rang true; Savrasov’s land­scapes of the Rus­sian coun­try­side in the spring al­lowed only for a glimpse of hope; and Perov’s scenes of peasants and chil­dren on un­paved roads en­cap­su­lated the uniquely Rus­sian gray ru­ral in­fin­ity. Still car­ry­ing a heavy legacy of the past, the Rus­sian heart­land re­mained an­gry and hun­gry dur­ing the Brezh­nev years. Roads were muddy, al­co­holism ram­pant, and ig­no­rance wide­spread.

We took turns send­ing to Che­bok­sary pack­ages with meats, cho­co­late, candy, ce­re­als, and what­ever food we could find. One by one we vis­ited Nina in her sad pro­vin­cial ex­ile. Sep­a­ra­tion from fam­ily, friends, and a fa­mil­iar so­cial en­vi­ron­ment was al­ready an in­cred­i­ble test of courage, ex­ac­er­bated by an ex­ile to this for­eign land, some­how far­ther away than Is­rael, Amer­ica, or Mexico. Che­bok­sary was “em­i­gra­tion” in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

As a year came to a close, my sis­ter’s im­mune sys­tem gave up un­der the

Natasha Lvovich

stress. She fell ill with life-threat­en­ing pneu­mo­nia and was ur­gently trans­ported to Moscow, straight to a hos­pi­tal emer­gency room. She spent weeks in the in­ten­sive care unit fight­ing for her life.

Nina’s ill­ness was a sig­nal that there was a limit to what she could bear. Ev­ery ef­fort was made to work the sys­tem and trans­fer her to one of Moscow’s med­i­cal schools, in the belief that she had some­what bet­ter chances with a trans­fer than with reg­u­lar ad­mis­sion. Grand­fa­ther put on his best 1950s suit, pinned on his war medals, and, with hu­mil­ity, paid vis­its to a few ap­pa­ratchiks, who still re­mem­bered his leg­endary past. My mother was on the look­out for “con­nec­tions,” big shots to be bribed or in need of her fa­vors. Nina’s ex­cel­lent grades and aca­demic hon­ors helped, too. When her trans­fer fi­nally oc­curred, it seemed like a ma­jor tri­umph—and a sign, in­vis­i­ble from the in­side, of a crum­bling sys­tem in its lethal col­lapse.

By the time Nina grad­u­ated from Moscow Med­i­cal School, Gor­bachev’s thaw melted the ici­cles hang­ing from our roofs—first in droplets, then in streams. Per­e­stroika was not a tem­po­rary thaw, like Khr­uschev’s in the ’60s, but the be­gin­ning of the end of the Soviet regime, an event be­yond our imag­i­na­tion. Borders opened up. Jews were let go. From our clan, Nina’s par­ents, Ilia and Mark, were the first birds to fly away, their names among two hun­dred Soviet re­fuseniks on the so-called Sen­a­tors’ List, a spe­cial re­quest for exit visas sent by the US Congress to Pres­i­dent Gor­bachev per­son­ally. Soon af­ter my aunt, I fol­lowed with my hus­band and my four-year-old daugh­ter, then my par­ents, and then fi­nally Nina, newly wed, along with her first baby and our grand­par­ents.

Nina quickly be­came a leg­end among young Rus­sian doc­tors, who had to con­firm their med­i­cal li­censes in the US re­gard­less of their ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence or their tal­ents. Most took an av­er­age of five years and mul­ti­ple at­tempts to pass an ex­ten­sive bat­tery of tests in mod­ern medicine in a new lan­guage, while also sur­viv­ing in a new coun­try, of­ten with older par­ents and chil­dren to care for. Shortly af­ter our whole clan ar­rived, I over­heard a con­ver­sa­tion in some émi­gré’s kitchen about a young woman who had just come to New York and passed all med­i­cal tests on the first try! That young woman was Nina, my amaz­ing sis­ter, who had a tod­dler and was preg­nant with her sec­ond child.

With im­pres­sive ef­fi­ciency, Nina climbed the lad­der of the Amer­i­can med­i­cal pro­fes­sion, from the res­i­dency at Mon­te­fiore Med­i­cal Cen­ter and the fel­low­ship pro­gram in on­col­ogy to prac­tic­ing/aca­demic po­si­tions in sev­eral New York teach­ing hos­pi­tals. Af­ter ten years of jug­gling work, re­search, three chil­dren, and a chal­leng­ing mar­riage, she got a lu­cra­tive of­fer at pres­ti­gious New York Univer­sity. When Baba Mina and, soon af­ter her, Ded Ye­fim died, at ninety-seven and ninety-nine, in a sub­si­dized apart­ment for se­niors in Brook­lyn, my mother, Ilia, Nina, and I got to­gether to dis­pose of their things. We opened clos­ets and

draw­ers and took out grand­fa­ther’s pre-war shirts (still in mint con­di­tion) and grand­mother’s dresses al­tered by hand. We di­vided among our­selves keep­sakes and me­men­tos: a few crys­tal vases and bowls, a din­ner ser­vice brought from endof-war Ger­many, a few enamel Chi­nese trin­kets, and piles of pho­to­graphs. We ar­ranged for a Sal­va­tion Army truck to take away their fur­ni­ture and old kitchen uten­sils, and we fi­nally threw away plas­tic cups, which had been used and reused, since noth­ing can be thrown away in house­holds that had sur­vived war, hunger, and poverty.

Nina, who nor­mally doesn’t tear up easily, cried non-stop, “This is it”, she said. “It is over. Babushka and De­dushka are gone. It is over.” But what is “it”? What was over, be­sides our grand­par­ents’ lives, which had been lived for the whole cen­tury? For me, noth­ing was over. My re­la­tion­ship with my past, my fam­ily, history, and my na­tive lan­guage was not over—even when I loathed it. Its boiling and fum­ing pres­ence was in­side me, of­ten de­tested and en­flamed, too alive to be thrown away. Like Baba Mina, whose per­son­al­ity they say mine re­sem­bles, I keep us­ing dis­pos­able cups and dishes and al­ter­ing my dresses.

How­ever, “it” was dif­fer­ent for Nina. Per­haps be­cause of many other criss­cross­ing psy­chic and fam­ily ties, our grand­par­ents stood for an en­tire Rus­sian era, for her Rus­sian past, and for her old bit­ter and beaten self. Clean­ing up their empty house, she must have cleansed her­self of the un­con­trol­lable fate, of the Moscow saga, and of van­ished myth­i­cal Vovochka and Dennis. In a sin­gle move of her sweep­ing hand, ev­ery­thing wound up in a trash can, in­clud­ing me, the painful re­main­der and re­minder. Away from im­mi­grant ar­eas, she bought, ren­o­vated, and fur­nished a new apart­ment in Man­hat­tan. And she filled her closet with a brand-new wardrobe. In the Rus­sian neigh­bor­hood in Brook­lyn where I live, many fam­i­lies still live in big clans. Their minds trained by a life­time of play­ing the sys­tem, most Rus­sian el­derly are tak­ing full ad­van­tage of the gov­ern­ment hous­ing sup­port New York City of­fers, find­ing con­ve­nient ar­range­ments to live in “com­munes” where, in fa­mil­iar ma­tri­ar­chal pat­terns, grand­moth­ers of­ten run their daugh­ters’ and grand­daugh­ters’ lives, men are den­i­grated, and chil­dren are fed, “walked,” and dis­ci­plined. In my build­ing in Coney Is­land, a post-im­mi­grant mid­dle-class haven, adult sib­lings, cousins, un­cles and aunts, and sev­eral grand­par­ents live in apart­ments next door to each other, con­tin­u­ing their ha­bit­ual sym­bio­sis in a tire­some, multi-vo­cal sch­mooze.

I watch my Rus­sian neigh­bors with mixed feel­ings. Is my at­ti­tude pa­tron­iz­ing, judg­men­tal, or sym­pa­thetic? Am I cel­e­brat­ing my own vic­to­ri­ous Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence or mourn­ing my Rus­sian losses? Is there a happy medium some­where be­tween en­mesh­ment and to­geth­er­ness? And, most im­por­tantly, where does in­di­vid­u­al­ity end and lone­li­ness be­gin?

It’s been twenty-five years since we came to Amer­ica, and immigration is

Natasha Lvovich

long over. We’ve been set­tled in our ca­reers, and our Amer­i­can chil­dren have grown. English feels very much svoy (our own) now, and hear­ing our chil­dren speak bro­ken Rus­sian with mixed-up de­clen­sions is less painful. Nina’s hus­band trag­i­cally died in a car ac­ci­dent. I’ve been di­vorced for more than a decade. My dad and my aunt are long gone, and our Rus­sian “clan” has grad­u­ally dis­ap­peared.

As the fam­ily bedrock has shifted af­ter my aunt’s death, the dis­tance be­tween us “sis­ters” has only grown. When I talk about our re­la­tion­ship in English, I don’t feel pulled any­more by a tinge of be­trayal or by the need for te­dious lin­gua-cul­tural ex­pla­na­tions. This must have been how Vladimir Nabokov had felt trans­lat­ing Pushkin’s Eu­gene One­gin— and how he ended up with end­less foot­notes over­rid­ing po­etry. Now it seems that the in­ner semi­otic con­flict has been un­for­tu­nately re­solved, and I use the English word “cousin” with­out flinching to des­ig­nate a shal­low neu­tral re­la­tion­ship in the Amer­i­can vein, marked by dis­tance, per­func­tory phone calls, and fam­ily hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions— Rosh Hashanah and Thanks­giv­ing in her house, Han­nukkah and Passover in mine. She is in charge of the tur­key; I am in charge of the green salad, of good­ies from Rus­sian stores, and of bring­ing in our el­derly.

I do my best to con­nect with Nina’s daugh­ters, in their na­tive English of course, leav­ing be­hind fu­tile at­tempts to re­store Rus­sian close­ness via the lan­guage, now per­ceived as the legacy of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, an en­deared yet “es­tranged” pos­ses­sion. I ex­haust my­self tex­ting and or­ga­niz­ing lunches, but my ef­forts never con­sol­i­date into any­thing even slightly re­sem­bling my aunt Ilia’s re­la­tion­ship with me, the close­ness of a be­nign par­ent­hood. (Twice) re­moved cousin­ship is all I get. Af­ter all, Nina’s girls had only a min­i­mal share of grandparenting in Brighton Beach when they were lit­tle, and they have never ex­pe­ri­enced Rus­sian cul­ture in their (lit­eral) guts, as we did.

And isn’t it won­der­ful, I say to my­self with am­biva­lence, isn’t it what we wanted all along? A bet­ter life is a dif­fer­ent life. But does it have to be ei­ther/or, chy­orniy or be­liy, black or white?

Twice a year, my trunk loaded with bag­fuls of food from Brighton Beach and my heart like­wise heavy, I drive my mother and my un­cle, both in their eight­ies, to my cousin’s house on the Up­per East Side. My dread dis­si­pates a lit­tle as I busy my­self in the kitchen with the salad dress­ing, a glass of wine be­side me, schmooz­ing with my daugh­ters and nieces. I cher­ish our za­s­tol’ ye, the Rus­sian “at-the-table­ness,” with plenty of de­li­cious food, Nina’s and her daugh­ters’ friends, laugh­ing and pass­ing around the dishes, English cov­er­ing small Rus­sian voices. This is the best and the most gen­uine part of the show, this happy noise that has no name in my bilin­gual vo­cab­u­lary, still sound­ing Rus­sian to me, bring­ing back fam­ily, safety, and to­geth­er­ness.

Hold­ing my nos­tal­gic mir­ror, I see my mother and Ilia, two insep­a­ra­ble sis­ters, their cheeks flushed with the oven heat and ex­cite­ment, hold­ing a huge tray with the tur­key. I see my dad cir­cling in the kitchen like a mis­chievous cat, look­ing for the right mo­ment to smear his fin­ger in a bowl of whipped cream rest­ing on the win­dow sill—and then furtively glanc­ing around to see who has

caught him (I have!). I see Ilia sit­ting on the couch edge hold­ing a bowl of dried ap­ple rings, soft and tangy, while I am com­fort­ably ly­ing in her crispy striped sheets on one of those rou­tine sleep­overs. I see my un­cle stand­ing on a chair to get from the high­est shelf in their cup­board a can of “egg­plant caviar” made in “sis­terly Bulgaria,” my fa­vorite treat, stashed for spe­cial oc­ca­sions—and for spe­cial nieces. And I see Nina open the front door of their Moscow apart­ment, my shel­ter, when I ran away from home (my mother’s home, my hus­band’s home). She is wear­ing the sky-blue sweater I knit­ted for her to match her blue eyes, a sweater I would never see her wear again in New York.

Is the past re­ally an “empty space, great ex­panses of noth­ing, in which sig­nif­i­cant per­sons and events float,” as Teju Cole de­scribes it in Open City? Or is there a form of its ex­is­tence, not just in our minds and souls but in our strong­est re­la­tion­ships with oth­ers, a re­flec­tion or a trans­la­tion from a mother tongue that can­not be ac­cessed in the orig­i­nal?

Once, af­ter one of those cousinly hol­i­day din­ners in Nina’s Man­hat­tan apart­ment, when we were stand­ing at the front door, putting on our coats, my un­cle sud­denly de­clared that his jacket was not his. “Nu eto nye moya kurtka!” (This is not my jacket!) he was stub­bornly re­peat­ing, re­fus­ing to put it on and keep­ing it at arm’s length. In the spirit of Oliver Sacks’s sto­ries of strange neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions, Mark con­tin­ued to be com­i­cally puz­zled about his un­rec­og­niz­able jacket, trig­ger­ing in us such in­tense waves of laugh­ter that we slid onto the floor, hold­ing our tum­mies, tears run­ning over our faces. He ended up go­ing home in his “es­tranged” jacket, which he even­tu­ally man­aged to rec­og­nize.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, the girls and I were tex­ting about this bizarre jacket sit­u­a­tion. “Why would a per­son re­sist rec­og­niz­ing his own clothes?” read the text from one of my nieces. She had no idea how large her ques­tion loomed for me. I am deeply in­debted to Wendy Barker for her on­go­ing sup­port, en­cour­age­ment, and ed­i­to­rial feed­back, and with­out whom this piece would never have seen the light of day.

Natasha Lvovich

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