“BUY A PAIR of Levi’s, lose the Russian accent and become American. Really, how difficult could that be? »Asks Margarita Gokun Silver in her new memoirs, I named my dog Pushkin (and other immigrant stories): Soviet girl’s notes on becoming an American woman. This latest contribution to the already substantial genre of Soviet emigration literature plunges the reader into a world where Coca-Cola is synonymous with freedom.
In 1989, Gokun Silver was a 20-year-old engineering student at the Moscow Oil and Gas Institute. She and her family were granted bogus exit visas and one-way tickets out of the country. Like many Soviet Jews, they could no longer tolerate the anti-Semitism that defined Soviet bureaucracy and everyday life. The paradox of the Gorbachev era glasnost is that while the policy was aimed at promoting freedom of expression, it also normalized hate speech in certain elements of public discourse: “[A]Anti-Semitism has grown from its “respectable”, hidden, institutionalized and mundane animosity and discrimination, to loud and straightforward bigotry and hatred. Many Jews responded by packing their bags.
Applying for an exit visa to the Soviet Union was difficult, especially for Jews, hence the need for false documents. Those who were refused exit visas by Soviet authorities became known as refusniks, destined to live as outcasts. To make matters even more complicated, Jewish families were only allowed to reunite with relatives in their ancestral homeland, that is, Israel. Since many Soviet Jews did not have families in Israel, the author explains, they had to be a little creative. Thus, with the help of American Jewish associations, many Jewish families obtained false exit visas thanks to “invitations” from falsified relatives in Israel. The fact that there were no direct flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv at that time worked in their favor: they had to fly to Vienna first, and from there they could begin their journey to the United States.
These details are fascinating, although it is a shame that Gokun Silver did not include more for the sake of readers less familiar with minority life in the Soviet Union, as it would have helped them appreciate the urgency and the uncertainty of it. family trip. Equally moving is her description of the time her family spent in Italy before arriving in the United States, where her linguistic prowess earned her a first job and a taste for independence that she would not have known had they. had remained in Moscow.
As the book draws closer to the present, I named my dog Pushkin takes on another tone. Gokun Silver’s desire to get rid of everything that makes her Russian takes full force. The story of an immigrant who struggles to fit in is far from new, but with many references to Russiagate throughout the text, one can’t help but think that she is writing for a very specific audience. : Rachel Maddow viewers who firmly believe that Russia is unequivocally bad, but who are largely concerned about its alleged actions vis-à-vis the United States. (Too many who like to pontificate whether or not Trump is an agent of the Kremlin seem to have little interest in the Putin regime’s most egregious crimes, like his nearly decade-long war on Ukraine, which has claimed tens of thousands of innocent lives, but that’s another story.) Gokun Silver informs the reader that she wants to lose her “mean-sounding Russian accent” because “the Russian accent just seems right. rude “and” there is nothing sexy or attractive about it. “It would make more sense if she came to America as a child – other children can be cruel – but she comes as a grown woman, strong in her personal convictions. Why must it be so embarrassing for her future husband to find out how her grandfather does tvorog (Cottage cheese)? These elements, while played for humor, are poignant reminders of how difficult it is for many, if not all, immigrants to truly feel at home, even in a nation of immigrants.
Gokun Silver’s views on America remain rosy, but they grow beyond a yearning for Levi’s jeans and Coca-Cola. “When you immigrate to the United States from the Iron Curtain, you have a lot of questions about America,” she writes. “Why are there no fences around these houses? I can see straight into their living room – don’t they have curtains in this country? Cereals served with cold milk – what kind of soggy hell is this? This tomato has no taste, did it even come from the earth? “
At these times, the reader may wish they had managed to delve into the nonsense of American life, rather than staying at the level of the surface, entertaining as that may be. Her passages about co-parenting with an American husband almost reach that level of introspection, only for her to stray from the subject of Russian immigrants voting for Trump in 2016 and against him in 2020: “It’s because oppression tax is apparently real in this country, where we pay taxes at lower levels than most progressive countries, but also because they equate the Democratic Party with Brezhnev and who wants another shot at those eyebrows? “
She concludes by stating that, unlike her fellow Russian immigrants, she’s on the right side of history, and while that may be true, it does fuel the black and white stereotype of “good” and “bad” immigrants.
Gokun Silver ends I named my dog Pushkin conceding that she still retains some of her Russian heritage (albeit in the most infuriating way possible):
My Russia persisted – perhaps in the same way that Putin’s presence continues to hang over what remains of Trump. Or what’s left of the GOP and #MoscowMitch. Or, Politburo-save us, on our future elections, our democracy and our computer systems.
This overshadows what begins as a beautiful description of the importance of New Year’s celebrations to the Soviet and post-Soviet people, and the following index of what she decided to “keep” of her Russian heritage, including including several dishes from the region. The reader cannot help but wonder: why does Putin have to be mentioned so many times in a memoir about the life of a Soviet immigrant in America? Why must the Russian language be tainted by the politics of the current regime? Have we finally come to the point where Russian is no longer Pushkin’s language, but Putin’s?
Gokun Silver is a gifted and witty writer, and I named my dog Pushkin will find a receptive audience. It is hoped that if she brings up the subject of immigrant lives again, she will offer more personal reflection, more concrete details and less echoes of the mainstream media narratives.
Kate Tsurkan is the founding editor of Apofenia magazine.