Writer Kseniya Melnik moved with her family from Magadan to Alaska when she was 15. In this collection of short stories, she deftly introduces readers, who most likely are unfamiliar with Siberia — home of the Gulag prison camp system, to the people of the cold and remote city of Magadan in the Russian Northeast. The stories are set in the post-Stalin years, from the 1950s with the Khruschev thaw, through the Brezhnev stagnation and into the age of Glasnost and Perestroika. These are not what I would call “political” stories. Rather, they are portraits of the lives of individuals who are trying to find and keep love, take care of families, do their jobs; the shifting political tides are a factor in their lives but not necessarily the dominating force. As far as subject matter is concerned, Melnik’s work is more reminiscent of someone like Willa Cather writing about life for settlers out West, combining the stark beauty of the landscape with deep inner longings and loneliness, than Solzhenitsyn and his archipelago of slave camps.
Most of the stories deal with love and relationships in some way. For example, in “Love Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas,” set in 1975, the main character has an opportunity to have a one-night stand with a visiting Italian soccer player. Her aunt urges her to take advantage of the opportunity even though she is married with children, while a neighbor warns that it would be a politically dangerous act. But for her, the real dilemma is whether to go to the assignation or get in line for bananas. In “Strawberry Lipstick,” set in 1958, the female character is all of 18, bored and ready to get on with her life. Having just been jilted by a boyfriend, she quickly marries a young military man and moves to Magadan, where some hard knocks force her to grow up and come to know herself.
A marriage, she discovered, was a deep trench inside which festered a hundred previously concealed details about a person in whose company you had enlisted.
“Kruchina,” set in 1998, is a sad tale about a woman whose daughter, once an ER doctor in Magadan, has moved to Alaska and married an American. The daughter has also taken her daughter from her first marriage along, and they have just gotten their green cards. Told from her mother’s point of view, it is sad but reveals the same tough reality as the other stories — a marriage not based on romantic love but “grateful love. And its fraternal twin — separate happiness.” The daughter and granddaughter seem happy and are making the most of their new life, but the narrator worries that something has been sacrificed and perhaps it’s not a worthwhile sacrifice.
Kruchina grief was not regular sadness or disappointment with everyday troubles, but rather the existential sorrow about a woman’s lot that never goes away, not even at the happiest moments.
“Kruchina” is the story that has really stuck with me, particularly as it is the one story that depicts Americans in some detail. As a reader, I found myself sharing the narrator’s concern and sadness over her daughters choices.
Three stories are linked through their characters and read like a brief family history, spanning the Stalinist repression through modern day immigration to the US. In “Closed Fracture,” our narrator is Tolik, now an older man but reflecting on his youth: growing up with his best buddy in Magadan, falling in love, having a daughter, marriage troubles and moving to the US. Tolik is bothered by a phone call from his childhood pal and wonders why lives turn out so differently — how much is luck and how much has one “earned”. In “Summer Medicine,” set in 1993, the narrator is his daughter Sonya at age 10, a precocious girl who summers with her grandmother Olya, who is director of a clinic. Sonya pretends to be sick in order to investigate the inside workings of the clinic and gets more than she bargained for. In “Upstairs Neighbor,” teenage Sonya pines for a neighborhood boy, laments the separation of her parents and learns about life in Magadan during the Stalin years from her grandfather.
The remaining stories — “The Witch,” “Rumba” and “Untouchable Avengers” — deal with children. “Rumba” is about a ballroom dance instructor and his very talented student, and has a pretty strong creep factor. “Untouchable Avengers” was Walter Mitty-esque and a lot of fun to read. “The Witch” was interesting for me insofar as it touched on some Russian traditions and fairy tales that westerners might not be familiar with.
Overall, this collection is a beautifully written album of life and longing in a region best known for its sorrows and punishments. Given the number of artists and members of the intelligentsia sent to Siberia as punishment throughout Russian history, it is not surprising that it has its own rich cultural life with theater, dance and music, and, consequently, spawns great dreams and desires. While there is sadness, there is also hope and possibility there. One character sums it up this way:
…despite Magadan’s extreme remoteness, they were surrounded by intelligent, professional people, who were always willing to help. Survival in the harsh north, especially back in Soviet times, was impossible without friends and reliable acquaintances.
That’s what these stories are about — survival and even happiness sometimes.