Russian Tattoo: A Memoir, by Elena Gorokhova, $26 (Simon & Schuster)
At 24, Elena Gorokhova married a man she hardly knew, left her mother and older sister behind in their ramshackle Leningrad apartment, and boarded an Aeroflot airplane to start a new life in the U.S. where she knew nothing of the culture, let alone where to head from the airport.
But with Soviet life in the Brezhnev era being what it was, we don’t really blame Gorokhova for making such a hasty decision to leave home, which she recounts, along with the rest of her assimilation story, in her new memoir, Russian Tattoo.
While we never understand Gorokhova’s entire motivation for leaving her old life behind—aside from lamenting long bread lines and her overbearing mother, Gorokhova glosses over the important emotional specifics that pushed her on that Aeroflot flight—we do root for her journey in finding comfort and success in her new country.
And Gorokhova goes through a lot to secure that success: Marrying an American exchange student in Russia, enduring his emotional unavailability and initiating a divorce, finding work as an English teacher, marrying again, and finally starting a family of her own. But all of these victories don’t extinguish the nagging psychic rift that haunts Gorokhova ever since leaving her family behind in Leningrad. She continually finds herself suspended between the allegiances of two countries, torn between her traditionalist Russian mother and her rebellious American daughter, yearning to use her native tongue but failing to connect emotionally with her new acquired language.
Gorokhova’s descriptions of feeling neither here nor there will resonate with most immigrant readers or anyone whose sense of home feels rooted on flimsy foundation. But these otherwise powerful sentiments are often clouded by Gorokhova’s strained and heavy-handed metaphors. Just as Gorokhova finds herself awkwardly plodding around her new hometown, so often does her English, which comes off as too studied and very deliberate—stale sentiments dried out on the page.
Too many times Gorokhova attempts to force parallels between the nostalgia surrounding her Russian upbringing and her newfound anxiety in the U.S.—like when she orders pizza in a restaurant for the first time.
“Plain, I say. Plain as our Leningrad kitchen, as our store counters, as our food. Plain as my realization that I am—and will always be—a stranger here.”
In other overwrought moments, Gorokhova dramatically ponders the gravity of her new situation: “Which end of the ocean that divides the continents, the ways of life, should I now call home?” And over-performs her incredulity toward the strange customs of her new homeland. For her friend Melissa, for example, she buys a nice bath and body set “for the upcoming holiday called Christmas.” Surely, Gorokhova has, at the very least, heard of, if not experienced, the holiday shared by 2 billion of the world’s people.
Gorokhova need not over-write to win the sympathies of her readers, nor does she need to over-stress the contrasts between the newness of her new life and the familiarity of her old. The story of her transition from Russian to American should tell itself.
The most promising elements of Gorokhova’s memoir, however, are the passages in which she describes her mother, Mama, whose controlling presence Gorokhova has tried for so long to escape, but whose story of resilience and character is often much more profoundly expressed than her daughter’s.
In later years, when obtaining a visa to leave the Soviet Union becomes a good deal easier, Mama comes to live with her daughter in New Jersey. And the transition for Mama, who was born before the Russian Revolution, is striking; not in spite of, but because of how quietly she experiences it.
“She is shrewd, my mother, steeled by famine and war, trained by the decades of Soviet doublethink,” Gorokhova writes.
In a rare moment of intimacy between mother and daughter, Gorokhova enters Mama’s basement apartment to watch the annual figure-skating championship on the Russian channel. Mama is weary, shrunken, but her eyes are still clear and alert. Mama, who has resisted exercising control over the new chapter of her daughter’s life, has mellowed in her old age—something her daughter barely notices happening.
“What a beautiful tattoo,” Mama announces suddenly after seeing the star etched into the figure skater’s arm.
A strange sentiment from Mama, thinks Gorokhova, who for so many decades has lodged her overpowering opinions about right and wrong into every element of her daughter’s life. But now Mama has resigned herself to, or maybe accepted, her Western surroundings—and has even accepted her adult daughter’s decision to live here, away from the traditional customs of her homeland.
“I go back to my laundry, feeling guilty for shutting her out, resenting that she is always here, a constant witness to every moment of my less than perfect, tattooed life,” she writes, summarizing what this memoir is really about: the relationship between Gorokhova and her mother, which steadily and quietly matures against the backdrop of constant change in Gorokhova’s life.
Gabriel Muller is a journalist and writer based in Washington, D.C. He is an editorial associate at Atlantic Media Strategies, the digital consultancy of The Atlantic where he has contributed articles about television and sports. In addition, he’s been published in The Financial Times, The Miami Herald, and FLAUNT Magazine.