Books about Russian immigrants and Russian emigration to America


By Vica Vinogradova

Notes on the reading of The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart and Leaving Katya by Paul Greenberg at JCC in Manhattan, April 2, 2003.

The auditorium at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan was full on the first Tuesday in April. Two great writers were to read from their new books. Each had to do with Russia, as JCC dedicated the whole week to the Russian culture.

Both books have been highly praised in the media and by my intellectual friends alike. I tend to trust the second group more, as a word of mouth is always the key to a really good stuff. Take my word: it was a brilliant evening, inspiring and intellectually stimulating.

The panel was mediated by Boris Fishman, a 24-year-old Russian born smarty, one of the The New Yorker editors. He managed to immediately catch the attention of the Russian-American crowd by posing precise and controversial questions:

- Were the books autobiographical?

- Greenberg: Almost all writers start out with real people or combinations of real people in their characters. But as they move their characters through the plots of their books, these characters have to make decisions and decisions change the very substance of those characters' psychology. Characters are a sum of their decisions. So I would say, there is some raw material from my life in Daniel and Katya, but the decisions they make are quite different than the ones I would have made.

- Maybe, replied Shteyngart.

Greenberg's "Leaving Katya" tells a story of a romance between a Russian woman and an American journalist who met in St. Petersburg in the early '90s. Katya ventures to the US to live with Daniel, only to join a religious cult later. It is a bittersweet story of a woman who is searching for her new identity, and a man, who realizes that it is easier to end a relationship gone bad than to continue a miserable co-existence of two people who grew apart because of cultural differences. It is a thoroughly researched book, as it depicts the essence of a Russian dreamy life coupled with the neurotic living of an upscale household in Connecticut. When the two collide, you are left to smile or cry at the idiosyncrasies. Greenberg himself says: The quote I use at the beginning of the book from Andrei Bely's St. Petersburg is really about the best way I can sum the book up: "The Streets of St. Petersburg possess one indubitable quality: they transform the figures of passersby into shadows." This is a story about two people who are transformed (for better or for worse) when the light of an alien culture shines through their hearts.

Shteyngart's book depicts a meek life of a Russian born émigré, Vladimir Girshkin, who came to the US at the tender age of 12. His parents are successful business people, fully assimilated in the American culture. He doesn't blend in though. He holds a tedious job at the Immigration office, "the only non-profit office on Wall street", trying to figure out what he should do with his life, resisting his parents urgings to attend a law school. When the time comes to pick between a job with Arthur Anderson or to join the Russian Mafia, he opts for the latter. In the process he is figuring out his love life, as any 25 year old would.

- Why did you write your books?

- Shteyngart: I was reading lots of contemporary Russian and American literature and realized that there is not a single book on my generation written by its representative. I don't mean the first wave of Russian Jews arriving in the 70s. I am talking about the next generation, people who emigrated in the late 80s as kids, grew up in Russian households attending American schools and colleges, speak English better than Russian, but still have major "cultural schizophrenia". So I just thought, I am going to do it. The year was 1993.

- Greenberg: There was not a specific single reason. I felt there was something dream-like and unclear in my head about Russia. I could not express it in a conversation or in any other format and so I ended up writing a novel. That seemed to be the only way to get at the subconscious noise that the meeting of the English and the Russian language made in my head.

Paul Greenberg, a 35-year-old New Yorker has been working as a journalist in Eastern Europe, covering the conflicts in Croatia and other regions prior to his assignment to Russia. He is quiet and somewhat shy, yet his comments are extremely sharp and well thought out. He gives an impression of a real thinker, who is humble yet sophisticated. Asked what brought him to Russia on the first place, Greenberg replies: I grew up in a conservative suburb of New York where everyone voted Republican. Investigating Communism seemed like the proper adolescent reaction.

Paul read the chapter where Katya is attending a family dinner at Daniel's house, and his father the psychiatrist is trying to cure Katya of her new obsession with a religious cult. The conversation and the atmosphere at the dinner table present an excellent blend of Russian thoughtfulness on the part of Katya and well meaning mixed with neurosis on the part of her father-in-law. Those who relate to both cultures will find the book magnetic. Greenberg managed to shed the light on the "Russian soul" and at the same time strip the upscale reality of a Westchester household to its bare bottom. It's an excellent read and a thorough culture study. The book is coming out in Russia in the fall.

- Why is your book so sad?

- Greenberg: I don't think it's sad. I think it has a happy ending. The main character decides that it's better to have no relationship at all, than to have a bad one. (Audience laughs). So, I don't consider it a sad book.

Next to read was Gary Shteyngart, a 30-year old native of Leningrad, who came to New York with his parents at the age of 12. He now writers for The New Yorker, checks his e-mail every second, and emanates the aura of intellectual upbringing coupled with an adventurous spirit. His goatee is as prominent as his dark framed glasses, hiding a smart sparkle of brown eyes. He is self-deprecating, yet he knows his fame. He often travels to Russia, and is going to Israel at the request of the U.S. State Department, most probably to do some research on the Russian Diaspora there. The Russian Debutante's Handbook will be published in Russia in the summer. His is working on his third book.

Shteyngart started. The very first paragraph made the audience roar in laughter. So did every other one. Shteyngart is brilliant in depicting the nuances of a Russian-Jewish heritage sautéed in a very tangible American reality. His writing is sharp and his observations are accurate. Spiced with an excellent sense of humor, the reading was a truly joyful experience. The line of those waiting for an autograph for a newly purchased book was similar to one in Leningrad in the early 90s for a kilo of salami.

- You obviously had to do a lot of research. How much did you learn about the Russian Mafia first hand?

- Shteyngart: Well, it's not really about the research. It was just all around me. And yes, I met some people from the Mafia, but of course a lot of it was invented. For some reason, those criminal elements just LOVE me. When in Russia, they invite me out all the time, and feel that I am one of them. (Smiles)

- What were the reactions to your book - by American and Russian readers?

- Shteyngart: Americans really liked the book, and found it very funny. It got excellent reviews in the press, and I am very thankful for that. However, the Russian readers here and in Russia were a bit offended as they told me I portrayed a caricature of their real life (the older generation).

- Greenberg: Russian women see the book as a tragedy about a woman who falls in love deeply and who is deeply misunderstood. American men see the book as a trial by fire, where a man gets stuck in something incomprehensible and then manages to understand the situation well enough to escape.

Long after the evening was over, talking to Paul by e-mail several weeks later, I asked him our favorite question:

What did you discover about Russian women while being there/working on the book?

- Greenberg: Because Russia has not embraced psychoanalysis like the West has, I find Russian women have a more instinctual ability to define their emotions and the emotions of others on their own terms. They do not work through a filter of psychotherapy to describe the workings of their heart. This is refreshing to a point, but frustrating too, as there is, I think a lesson to be learned from the weirdness of psychotherapy.

Another major distinction of Russian women is the way they express their ego, their sense of self. I think Russian women are taught to express their individuality in a subtler way than in America and it results in their having a more complicated and, at times, more convoluted relationship with power.

P.S. Maybe I didn't fully grasp Paul's last statement, but I want to argue with/add to it. I think Russian women are more expressive and sensual than American, and know well how to hold on their own. Their relationship with power is not convoluted, it is simple: they have it and they know it - be it sexual, financial or political. Thus when encountered by Western men, Russian women often leave a wrong impression, or flat our scare the gentlemen. I feel there will be many more books on the subject. Just my hunch.

Copyright: Vica Vinogradova, 2003

To buy books click here:

The Russian Debutante's Handbook

Leaving Katya


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