Thursday, June 25, 2015

Svetlana Grobman talks about growing up in Cold War Russia, writing, and so much more

I love discovering great small presses. Musings Publishing is based in Missouri, and they sent me a book with the provocative title, THE EDUCATION OF A TRAITOR, complete with a haunting cover photo.  Kirkus Reviews calls this "an intimate look at a young woman's struggle to find her own truth in a repressive society." Midwest Book Review calls the memoir, "Hard-hitting and involving." I'pm honored to have Svetlana, who grew up in Moscow during the Cold War, on my blog. Thank you, Svetlana.

I always want to know what sparked a book. Why write a memoir now?

It was my American husband who “sparked” my book. It happened five years ago. At the time, I was working on a book describing my coming to Columbia, Missouri, which for me, then a 39-year-old Jewish immigrant with no English and no knowledge of American life, was as disorienting as if I had landed on the Moon. I had a good time writing that book, because the most difficult period of my immigration was already over, and I could have fun describing my learning English -- mixing up words “desert” and “dessert,” “hair” and “hare,” and getting puzzled by expressions like “keep me posted” when no postage stamps were in sight.

My husband, however, thought that my life in Russia was a more important subject to write about, and, eventually, I agreed with him -- not because I believed my past life to be exceptional, but because it was representative of other lives spent under an oppressive regime. 

Why now? For one thing, it took me a long time to improve my English, and it took me even longer to feel strong enough to relive my past. This does not mean that everything in my Russian life was painful. Some things were so absurd that they were actually funny.

I love the title of the book. Can you tell me how that came about?

I was born six years after WWII ended, and I grew up reading numerous books and watching movies about the war. Their main characters (Soviet soldiers and civilians, for we never cared about the allies) were divided into two categories: those who died for our country – we called them heroes, and those who didn’t – we called them traitors. Yet one thing always bothered me. The heroes, it seemed, had to die to prove their worth, while the traitors had no excuse for what they did – of did not do -- even if their only crime was being captured by the enemy. I was in awe of the heroes, and I hated the traitors. Still, I often wondered if I’d be able to die for my country if circumstances demanded it.

As it turned out I didn’t have to face death to become to a traitor. The first time I was called that was the time when I, then fifteen years old, tried to transfer to another – much better – school, and the person who called me a traitor was the principal of my current school.

Later, when I applied for an exit visa to Israel, which was the only legal way Jews could leave the country in those days, and after I was stripped of my Soviet citizenship, many people called me a traitor – some out of hate and some out of jealousy, since that way out was closed to ethnic Russians.

In any case, I wanted my book to depict the transformation of a naive girl into a young woman who realized that everything she had been told and believed was a lie, and she had to “betray” these false ideas in order to survive.

It's fascinating to read about your time as a Young Pioneer. What do you wish you had known back then that might have helped you?

The way I was then, nothing could have helped me, unless I had been a different person – less bookish, less impressionable and sensitive, less gullible about brainwashing, and, most of all, not Jewish, for in the Soviet Union anti-Semitism wasn’t just a private matter but also a government policy.

To make this policy work smoothly, all Jews had a line, “Nationality -- Jewish" written on all of their documents--school, work, library, and medical records, and, of course, on the most important document of all, our Soviet passports.  Our "Nationality" was always on the fifth line, which made it easy to spot.

When my daughter was born, the first question the nurse asked me after my (rather difficult) delivery was, “Nationality?”-- even before she asked if I had picked a name for my baby.

From your memoir, Soviet Life seems very, very difficult. Do you think much has changed there? 

Well, I never went through a war (my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles did). I wasn’t a victim of Stalin’s purges (many prominent Jews were). I was never arrested by the KGB and sent to a Siberian gulag (my grandfather was). Nothing that dramatic. Yet, I – and millions other people – lived under an oppressive, anti-Semitic, and corrupt regime, cut off from the rest of the world and constantly brainwashed about the superiority of our country. If I had to describe
 my childhood, I would describe it as colorless. It was also stifling.  

As for Russia of today, I haven’t been back since 1990, the year I left Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, accompanied by the hateful glances of its customs officers who had thoroughly searched our belongings but had not found any diamonds hidden in the double bottoms of our suitcases, foreign currency over the allowed amount of $60 per person, or valuable books and documents. (They did strip us of three of our gold-plated teaspoons, proclaiming that “according to government rules” we were allowed to take only one teaspoon per person.)

Yet from what I hear from people who do travel to Russia or from the things I read about my former Motherland, I get the impression that although some of Russian citizens have become much richer, the main traits of the country are, unfortunately, the same. It is still a country where brainwashing is a high art, it is still extremely nationalistic, and it still has no respect for international laws – or any laws for that matter.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or simply follow your pen?  Do you write at the same time every day?

I do not outline. I wouldn't say that I follow my pen either. I follow my stories, for things come to me as stories, which I later need to put together. Also, I am a night person, and no matter how much I’d like to change that, I am never productive before 7 or 8 pm (I have a full-time job, tooJ).

What's obsessing you now and why?

Well, I’m obsessive by nature, so I always have a variety of things to obsess about. Yet if I must prioritize my obsessions, then my book – or its “fate," so to speak – is my number one concern. I spent five years writing this book, so it is important to me to share it with the reading public. And not just because of vanity or financial concerns. I believe that The Education of a Traitor is the most important work I have written or am likely to write in the future. Why? Because, to me, it has historical as well as personal significance. It does not describe the ravages of war or other horrendous events, but it does describe what everyday life was like, at that time, in that place, for millions of people like me who lived in the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. Also, I believe that to understand the Russia of today, people need to learn more about the Russia of yesterday.

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