Labeling the Russian Immigrant: Irina Reyn’s “The Imperial Wife”

Sasha Senderovich on Irina Reyn's "The Imperial Wife."

By Sasha SenderovichSeptember 23, 2016

Labeling the Russian Immigrant: Irina Reyn’s “The Imperial Wife”

The Imperial Wife by Irina Reyn. 288 pages.

AT A RECENT GET-TOGETHER with my Russian family, a female relative teasingly approached me about a bruise she noticed on my partner’s jaw. Had I taken to beating her, she asked. Of course, the answer was no — the bruise was the result of a recent oral surgery — but without skipping a beat, and in the same joking tone of voice, my relative reassured me that it would have been alright if I had: “If he beats you, it means he loves you.” She was citing a bit of Russian folk wisdom, which holds wife-beating as a requisite sign of affection. Granted, my family is civilized people; they wouldn’t actually have let me get away with punching my spouse, but somewhere in the sphere conjured up by my native tongue, it might have been alright if I did. My partner doesn’t speak Russian, so over the years I’ve learned to interpret selectively as interactions unfold. Often, I’m struck by the alternative world evoked by my native tongue, so different from the one I inhabit in English. When I told her about the encounter later, it made me particularly aware of how bewildering that alternative world has become.

This is partly because the language of an immigrant’s one-time home often becomes fossilized over the years, separated as it is from a wider environment of living, changing speech. The linguistic context just isn’t as broad or as rich in the more isolated islands of immigrant communities. The summertime backyard parties and tea-drinking sessions, where members of the younger generation bring their non-immigrant partners along, don’t offer much chance for linguistic growth. Older relatives speak in colorful folksy idioms, which sound increasingly misogynist, racist, and tone-deaf in comparison to the more linguistically complex lives we are leading in English. The native tongue becomes more and more insufficient to express our evolving life philosophies and experiences in the present. It’s like visiting some parallel universe: we might have grown up believing all the things we still hear, and even if we no longer believe these things in our actual lives, we can’t quite voice our disapproval. We’ve changed and evolved in one language, but we’re stuck in the other. When jokingly presented with the folksy proposition that abuse might be acceptable, we may shudder at the suggestion, but it’s difficult to articulate how and why we disagree. If we manage to protest, our older relatives state regretfully that the next generation is losing its sense of humor.

Irina Reyn’s new novel The Imperial Wife provocatively addresses a similar constellation of issues in the life of one woman, whose identity is caught between two languages and cultures. A Russian Jew who emigrated with her parents from the Soviet Union to Queens as a child, Tanya Kagan Vandermotter is married to an American of colonial Dutch ancestry and, more recently, Upper East Side parentage. Tanya, who is the head of the Russian art department at Worthington’s, a top New York auction house, is particularly adept at detecting forgeries. She also composes names for untitled paintings when preparing lots for auctions. She performs this task skillfully, identifying the precise words that might capture the imagination of a prospective buyer.

Reyn is not new to writing metafictional novels in which questions of immigrant identity come into sharper relief through a focus on literature and art. In What Happened to Anna K. (2008), Reyn transposed the story of Anna Karenina from imperial Russia to the present-day Bukharan neighborhood of Rego Park, Queens. The adaptation of Tolstoy’s narrative of adultery and transgression from aristocratic Russia to a setting full of Jewish immigrants from Soviet Central Asia produced a rich and poignant reflection on displacement and exile. (Spoiler alert: Reyn turns New York’s subway into a force of fate that is just as menacing as the Russian imperial railways.) Reyn is also attuned to the way acculturation is often mediated through social scripts more than individual agency. The Imperial Wife, Reyn’s ambitious second novel, introduces a protagonist whose work aligns with her own self-discovery. While Tanya excels at assigning labels to authenticated works of art, she struggles doing the same in her personal life. The external labels Tanya has assigned to parts of her own identity are sufficiently acceptable to those around her, but the process of establishing a more authentic self beneath all those labels proves to be considerably more challenging. Identifying what is and isn’t authentic requires Reyn’s protagonist to navigate contested and culturally specific definitions of what it means to be a woman in the different worlds she inhabits. Different models of womanhood vie for her attention. As she accepts more and more of the cultural models available to her, she discovers that she is no longer certain and perhaps never had the opportunity to be certain of who the authentic Tanya might be.

It’s apt that as the novel opens, Tanya has just been written about in “Diary of a Somebody,” a comically titled column in the Financial Times. In her interview with the newspaper, Tanya says that she is “just a simple girl from Moscow,” a phrase that later appears in the article’s lede. This self-definition reads like a snappy descriptor of the kind Tanya generates at work. The journalist of course, laps it up, partly because she is more interested in talking to Tanya’s husband Carl, the author of a recent successful novel about the 18th-century Russian Empress Catherine the Great, than to the subject of the profile (to Carl’s credit, he points this out to the reporter). Tanya is already aware that her relationship with her famous husband is definitional to her own identity: she initially questions whether she is worthy of being profiled in the first place. In narrating her reasons for not taking the newspaper’s interest seriously, Tanya ruminates over why she, a “nobody when she first met Carl Vandermotter,” should make a far less fitting subject than her jet-setting and glamorous colleagues in the art world.

Tanya’s insecurities originate, to a great extent, in her upbringing. As the sole daughter of immigrant Russian parents, Tanya has already imbibed the cultural stereotypes about what constitutes “appropriate” gender roles for her as a woman. When Carl comes to dinner with Tanya’s parents, she thinks: “In the end I wonder if this isn’t the greatest success in their eyes. Not my job, my education, my apartment. But to have married someone this American, this effortlessly charming.” The sentiment evokes the traditional notion that a successful marriage is a woman’s most impressive achievement. In this case, however, there is an added immigrant twist: the “American” husband is somehow a particularly good thing in the eyes of the Russian parents — a sign of their daughter’s having made it in the new country.

At the same time, though her marriage is proof of successful assimilation in the United States, in her parents’ eyes Tanya needs to treat her husband as a “Russian woman” might. Her interactions with family have reinforced the idea that a good marriage defines a Russian woman’s success and that her spouse is therefore to be treated with reverence. Her family is still worried that signs of independence or self-reliance make their daughter undesirable. At the couple’s wedding, for example, a cousin loudly tells Carl that Tanya used to be a bossy child who liked to order others around — a reminder of Tanya’s potential assertiveness that makes her mother “afraid that the suitor will be scared off.” In the Russian immigrant community, “women are very particular things”: confidence and self-assertiveness are qualities “no one wants.”

It doesn’t help that Tanya’s responsibilities at work propel her into the world of Russian oligarchs and their lavish lifestyles. Gary Shteyngart’s satirical novel Absurdistan (2006) already covered the over-the-top gaudiness of that world, but Reyn’s book focuses specifically on how that environment turns women into objects of the male gaze. Tanya’s travels to confer with clients in Moscow take her back to the country she left, where she encounters women who succeed by skillfully deploying their feminine charms among traditional-thinking men. Though her mother’s worries seem outdated and overbearing in her family’s immigrant context, Tanya’s travels familiarize her with the gendered roles still performed by women in Russia.

Carl, however, is not a Russian man, despite Tanya’s parents’ assumptions that he is the kind of husband who would desire a stereotypical Russian wife (the American man Tanya’s parents might be imagining is similar to Donald Trump, who is known for his penchant for East European women acting within the boundaries of traditional gender roles, and who is incidentally, rather popular in the Russian-Jewish immigrant community). Carl is entirely happy to let Tanya call the shots in the vast majority of their shared decisions. And yet, while Carl tries to treat his wife as an equal, he still objectifies her as a “Russian woman.” Tanya suspects that for Carl, she resembles an idea of a “Russian woman” that he acquired from reading Russian literature. He knows just enough Russian to call Tanya by various Russian diminutives. (Tanya’s parents employ the same diminutives of her name. If you, Reader, are a Russian American and your non-Russian partner has ever called you by the same Russian nicknames as your parents did, you will likely know the horror.) Even though Carl declares that he doesn’t want to “essentialize and say there’s something unique about Russia,” Tanya still wonders: “Is he seeing me or some heroine out of Doctor Zhivago, a fur stole around her shoulders, melancholy blue eyes staring deeply into the expanse of icy steppes? Does it matter?”

The latter question is particularly telling. Tanya, the novel’s first-person narrator, is aware that her American husband objectifies her as much as her immigrant family does. Questioning Carl’s fascination with all things Russian, Tanya wonders whether “he has read way too much Pushkin in translation, if he has internalized the intensity of Dostoevsky a bit too literally.” Tanya suspects that Carl loves the idea of someone like her rather than actually her — that he fetishizes an idea of being with a “Russian woman” more than he embraces her as a person. Especially since she is still struggling to define herself as a product of her specific immigrant experience. “How can I impose my messy, amoral Russianness on someone so entrenched, so unsullied, someone who chose me against all odds of logic?” she wonders. But Tanya doesn’t challenge Carl’s logic. Instead, she doubles down on presenting herself as the kind of woman others expect her to be while worrying that her cover might be blown at any moment.

Conforming to these various expectations continuously makes Tanya feel out of place, both at her job and in her personal life. About Worthington’s, she asks, “Can you even imagine an immigrant girl who finds herself in a gilded auction house?” Her first visit to Carl’s parents on the Upper East Side — “[e]ach block as manicured as my colleagues at work” — is plagued by similar concerns, all stemming from the class anxieties invoked by her immigrant background. This visit is also an opportunity to present another version of herself, so Tanya sets out for Bergdorf’s to buy clothes appropriate for the occasion. Since Bergdorf’s store policy permits returns within 60 days, Tanya decides to “buy the Chanel blazer and bag and conceal the sales tag in one of the pockets.” It’s not only a costume, but also “an approximation of ‘old money’ attire.”

As the novel goes on, it becomes clear that Tanya sees herself as a kind of blank canvas, on which different women can be painted and to which different labels can be assigned as needed. This is of course, a familiar theme in immigrant American fiction from Anzia Yezierska to Jhumpa Lahiri. Clothes are a particularly popular trope, especially when the protagonist is faced with visiting a wealthy American host. This is also not a new topic for contemporary Russian émigrés. One of the stories in Natasha (2002), the remarkable debut collection by the Canadian writer David Bezmozgis, placed an immigrant family on the doorstep of a Toronto doctor. The visitors are overdressed in their professional Soviet best, while the doctor greets them in casual slacks and a yellow sweater with “an alligator emblem on it.” Bezmozgis’s story played this situation for comic effect, emphasizing the sheer newness and dislocation of the immigrant family. Reyn, however, shows the enduring persistence of this kind of social anxiety, which lingers well into an immigrant’s new life, even as she is further removed from the experience of immigration itself.

Reyn belongs to a generation of Soviet-born American writers — which, besides Bezmozgis, also includes Anya Ulinich, Gary Shteyngart, Sana Krasikov, Boris Fishman, Nadia Kalman, and others — whose reflections on Jewishness are an important aspect of their work. The question of Tanya’s Jewishness in The Imperial Wife is consistent with her attempts to define herself in the eyes of others. Because of her professional success and prominence, Tanya is one of the Russian-American professionals chosen by the Jewish Community Center “to bring religion back to our wayward former-Soviet brethren.” A participant in the JCC’s Emerging Leaders series, she attends meetings led by rabbis who sermonize from the podium, while establishment American Jewish leaders use PowerPoint presentations to debunk various myths about Soviet Jews. These depictions are a parody of similar outreach efforts in real life. With Tanya’s help and initiative, the group discusses how “marketing spirituality” might bring Russian Jews into the American Jewish fold, planning a Regina Spektor benefit to reach out to “cynical Russian-Americans.”

Tanya takes these Jewish Community Center tasks as earnestly as she takes every other responsibility and expectation placed on her. As in all her other “labeled” roles, Tanya finds little opportunity to dwell on the meaning of these commitments. On behalf of these organizations, Tanya acts as an exemplary Russian Jew without much opportunity to figure out what this label means for her in the first place. She may have been “carefully selected” for the role in the Emerging Leaders series, but it’s not clear what the selection criteria were — the label alone determines the substance.

Tanya’s multiple competing identities eventually coalesce around the central narrative drama of the novel: the auction of the Order of Saint Catherine, a medallion bestowed upon the woman who would eventually become Catherine the Great. The imperial Order has been in private possession for decades, so for Tanya, this auction becomes a mission to return it to Russia so it can be shown to the public. Tanya’s desire to make the medallion available for public display proves delusional, but in wanting to return this bit of Russia’s legacy to the Russian people, Tanya begins to see herself as a kind of savior of Russian art.

“Savior” actually reflects how many people end up seeing Tanya. The organized Jewish community expects her to “save” Russian-Jewish immigrants from their disinterest in American forms of communal and religious practice. Tanya’s parents have always expected her to be an expert in American life and to save them from challenging decisions. Her American in-laws meanwhile, come to rely on Tanya to save their struggling charity for foster children (as always, old money proves insufficient, and Tanya’s dealings with Russian oligarchs seem to offer an avenue for a potential turnaround). In turn, the oligarchs use her and the art she auctions to pursue their own goals, clawing their way to the top of Russia’s political hierarchy and ingratiating themselves with Putin by purchasing works of art like the Order of Saint Catherine and returning them to Russia. Carl is perhaps the only character who doesn’t seem to expect anything from Tanya of a similar magnitude. And yet, shaped as she is by all the expectations placed on her, she can’t help but be the good wife her parents want her to be. She ends up helping Carl complete his novel about Catherine the Great.

The Imperial Wife contains a novel within the novel: chapters narrated by Tanya alternate with chapters of Young Catherine, written by Carl Vandermotter, and set in the 18th century. Carl is interested in Catherine the Great before she became Catherine the Great: his novel focuses on the young German girl who moves to Saint Petersburg to be married to the nephew of Empress Elizabeth, slated to inherit the Russian throne as Peter III. To explain the relationship between Tanya’s narrative of her own life and Carl’s Young Catherine — received by the critics with praise for the male author’s keen insights into the subjectivity of a young woman — is to give away too much of Reyn’s intricately plotted and engagingly written literary mystery.

Suffice it to say that Carl Vandermotter’s Young Catherine offers a delicately written study of an immigrant woman figuring out her relationship to her past and her future, struggling to acquire a new language and new friendships, and navigating between the roles expected of her as a woman in her native and adoptive cultures and her growing desires to define herself independently. Young Catherine poignantly raises the question of whether and how a woman can carve out her own path. Tanya, adept at labeling both the work and the social expectations of others, never finds an opportunity to tell Carl about her own experiences as an immigrant, experiences that might have contradicted Carl’s impression of her: “The last thing I want to explain to Carl is the inner life of the immigrant. By now, I’m sick of mining my tale for narrative curiosity. I’m tired of my ‘exotic’ story.” Young Catherine in Imperial Russia — not Tanya in contemporary Manhattan — gets to tell the story of an immigrant’s struggles and her encounters with an unfamiliar world. That story might — just might — sound authentic. Or, perhaps, in its seeming authenticity, it is hardly distinguishable from a skillful forgery.


Sasha Senderovich is an assistant professor of Russian Studies and Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is working on his first book, How the Soviet Jew Was Made: Culture and Mobility after the Revolution.

LARB Contributor

Sasha Senderovich is an assistant professor of Russian, Jewish, and International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is working on his first book, How the Soviet Jew Was Made: Culture and Mobility after the Revolution.


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