Summer Reading 2015: Strange New World – From 1980’s USSR to Princeton, NJ

NJ Spotlight | August 21, 2015 | 2015 Summer Reading
‘Russian Tattoo’ continues the saga of a young woman as she comes to America in 1980 – and it feels like she’s ‘arrived at the moon’

Credit: Lauren Perlstein
summer 2015 gorokhova
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Each day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry — in which New Jersey plays a significant part.

In “Russian Tattoo,” Elena Gorokhova tells the story of coming to the United States in 1980. She was 24, and had come of age in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, a time she chronicled in her first memoir, 2009’s “A Mountain of Crumbs.”

Describing her arrival in America, she told New Jersey Monthly, “I could’ve arrived at the moon and it would’ve been the same…It was completely alien.”

The following excerpt is from chapter 3 of “Russian Tattoo, describing when Gorokhova first comes to her mother-in-law’s home in Princeton.

My new mother-in-law lives in a pomestie nestled in the woods called Princeton, New Jersey. A pomestie is a sprawling country house with land, a kind of dwelling surrounded by an orchard as thick as a forest, where many of Chekhov’s characters lamented their lives and yearned for Moscow. At first glance, my mother-in-law didn’t seem to lament anything. She pressed me to her soft T-shirt that said women unite and we had sweet drinks made from a dark cordial I’d never seen. My tongue wouldn’t contort to calling the woman I’d just met mother, so I call her Millie.

As I explored the vast premises of Millie’s estate, I knew my real mother was fretting in our Leningrad kitchen across from my older sister, wondering if I’d already settled down to live under a bridge or was begging on the street, like most Americans. We all saw a recent Soviet documentary shot in New York and broadcast on our TV at least three times before I left. “A Man from Fifth Ave.” showed men and women sleeping on the pavement amid a crowd of indifferent capitalists on their way to restaurants and stores. I haven’t yet seen the real Fifth Avenue, with half its population begging for scraps, so what I can write back home has no relevance to anyone in Leningrad. What can I possibly tell my family that they would understand? That roads in New Jersey are jammed with cars they’ve never seen? That supermarkets nearby are the size of stadiums, brimming with foods they couldn’t even dream up? That no matter how hard I look, I haven’t seen even one line?

Millie is a psychotherapist, said Robert, a profession mysterious to everyone raised on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In a second house that hides behind thick rhododendron bushes, she runs something called the Academy for Experiential Development. I know about rhododendrons from a Fitzgerald novel, but I’ve never seen the word experiential before, so I thought that the sign said “experimental development.” It makes me wonder, as I look across the lawn trying to peer through the thicket of branches, what kinds of psychological experiments Millie carries out there on her patients. I could ask Robert about the experiments, but I don’t want to sound more clueless than I must already seem. I don’t want to pester him to explain psychotherapy, in addition to everything else he has to explain to me. Back home we had physical therapists and medical therapists to deal with various malfunctions of the body, but our psyches—the products of our bright future and heroic past—were all supposed to be uniform and healthy. When they were not, we called our friends and sat in their kitchens until the blackness behind the window became diluted with the first rays of gray dawn. We talked about love and parents, drinking acidic wine and exchanging homegrown advice not based on any theories, especially those of Freud, whose books were safely locked away in secret vaults of the Central Library, away from most readers’ eyes.

On the third day after our arrival at her house, Millie takes me to a shoe store. Alarmingly, it is full of shoes. Loafers, espadrilles, ballerina slippers, pumps, clogs, flip-flops, sandals—in colors that bring to mind Matisse paintings hanging in the Hermitage; with heels, skinny and solid, high and low, and with no heels at all—are perched on gleaming plastic stands that radiate from the center of the room for as far as my eyes can see.

“What do you like?” Millie asks and smiles from above her glasses. She is shorter than I am, with a haircut that would look boyish if her hair weren’t graying. As she patiently waits, pretending to examine a pair of pumps with stiletto heels no one could possibly walk on, I realize she wants me to make a choice. My heart sinks. I desperately look around, and a saleswoman promptly sidles up to us. “How may I help you?” she asks in a syrupy voice that makes my stomach queasy. They are both looking at me now, waiting for an answer with the same frustration Robert must have felt when he ordered me a hamburger, expecting me to choose one perfect drop in a glittering ocean of footwear. They wait and wait as the ocean rises to my nostrils and threatens to drown me. I take a deep breath as if it were my last. What can I possibly say to them? That Leningrad shoe stores had two models on the floor, both made from rubberized plastic that mangles feet, both produced by the Bolshevik Woman factory in Minsk? That I have no idea how much any of these shimmering shoes cost and how their prices correlate with my new mother-in-law’s budget? That I don’t even know what American shoe size I wear?

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