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When a soul is split in half between Russia and New Jersey

Russian Tattoo: A Memoir

By Elena Gorokhova

Simon & Schuster

317 pages, $26

By Karen Brady


Life is soul-splitting – time and again – in Elena Gorokhova’s affecting second memoir, “Russian Tattoo.”

Her dual existence, she explains, stems from her Soviet upbringing: “Life was simple if you sliced your soul in half, as you were supposed to. One half – for yourself, your family, and your close friends; the other – for all the salesclerks, teachers and officials, who didn’t need to know what you thought.”

Next, it will form the basis of her hasty marriage, to a Texas-based American named Robert who says he wishes to rescue Gorokhova from the austerity of life in Leningrad – by taking her to the U.S. as his wife. But he also wants to “continue seeing other women,” including a certain colleague of his. (“We would have an open marriage,” he tells Gorokhova who thinks in turn, “I didn’t know marriage could be paired with an adjective gutting the essence of the word’s meaning…”)

Soon, the cleft will manifest itself again – in Gorokhova’s growing ambivalence toward America: “Which end of the ocean that divides the continents, the ways of life, shall I now call home?”

Still later, she will find the breach ineradicable, noting that her “American me” is for her husband, his family and their mutual friends.

“It is a costume, a disguise,” she writes. “The Russian me is for my mother and my sister and my daughter, my blood.”

Gorokhova’s first memoir, “A Mountain of Crumbs,” focused on her repressive yet fortifying Iron Curtain upbringing. “Russian Tattoo” is the tale not only of her move to the U.S., at the age of 24, but also of her shaky, two-pronged relationship with her long-suffering and manipulative anatomist-mother Galina – as well as, in time, Gorokhova’s sometimes tenuous bond with her own strong-willed daughter, Sasha.

Both memoirs’ titles belie their serious underpinnings – but reflect Gorokhova’s easy, often witty approach to larger subjects, and the undeniable fact that hers is a life deserving of memoir treatment.

“Russian Tattoo” begins in 1980 as Gorokhova, a young teacher long fascinated by the English language, meets the enigmatic Robert, a doctoral candidate in physics whose work involves “advanced cosmic research,” with an emphasis on dark holes.

His motive in marrying Gorokhova never becomes clear here – nor is it necessary as Robert and his psychotherapist mother, Millie, inhabit “Russian Tattoo” only long enough for Gorokhova to get her feet on U.S. soil, and to fall in love with a therapist named Andy who works for Millie in New Jersey.

Andy will become Gorokhova’s “second husband in two years” – and, in time, the father of their daughter Sasha as well as the kind, nearly unflappable son-in-law who will welcome Galina to their Nutley, N.J., home for a visit and let her stay until her death, 24 years later.

This is Gorokhava’s outward saga in a nutshell – but it is only the bare bones of what she reveals in “Russian Tattoo” of the inner conflict wrought by her leaving her homeland for what she initially finds “this glimmering land of glut.” It wasn’t only America that beckoned:

“To be honest, the possibility of leaving Russia was never as thrilling as the prospect of leaving my mother,” Gorokhova writes. “My mother, a mirror image of my Motherland – overbearing and protective, controlling and nurturing … She had survived the famine, Stalin’s terror, and the Great Patriotic War, and she controlled and protected, ferociously.”

Galina, “invariably there with string bags of unsought advice,” and Galina’s older daughter, Marina, will both suffer due to Gorokhova’s defection – nearly losing a room in their small Leningrad apartment, as well as Marina’s job as an actress. (Gorokhova’s best friend Nina will lose her position, at the school where they both taught, as Nina “kept my upcoming capitalist marriage a secret.”)

Gorokhava, too, will find the transition painful – discovering that she is both shocked at the extent of American freedoms, and mortified that she has no grasp of such U.S. customs as eating a hamburger, purchasing shoes or negotiating the aisles of a supermarket…

But there is something else clearly at work here and that is, in Russian, “toska” – a word, the celebrated Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov famously said, has no English counterpart: “No single word in English has all the shades of toska,” he maintained.

“At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness…”

Gorokhova references toska as well in “Russian Tattoo,” adding that, “It’s what you find in every Russian book published before 1917 … the year when melancholy and sadness were outlawed in favor of general optimism and enthusiasm for our bright future. But there are also other ingredients in toska for which I don’t have words, things submerged deeply under the layers of silt on the soft bottom of the Russian soul.”

Toska, then, is something of a leit motif for “Russian Tattoo” – mapping the valleys of Gorokhova’s emotional landscape, and giving definition to the je ne sais quoi that makes her work so beguiling.

Now a professor at Hudson County (N.J.) Community College, with a Ph.D. in language education, she shares her life story against a backdrop of history and upheaval in her homeland, ever contrasting its sounds, smells, customs and laws against ours.

Had she stayed in Cold War Russia, she muses early on in “Russian Tattoo,” “I would be teaching yawning kids at the end of the metro line to retell Lenin’s biography in English … For thirty years I would walk to the metro station through the gray soup of the morning and after work return to the kitchen chair where my father used to sit when I was in nursery school, my dinner plate with a slice of black bread next to it waiting on the table set by my mother, then by my older sister, then maybe by no one at all…”

Like Robert, Andy is undeveloped here – as if to make way for the stronger sex, and in particular to highlight Galina whose soul is also cut asunder by her relocation to the U.S.

Blessedly, Gorokhova’s portrayal of her mother (in sections worthy of a novel) offsets her tendency, particularly in the latter part of the book, to abandon the memoir to rather dull home movies.

She redeems herself with a touching and memorable denouement set in St. Petersburg (still and always Leningrad to Gorokhova) – where she takes her daughter for a visit, and where she watches poplar seeds blowing in the wind while again acknowledging “the inner divide of exile.”

She should have known, she tells herself, “that sliced hearts do not become whole, that split souls do not mend. Along with all those who left their countries for other shores, I belong in neither land. We are unmoored and disconnected, like these poplar seeds blown into the crevices of the buildings, into the corners of the world.”


Karen Brady is a former News columnist.