FEBRUARY 26, 2019
WHILE THE MAJORITY of emigrants from the former Soviet Union are Jewish, they are frequently referred to as “Russians” in their adoptive countries. This is inaccurate, but it stands to reason. First, these ex-Soviet Jews are virtually all Russian speakers. And second, as products of an antireligious (officially) and antisemitic (in practice) society, they are mostly non-observant, and so they fail to fit neatly into non-Soviet notions of Jewishness. The growing bookshelf of stories, novels, and memoirs by writers who were born in the USSR and moved to North America centers the experience of ex-Soviet Jews as the principal group among Russian-speaking immigrants and a misunderstood group among American Jews.
But Russian-speaking Jews are not the only “Russians” among the immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Several new books published this winter — Irina Reyn’s novel Mother Country, Boris Fishman’s memoir Savage Feast, and David Bezmozgis’s short story collection Immigrant City — make a significant effort to center non-Jewish immigrants as well as characters, both Jewish and not, who remained in their home countries, including Ukraine, Latvia, Russia, and Belarus. Nearly two decades since Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook first signaled the arrival of ex-Soviet Jews in contemporary American fiction, today’s immigrant literature reflects a degree of settledness in the new geography. The time has come to measure the experience of typical American “Russians” against the stories of those whose migration to the West did not follow a path reserved specifically for Jews, or who never relocated in the first place.
Reyn’s Mother Country and Fishman’s Savage Feast focus on non-Jewish characters who maintain social allegiances and family obligations across two continents. Reyn’s novel presents a female migrant to the United States who leaves behind her daughter in post-Soviet Ukraine and finds employment in care work for Russian Jews. Fishman’s memoir recounts his family’s emigration from Minsk and uses recipes as windows onto geographical displacement, attempts at cultural assimilation, and relationships between family members, friends, and lovers. Even though the memoir focuses on Fishman’s evolving relationship to food and cooking, one of its stars is his grandfather’s Ukrainian domestic worker, a talented cook. Both books are largely set in Brooklyn, showing life in the Russian-speaking enclaves whose residents rarely get to visit Manhattan.
This is a setting that Reyn and Fishman have already described in vivid detail in their debut novels, What Happened to Anna K. and A Replacement Life. Reyn and Fishman are often grouped into an unofficial cohort of writers who consistently return to the theme of post-Soviet Jewish identity, including Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, Anya Ulinich, Sana Krasikov, and Ellen Litman. All of these writers have now gone beyond this theme to explore different historical eras, social contexts, and non-Jewish identities. They must now grapple with the fact that they are no longer dealing with “Russian” Jewish immigrant identities as a novelty subject. By foregrounding non-Jewish Ukrainian female home care workers, Reyn’s and Fishman’s new books engage with gendered migrant labor, offering nuanced portrayals of some of the dynamics between foreigners who share a Soviet past but belong to different cultures, waves, and types of migration. For political and economic reasons, Ukraine has been a reliable provider of migrant laborers, nicknamed zarobitchane, to Russia, Europe, and the United States. Not surprisingly, Ukrainian women primarily provide domestic services and it is the nature of this care work that Fishman and Reyn explore in their texts.
Psychological, sociopolitical, cultural, and economic aspects of gendered care are central to Mother Country. Nadia, the protagonist, is a fiftysomething single mother who supports a daughter living with diabetes in Rubizhne, a city in Eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region. In one of her jobs, she is a Russian-speaking nanny to the young daughter of a Russian-Jewish woman named Regina. Regina, now an aspiring member of the creative class, herself came to the United States at a young age. Her identity as a one-time Russian-Jewish immigrant hinges on her daughter’s speaking Russian, but that is a skill neither she nor her American-born husband can nurture without Nadia’s services. And so Nadia becomes more than a nanny — she becomes a carrier of culture and a vital source of emotional support. After several years, Regina and Nadia find themselves “enmeshed together in a tight cocoon of love and fear and language confusion.”
Nadia’s proxy mothering is further complicated by the uncertainty of her own daughter’s immigration status. Years pass as Nadia takes care of another woman’s daughter, witnessing her milestones. In the meantime, her own child, Larissa, grows more resentful toward a mother who she feels has abandoned her. Larissa’s vulnerability as a person with diabetes in a country where patients have to pay cash for an ambulance and bring their own alcohol and gauze to the hospital breaks Nadia’s heart. She comes to see herself as a failed mother. The outbreak of war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, and specifically the capture of Rubizhne by pro-Russia militants, further plunges Nadia into despondency, inspiring her to entertain desperate schemes to get her daughter out.
Stymied by her limited ability to speak English and to navigate American institutions, Nadia reaches out to Regina for help. But the now-established immigrant old-timer with solid language skills brushes her off. This lays bare the fundamental asymmetry of their relationship: Regina relies on Nadia’s linguistic skills but refuses to reciprocate. Even though both women find themselves flailing at motherhood, there is no mutual recognition. Regina cannot acknowledge her privileged position and Nadia cannot look past her envy of that privilege. Aside from her passing as an American, Regina’s biggest advantage is her ability to stay rooted, to have a geographical and national home for herself and her daughter. In contrast, Nadia is spread thin between her life in Brooklyn and Skype calls and texts, mostly unanswered, as well as news stories from war-torn Ukraine.
Reyn’s dramatization of this asymmetrical relationship between a nearly assimilated Russian-Jewish employer, dwelling in what the novel calls “la-la Brooklyn,” and a non-Jewish Ukrainian migrant worker in “deep Brooklyn,” an hour away by train, adds complexity to the landscape of post-Soviet immigrant literature. Contemporary Russian-American writing has traditionally highlighted the culture clash between Soviet emigrants and American Jews on the grounds of religion, politics, and class. By bringing out the subgroup dynamics of America’s Russian-speaking immigrants, Reyn subverts the tendency to present the community as monolithically “Russian.”
Memories of Soviet-era antisemitism and disagreements about the fate of Ukraine divide the residents of Russian-speaking enclaves. Readers glimpse this when Nadia returns to Brighton Beach, where she also takes care of an elderly Russian-Jewish immigrant dying from cancer, a duty she shares with another woman, a Ukrainian nationalist who demands that Nadia not speak Russian. Nadia cannot avoid being questioned about her political allegiances even though all she wants is to be apolitical, to find refuge with her daughter in America. Tragically, that humble goal exposes her to indignity and coercion. The relationship between Nadia and the Russian-Jewish man in her care allows Reyn to draw attention to domestic workers’ vulnerability to sexual exploitation, particularly if they lack citizenship.
Reyn captures another painful aspect of the migrant experience: being an obvious outsider and a target for manipulation doesn’t prevent one from also being invisible. Age, immigration status, and lack of cultural competence make Nadia easy to ignore. American men, women, and children often overlook her, unable to imagine her as a figure of authority — even Regina’s daughter views Nadia as someone who “could easily be erased.” Most fellow Russian-speaking immigrants cannot entertain the idea of her as a romantic partner. Even her Ukrainian daughter, shunning cultural obligations to obey parents, communicates with Nadia only on her own terms. Reyn fights against this invisibility of the migrant worker by embracing her heroine’s complexity: the traumas of her past, her revenge fantasies, her anthropological observations about Americans, Russian Jews like Regina, and Brooklyn’s gentrification. Nadia is also compelling because she is flawed. Though she resents Regina for ignoring her, she also infantilizes her, discounting her approach to parenting, questioning her cultural authenticity, and regarding her with pity rather than empathy. Indeed, Nadia and Regina have much in common. Reyn lets readers glimpse the potential for empathy and solidarity between two women who, for different reasons, cannot realize that potential.
While Reyn’s novel focuses on mother-daughter relationships, Fishman’s memoir is, in part, about the unlikely friendship between the author’s grandfather and Oksana, the Ukrainian woman assigned to his home through Medicare. Fictional versions of these characters appeared in Fishman’s A Replacement Life. The memoir explores in greater depth the relationship between the elderly ex-Soviet Jew and the non-Jewish woman who transforms his household. It also shows Oksana’s impact on the author, who wrestles with his identity as a one-time child immigrant simultaneously bound to and alienated from differing — at times conflicting — categories: Soviet, Belarusian, Russian, Jewish, and American.
Fishman’s entire immediate family seems to be undergoing an identity crisis that filters into their one-on-one interactions. “Sausage immigrants,” the standard nickname associated with Russian-speaking Jews for their desire to escape Soviet food lines and tendency to eat pork, is a particularly apt descriptor for the Fishman family’s amusingly impressive history of “black market” access to all manner of rare foodstuffs in the Soviet Union. But what they really hunger for is a sense of belonging in their adopted country. Though Oksana cannot satiate this hunger — nor is it in her job description to do so — she helps to bring the family together around dishes that remind them of their life in the USSR, a country that no longer exists.
Without Oksana’s cooking, Fishman’s connection with the old country frays at the edges, and, as the book progresses, so does his connection with his family. Boasting recipes for dishes that Fishman’s late grandmother and other relatives used to cook, the book gradually becomes a collection of Oksana’s kitchen wisdom. Fishman writes that Oksana “even make[s] potato latkes the way my grandmother made them.” The recipes that Fishman includes in his book refer to Oksana’s practice of cooking this or that dish as a kind of imprimatur, a stamp of authenticity without which the instructional content of the self-described “memoir with recipes” would scarcely work. Yet this stamp of authenticity relies on Fishman’s adept translations into the English of his intended readers, with an occasional recommendation of a substitutable ingredient for some of the more traditional and, occasionally, titular foodstuffs Oksana uses: “If rabbit is scarce where you are,” reads one note on Oksana’s recipe for sour cream-braised rabbit, “substitute chicken parts.”
Fishman skillfully avoids portraying Oksana, who has played a critical role in his life, as a matronly, obliging caregiver who exists for the purpose of serving his family. He depicts her with obvious affection and sensitivity, but also with some distance, perhaps as an acknowledgment of his lack of access to the inner life of a female migrant. Still, as readers, we see some of the difficulty of Oksana’s position, which requires juggling commitments in Ukraine and the United States. When depicting his travels to Ukraine together with Oksana, Fishman portrays a slice of the life she maintains in her mother country — her family, community, and apartment — which she has been able to transform thanks to her American wages. The scenes in Ukraine show Oksana as the insider and Fishman as the outsider in the proverbial “old country.” At the same time, this reversal of roles is narratively convenient: portraying Oksana on her home turf rather than in his grandfather’s Brooklyn kitchen increases her symbolic value as a keeper of recipes that can conjure up lost worlds and relationships at the heart of a book intended for American audiences.
Connections, sympathetic and cautious, also feature prominently in David Bezmozgis’s Immigrant City. The collection marks the writer’s first return to the short story form since his debut collection, Natasha (2004). And the protagonists of some of the new stories are, in fact, older versions of the characters we encountered a decade and a half ago. They are no longer the freshly minted immigrants in Toronto. Mark Berman, the child protagonist of many of the stories in Natasha, has a son of his own in “Childhood.” On his way to an appointment with a therapist to assess his son’s growing list of troubling behaviors, Mark looks back on his own boyhood: “Did he have even a single distinct memory of himself at eight? Everything before — what, twelve? — felt like a brown haze punctuated by bright spectra of embarrassment or shame.” These immigrants may have grown older, but they are by no means fully settled or comfortable in their lives. Indeed, the story lines in Immigrant City are perplexingly open-ended.
In the book’s longest story, “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave,” Bezmozgis explicitly compares the lives of these older, still unsettled immigrants against the lives of those people who never left their country of origin. Leon Shulman, who emigrated to Los Angeles from Riga and has retired after losing his eyesight to diabetes, sends his son Victor — a 30-year-old who earns $170,000 a year — on an errand back to Latvia. Leon’s only remaining friend in Riga, Sander, died before he was able to replace Leon’s father’s gravestone at the cemetery, and so Leon asks his son to complete the task. A tourist on his first return trip to the city of his birth, Victor is struck by his inability to notice or feel much besides the perfectly banal: “I was born here, and I’m evaluating the infrastructure.”
The full measure of the distance Victor traveled when he emigrated as a child is made clear when he meets Ilya, Sander’s son. Ilya, who tells Victor that he’d like to visit the United States some day, notes that his wife speaks good English, which she picked up while working for an American software company “owned by Russians from San Francisco, Jews who left here, like you, in the 1970s” and who “returned to take advantage of the smart programmers and the cheap labor.” As the relationship between the two men develops and Ilya attempts to manipulate Victor into a scheme that would allow the Latvian to move to America, it becomes clear to Victor that his father had manipulated, tricked, and pestered Sander into the task of replacing his grandfather’s tombstone. If Reyn’s and Fishman’s new work primarily investigates the unequal relationships between old-time immigrants and newcomers in America, Bezmozgis offers an intriguing study of a persistent imbalance of power between those that have emigrated and those who have stayed behind.
At the heart of all three books is the matter of how Russian-speaking Jews and non-Jews, as well as recent and more settled migrants, relate to each other. In the story “Little Rooster,” Bezmozgis stages an interaction between a non-Jewish woman of Latvian descent and an assimilated Russian-Jewish immigrant regarding his family’s long-lost secret, which she can unlock. When they meet, she confesses, “I came here to repay my family’s debt to your grandfather and to the Jewish people,” referring to Latvians’ collaboration with the Nazis. In Reyn’s novel and Fishman’s memoir, the ghosts of East European antisemitism also haunt relationships forged by Jews and non-Jews who meet “abroad.” Must Jews and non-Jews from the former Soviet Union settle scores via favor or care work? The old question of “what we owe to each other” is still central to the lives of Russian-speaking immigrants. As these new works by Reyn, Fishman, and Bezmozgis testify, the answer has only grown more complicated.