Vladimir Vysotsky, or the “Russian Bob Dylan,” has been dead for almost forty years, but were he still alive on this day, my father’s sixty-seventh birthday, we wouldn’t be playing his music anyway. We would play the music that made us American — Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Neil Diamond — the same music we play now on this television, in this living room, in this beautiful house of my parents’ immigrant dreams. My brothers and I dance uproariously with our children to “Dancing Queen” and “Born in the usa,” and tenderly with our spouses to “Human Nature” and “Heartlight.” As a child I remember dancing with my father to these songs. But back then the parties were in the cramped living room of our tenement apartment near Newark, New Jersey, or in the similar dwellings of other immigrant families we knew. We ate Russian food, for it was the only food the mothers knew how to make, and the men drank vodka, for some habits are too hard to break. But in those early post-immigration years, no one cared to play Russian music or to be otherwise reminded of a past they loathed enough to flee.
Tonight Mom and Dad watch from their separate loveseats, beaming with joy, in a rare peace that has as much to do with wine and vodka as with the frolicking of children and grandchildren. Occasionally they hold the gazes of my two younger brothers, who managed to be born in America and have no memory of the post-immigration chaos that we three endured. I am jealous of how easily they are able to look each other in the eye. For Mom, Dad, and me, eye contact is like an embrace, a tear, or perhaps, one of Vysotsky’s melodies — too intimate. Our eyes are mirrors reflecting truths more easily avoided.
When the dancing is over, Dad switches the channel on the wide-screen TV, and I’m surprised to see that he has turned on a video of the dead musician, looking surreally alive and all-American in his 1970s orange polyester shirt and cream-colored bell-bottoms. But his instrument — a semistrunka (seven-string) acoustic guitar — is traditionally Russian. In the YouTube video, Vysotsky props the guitar on his knee, clears his throat, then suffers a brief fit of smoker’s cough before tuning and strumming. Within seconds, his rolling baritone voice floods the speakers.
This performance of his most famous song, “Capricious Horses” — a metaphor about the swift passing of time toward its inevitable end — was recorded in 1979. Throughout the ballad Vysotsky imagines himself the driver of horses, at first hurrying them on, then pleading with them in the end to slow their gallop. As he performs alone on his stool for the camera, he appears helpless over the twisting of his mouth and tongue, his whole body spasming at each of his own explosive trills. Every one of his syllables pulsates as distinctly as the blue jugular vein on the side of his neck. I’m jealous of the native Russian who can understand him, both literally and viscerally. Understanding the Russian bards is a legacy I have been denied.
For Mom, Dad, and me, eye contact is like an embrace, a tear, or perhaps, one of Vysotsky’s melodies — too intimate.
Vysotsky did not write festive music. His verses demand contemplation. So while the children play together on the living room rug, we crowd my parents on their couches, listening and watching as Vysotsky and his song intertwine, pretending that we understand the reasons why the singer and the song grow wilder with each refrain. Mom and Dad know why, but they won’t talk about it.
I can’t remember the last time I heard “Capricious Horses” before tonight. Perhaps it was in a college Russian language class or, more likely, while I was taking a study-abroad semester in Russia, trying unsuccessfully to reclaim a past I wouldn’t find there. Trapped in various record and cassette tape media — the disembodied voice was immaterial. The words must have dazzled me with their beauty and precision, but they didn’t resonate. How could they, American as I had become?
But tonight is different. Tonight Dad is mesmerized by this singer from his past. He watches the video wordlessly, his eyes wide open and shimmering, his mouth soft. By the distant look of nostalgia on his face, I can see that Dad is on a journey back to a time when Ukraine, our former home, belonged to the Soviet Union. It is a place Dad fled in 1979, the same year this video was filmed, taking me and Mom with him, hoping to never look back. For Dad, the singer must be a mirror too, into a past about which they have kept me in the dark, and so of course has haunted me — like phantom pains from a limb I have no memory of losing but can always feel.
Mom sees Dad totally tuned out to Vysotsky and rolls her eyes. “Oy, Petya,” she says in Russian, “turn it off,” and gives up her place on the couch to retreat to the kitchen. Their dance is a familiar one to me—I grew up watching it. I know by now that Dad sits in silence with feelings, hoping to pulverize them like a boulder crushing soapstone. Mom, on the other hand, fluffs pillows, prepares meals, and washes dishes until beads of sweat dot her hairline, shooing her ghosts with frenetic motion. Then there is Vysotsky, a ghost who tonight has come back to life, singing Mom and Dad into a reluctant remembering.
* * *
Hours later I lie awake beside my husband in my old bedroom, our son and daughter sandwiched between us. The sound of their rhythmic breathing at night usually soothes me to sleep, but tonight it trespasses on my consciousness like the clopping of horses. I try closing my eyes, but instead of darkness I see Dad’s face watching Vysotsky sing — on the verge of tears, helpless over the passing of time.
I have seen Dad cry only twice. The most recent time was at his mother’s funeral in 2016. The first time was thirty-four years before that, in 1982, when he learned that Mom’s infant niece had died of congenital heart failure. Grandma had called him from Mom’s village in Bershad, Ukraine, asking him to deliver the news to Mom. That entire day and into the night they both cried as I looked on in silence. I could taste their tears on my dinner, hear them sobbing throughout the night as I lay on my couch in their bedroom. At five, I understood about death, but my cousin’s death did not terrify me nearly as much as their crying, especially Dad’s. Dad never cried, and neither did I, as often as I might have wanted to. So banned was crying in our family, so punishable, that even death did not seem to me a justifiable reason. By dawn and forever after, the dead baby’s name was never uttered again, as if a second death could somehow erase the first.
So banned was crying in our family, so punishable, that even death did not seem to me a justifiable reason.
Insomnia has won, so I sneak out of the bedroom and down the stairs in search of leftover pie, but I never make it to the kitchen. At the base of the curved staircase, I see Dad and Mom on their couches in the living room. Mom is asleep, an afghan pulled over her head to protect her eyes from the TV’s blue light. Dad is watching a Russian star-studded tribute to Vladimir Vysotsky — two of Russia’s most famous modern pop stars cover “Capricious Horses” as a timeline of Vysotsky headshots rolls across the screen. There is a photo of Vysotsky playing Hamlet, which ran for ten years, closing only when its star died; there is the beautifully tired and frail forty-two-year-old Russian bard, his semistrunka propped on his knee. In the middle of the “Capricious Horses” duet, the camera cuts to the audience, most of whom are in tears. I look down, afraid that if I meet Dad’s eyes I’ll find the same, and I’d be at a loss for what to do. Then it occurs to me, transfixed as Dad is, he might not be aware of me standing behind him.
But when the song is over, Dad looks over his shoulder at me and says, “Every word — it means so much — every single word.” He clicks his tongue, shakes his head from side to side, and rolls his eyes to the ceiling as if looking for the spirit of the dead singer himself. The five-year-old daughter in me wants to run from his strange, awkward vulnerability. But the grown woman wants to stay, to ask, What does every word mean to you? And why won’t you talk about it?
I can’t ask Dad those questions, because I know he believes reminiscing to be impractical and self-important. But I sit on the couch beside him, and I remain there, in silence.
I know well how to disappear so that I can hear things that weren’t intended for my ears. For forty years I’ve been lost in the in-between. Groundless. Rarely do I taste the trills and sharp edges of my first language on my tongue. My sloppy declensions and conjugations can never do it justice. My picture of my family’s Soviet history — like this language I can’t rein in — is a mosaic of half-truths gleaned from nights like these, when too much wine or vodka paired with Mom’s intoxicatingly good Jewish cooking loosens the hinges on the door to their past—tiny wrinkles in time when I make myself small, invisible, so I can listen and remember.
* * *
I was born in Soviet Ukraine in the middle of the Cold War. My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were born and raised there as well. Still, we never identified as “Ukrainian,” for in a Ukraine controlled by Moscow, this would have red-flagged us as separatists — enemies of the state. Calling ourselves “Russian” became a habit of necessity, even in a post-Soviet world, if only for the sake of simplicity. These days I hear Mom use the two almost interchangeably, though I can detect some important nuances. She uses “Russian” to preface some of our culture’s most insidious stereotypes. Typical Russian men from her old village still abuse vodka and beat their wives and children. The Russian mafia terrorizes Ukrainian small businesses. Even in her fondest, most nostalgic childhood memories, we are still not Ukrainian, but rather Jewish — from a Jewish village where everyone knew and took care of one another, like family.
Dad, on the other hand, simply calls us “Americans.”
I parse the word U-kraine, and realize that it translates to “on the edge” or “on the border.” Is this the real reason we turn away from the word — to avoid the instability of borderlands, to feel connected to a place that really exists? To feel grounded?
We three fled the Soviet Union for America in 1979 as Jewish refugees and beneficiaries of Carter’s salt program. It was the middle of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the United States were mortal enemies, threatening to blow each other to smithereens with nuclear weapons. But the United States leveraged its grain for Jews when the USSR failed to produce a sustainable grain crop. Handing out visas in exchange for the implicit promise of American grain, the USSR played with, and preyed on, the hopes of countless Jewish families. A visa and permission were not a guarantee of immigration, but we were pawns who somehow scampered through a capricious crack in the iron curtain.
I can’t ask Dad those questions, because I know he believes reminiscing to be impractical and self-important.
Two decades before that, Dad was practically born a “criminal” in his poor Ukrainian village of Chechelnik. At the age of four, he sold his brand-new leather school boots for candy money. How could he have known at that age that these black market dealings made him a felon? That only the bureaucrats decided who deserved disposable kopeks? I don’t envy Dad having to suffer his mother’s severe spankings or having to squeeze his feet into boots one whole size too small through the arctic winter of that year. By the following spring, he had worn holes the size of his big toes through the front of both boots. But frostbitten toes and a red ass didn’t dissuade him from a life of black market “crime.”
Throughout his childhood, Dad was unstoppable in his pursuit of candy kopeks. A scrawny but scrappy boy, he used to wake early on weekends to be first on the bread lines so he could gofer loaves to his customers at a one-ruble markup. He was also part of a schoolboy posse who managed to secure crates of highly sought-after contraband Bulgarian cigarettes. This was a group of older bullies who, when they swarmed together through the village streets, made little Jewish boys like Dad scatter and hide behind tall grasses or in the old, abandoned barns throughout the impoverished village, like scared kittens. I imagine Dad earned their respect with the same innate cunning salesmanship I observed in him when I was growing up and he was hustling Manhattan for the American Dream. I can see him, like a Dickensian street boy, teaching his young delinquent friends how to haggle the dealers low, hold back inventory from their customers, and sell at a premium.
Digging deeper, I remember a small collection of such stories — Dad as a skinny, bushy-haired boy on the streets of his village, picking up bottles and cans for recycling centers in exchange for a kopek each, stacking watermelons for farmers at the Sunday market, always ensuring that there were just a few cracked ones, which he was allowed to keep. Offering to sweep the market square afterward in exchange for whatever small fortunes might have fallen between the stalls. Scanning dumpsters for animal bones to sell to gardeners, who pulverized them and spread the powder over their garden beds to enrich their soil. It was criminal work according to the Communist government elites, who proselytized against individualism, even as they shopped in their own private, well-stocked stores. It was a time when apparatchiks watched schoolteachers to make sure they were teaching their pupils to spy on parents, to go rummaging through their closets, shoving little fingers into coat pockets, encouraging them to turn in a mother or father over spare change.
Like Dad, Mom rarely speaks of her childhood in Soviet Ukraine, but when she does it is laced with the humor of denial. Describing the poverty in her village, and her neighbors’ subsequent desperation for cash, she recently told me, “Over there, for cash, you could have bought anything. Anyone would’ve sold you their hand or foot, their mother or father, their mother or father’s hand or foot.” She laughed a little when she said it, dismissively waving her hand in front of her face — large and round as a full moon — as if to suggest that I, who might as well be American, could never know such a reality. “Over there, you had to pay to kiss your own mama and papa.” Since childhood I have been gathering all of these tiny, precious slips Mom and Dad sometimes make back into the past, lining them up chronologically in my head. I follow them like Ariadne’s thread, hoping that if I return to the beginning of the maze, I’ll find a clear path forward.
One night, freshly out of his five-year military conscription and in search of a wife, Dad went party-hopping in the adjacent village of Bershad and met Mom. Perhaps more importantly, he also met his partner in crime — her father. Back home, Dad’s black market activities — selling contraband cigarettes, gofering bread, pocketing lost change—would have shamed his family, who, motivated by fear, were loyal Communist Party members. Sooner or later, Dad would have either incriminated his family, or they would have stifled him. But alongside his new father-in-law, Dad learned the art of the black market and his talents burgeoned.
Grandpa, a soda-factory manager, siphoned off leftover sugar at workday’s end to sell on the black market.
Grandpa, a soda-factory manager, siphoned off leftover sugar at workday’s end to sell on the black market. Mom’s family lived a better-than-average life thanks to the margin her father’s activities provided. They had a three-bedroom house and a car (unheard of!) and some money set aside to bribe their children’s way into college (for all Soviet universities had a low Jew quota). A legal job wouldn’t have been enough for such a high standard of living, and the apparatchiks knew it and arrested Grandpa semi-regularly at work, no doubt to make an example of him in front of his colleagues. According to Mom, each time they came for Grandpa, someone from the factory would secretly initiate a chain of messages among the villagers, who showed up at the house to collect rugs, furniture, and valuables, distributing them thinly among the village houses. They were willing to risk their own arrest for Grandpa, who habitually shared his spare change with anyone in need. When the authorities came knocking on the door, Grandma opened it freely, inviting them into her naked house, their baffled anger echoing off its bare walls.
The house in which Dad had grown up, on the other hand, was a Dr. Seussian contraption so old that it leaned to the point of visibly swaying in a strong wind. He and his sisters bathed weekly in boiled water from the village pump, scrubbing every inch of their bodies with kerosene to rid themselves of the stubborn lice, which never left their scalps completely. Dad once described harvesting each nit from his hair and neck out of boredom, popping them between his fingernails. Refusing to abandon his hooliganism, Dad spent winter Sundays paddling on rafts of floating ice down the Savranka River, even falling in a time or two, only to be rescued by a strong-armed friend waving a long stick. At night he huddled under blankets with a lantern, reading government-censored books. He knew that Grandma’s punishment for these transgressions would be a thrashing, which he incurred the few times he got caught. But even that didn’t stop him. Two years ago, at Grandma’s funeral, he spoke nostalgically, even humorously, about her legendary beatings to the awkward silence of shocked mourners. “I deserved them,” he said through tears, his hands clenching either side of the lectern for support. “I was a handful. A real pain in the tuchas.” He betrays no resentment toward a mother who survived the Holocaust and then, after World War ii, managed to feed her children during a nationwide famine. I am jealous of the grace he has for her — a grace I remain unable to access. Still, her beatings often make their way into his stories.
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I turn these tales over in my head now, as I watch Dad’s face bathed in the television’s blue light. I realize suddenly that I have always transposed the image of my younger father over the aging one. For me, my father has always been frozen in time as the young twenty-something from my childhood and adolescence, wearing his hair in a fro, his torso sinewy and concave, his face carved from stone. And always when he is near, I become a bumbling, wordless five-year-old with the girl version of his wild, unruly hair. We two together, a young dad and his small daughter, in suspended animation.
But watching the nostalgic look on his face as he takes in Vysotsky singing about time racing by like the draft of a troika, I can admit to myself for the first time that Dad is getting old. I can see that his glorious fro has been replaced by a silver, downy fluff, and the once concave belly is inflated from decades of imbibing wine and vodka and enjoying Mom’s enormous Jewish portions. My daughter-eyes try hard not to see this new, weighty man with wrinkles and hillocky shoulders. There was a time when, if you told me you saw Dad soaring through the sky on nothing but air, I’d have required no proof whatsoever to believe you. But then again, here is his face in this moment — soft, sad, vulnerable — easier to love than a face made of stone.
* * *
Vysotsky was twelve years older than Dad. He died before his forty-third birthday in the middle of the 1980 Summer Olympics, which was hosted by Moscow and therefore boycotted or protested by the entire Western world. Hosting was a great source of pride for Brezhnev, and perhaps the Communist Party’s greatest exercise in propaganda since the Bolshevik uprising. Reporters were forbidden by authorities to publicize Vysotsky’s funeral, but on that day, thousands of Russians fled the Olympic stadiums, and over a million flooded the street in front of the Taganka Theater, where his body was laid out for viewing. For Vysotsky, even death was an act of protest — a final “fuck you” to the Communist government.
Vysotsky was born in 1938, on the brink of World War ii. He was seven by the time the war ended, old enough to observe and remember the period of reconstruction during which Stalin used the war to justify his brutal era of despotism. His policies divested from agriculture and staples, funneling government money toward militarization, steel production, and expansion of Soviet control over Eastern Europe. Stalin’s regime rationed agriculture in favor of party elites. Peasant farmers and their families perished trying to feed the nation, literally starved by their government’s demand to do more with less. The countryside was strewn with millions of bony corpses — horse, livestock, and human. Millions more were sent to gulags for “protesting” at a time when Stalin’s definition of “protest” included being late for work, telling a joke about the Communist Party, “stealing” a few stray potatoes from the field to feed your starving children, or betraying any fondness for the West. Anyone who had ever traveled to the West for any reason, even on government business, was shadowed day and night by apparatchiks.
For Jews, it was as if the Holocaust had never ended. “It’s a shame,” Dad said to me once, after Grandma’s funeral, on a rare night like tonight, when grief and wine had weakened his armor. “People back then — people like Mom, in the prime of their lives — had to starve or die. So much suffering.” He hasn’t mentioned Grandma since, as if his pain were a subject every bit as banned as one of Vysotsky’s songs.
For Vysotsky, even death was an act of protest — a final “fuck you” to the Communist government.
Vysotsky came of age during Premier Khrushchev’s post-Stalin “thaw,” when subversion was still a crime, but not necessarily one that could get you killed. When Dad was a boy running through the streets of his shtetl, secretly committing his own early crimes against the state, Vysotsky was writing and performing his very first ballads, collectively called “outlaw songs.” He wrote them in first person, portraying the lives of citizens driven to “crime” by Stalin’s post-war regime. Using precise metaphor and symbolism to portray his protagonists, Vysotsky fictionalized only on the surface. Below the surface, his words were hymns of protest that screamed for a nation in pain. He was singing Dad’s life, belting out my family’s history.
Though banned from pursuing an official recording deal in the Soviet Union, Vysotsky managed to become the most recorded musician in Russian history by singing directly to the Russian people without straining his words into pulp through the filter of government bureaucracy. His records could not be purchased legally, yet his guttural refrains boomed day and night from almost every apartment window on the streets of Moscow. Everyone wanted to hear him scream his elongated trills and severed syllables, shedding light on the lives of real Russians — people like Dad living in falling-down houses, secretly hustling extra kopeks.
Deprived people are resourceful. Russians recorded Vysotsky at his underground concerts, where they, too, committed high crimes by producing improvised records on X-ray film. These “records on bone” were distributed as contraband, passed from hand to hand worldwide. Some of them can be viewed today as artifacts behind glass cases at the Vysotsky Museum in Moscow. They’re worn with holes from overplaying. If you look closely, you can just make out the phantom ribs and femurs.
* * *
It is close to midnight when Dad finds the original video he played for us earlier — the one of Vysotsky singing “Capricious Horses” with the semistrunka. Except for the sinewy frame they both had as young men, and the fact that women thought them both handsome, there’s no physical resemblance between the two men. But watching Dad’s face melt to “Capricious Horses” from the vantage point of my place at his feet, I begin to understand why my consciousness can’t separate the two. I hear Vysotsky sing like a wild wolf in captivity, as if trying to howl free from his muzzle, and I realize that Dad, too, resists taming. I feel that the singer is screaming my real father into being — not this father on the couch, but the boy I know is still in him — the hustler, the Dickensian troublemaker, or the Russian Huck Finn paddling his ice raft with a tree branch. The father I never got the chance to know.
Though banned from pursuing an official recording deal in the Soviet Union, Vysotsky managed to become the most recorded musician in Russian history by singing directly to the Russian people without straining his words into pulp through the filter of government bureaucracy.
The only childhood picture of Dad that exists is a black-and-white from 1953, the year after he was born. He is a skinny infant whose cheeks are somehow swollen like a chipmunk’s. He appears to be drowning in abrasive woolen hand-me-downs, and considerable efforts have clearly been made to tame his hair. The next photograph on the timeline is a black-and-white shot of Dad at twenty in the Red Army, the very last thing my staunchly anti-Communist father would have chosen if not for the fact that it was the only way for a Jew with no bribe money to get something like a college education. In the photo, he and an army buddy are play-wrestling, shirtless and covered in mud, their ribs and sharp muscles threatening to burst forth from their hairless skin. It appears to be one of the carefree moments he enjoyed only in his youth, and I imagine that this is the way Dad might have looked (only smaller) as a boy running through the streets of his village, making trouble to earn his keep, smiling his chipmunk smile. Enviously wild, and happy.
There aren’t any more happy photographs of Dad after the army picture. His expressions thereafter are stoic and distant, with dull eyes and forced smiles. As a twenty-five-year-old first-time father, he holds me on his hip, or stands with a hand on my pram, straining a smile to barely disguise his gloom. I know this because of the army picture, and because the gloom I see in these early photos is the gloom I remember from childhood. All my life I have taken these expressions personally — these looks of forced contentment or, worse, overt depression. I believed they were a reflection of his disappointment in the underachieving child that I was, the thoroughly un-American woman I had become. But as I listen to Vysotsky sing my family’s history, I understand that they represent a father who, if anything, loved too much. I understand how the initiation into fatherhood in a post-Stalinist regime might cause one to confuse love with terror. How helpless Dad must have felt in his responsibility to raise a daughter in such a regime, all that love and terror like a ringmaster’s whip, beating the joy and wildness right out of the boy, making him a man.
Sitting at Dad’s feet on the couch, watching as Vysotsky’s verses hypnotize him, I remember a rare moment of candor between me and Dad a few years after our immigration to the United States. I was about six, Dad thirty-one. I lay on our secondhand plaid couch in the living room of our apartment, while Dad sat on the peeling laminate floor beside my head. We watched evening soaps together — Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Knots Landing — so Dad could give me a play-by-play rundown of the traits that made these characters all-American. He leaned in, close to my head, waved his thick index finger at the television, and said, “That man smart, that man a little sneaky. All the men do good in school — that’s why they rich.” He never made exemplars of the women, for most of them were unemployed trophy wives, completely dependent on their husbands’ wealth. He said that I was never to become like these women, because if I did, then what would it all have been for anyway? All the risk and hardship it took to get me here?
These lessons in front of the television were my introduction to feminism, even though Dad — a proud Republican — would never admit it. He explained that, in Russia, a woman was “even less than nothing,” that poverty and oppression drove girls into marriages with older men, alcoholics who used their young wives’ naïveté and financial dependence as justification to enslave and abuse them. Some of my earliest memories are of Dad haunted by phantoms from his own history, ghosts he spoke of only in cautionary tales. War, dictatorship, starvation, crime, drunkenness, abuse, plotted backward on a timeline of Soviet oppression, like opening the layers of a distressed matryoshka doll and finding the smallest one as wounded as the largest. It is no wonder that expectant fathers in Russia prayed for sons, and why their ill-fated daughters brought turmoil to their eyes.
There aren’t any more happy photographs of Dad after the army picture.
Since overseas travel was forbidden for Soviet citizens, Mom and Dad harbored no hope of ever leaving. Dad’s plan was to transplant us from the shtetl sticks to the coastal city of Odessa, Ukraine’s Jewel of the Black Sea, decked out in cobblestone, ornate museums and colleges. There he would find an apartment and some legitimate factory-type work, and continue honing his capitalist skills on the black market. Then, in 1979, Carter and Brezhnev met in Vienna to sign the salt-ii treaty. Three weeks later, Dad had secured our immigration visas, and just like that, we were enemies of the state.
* * *
An enemy of the Soviet Union walked with the softest of footfalls through the streets of his neighborhood alone. He no longer had friends, family, or a job, because those who might claim him were accessories to crime. Still, would-be émigrés required permission from a head of household, which was Dad’s father-in-law, my grandfather. Dad begged him to sign off on our visas, knowing Grandpa would be incriminating himself in the process. Grandpa had been the wealthiest, most influential Jew in their village, but signing our visa documents would change all that. Recently, when I asked Mom why he did it, she said that Grandpa thought it was a joke because leaving the Soviet Union was unheard of. According to Mom, Grandpa believed his signatures would never be seen.
But I don’t believe her.
In Bershad, Dad became Grandpa’s protégé, leaving his amateur skills behind and learning how to buy and sell on the black market like a pro. Grandpa took him on all of his side-hustles, gaining him a coveted membership on the inside of a vast underground network of black-marketeers. He wasn’t naive. He saw Dad’s potential and knew his abilities would be wasted within Soviet borders. Grandpa, who never fit Dad’s stereotype of a Russian man, was also making sure that his daughter would be provided for, even at his own expense.
Aware of the repercussions of his treachery, Grandpa had the rest of the family’s visas in hand within months of our leaving. But before they could pack and sell their things, the Soviet-Afghan war broke out and their visas were revoked. For an enemy of the state, anywhere in the Soviet Union might as well have been prison. Grandpa and Grandma lost everything. The government repossessed their family home, which was supposedly bulldozed to make room for a school — a school that never got built. Grandpa spent three nights in jail, enough time for the authorities to track and confiscate all of his family’s valuables. “When you had a visa, you hightailed it out of there,” I heard Dad say once in the more fluent English of his latter years, when he finally had control of his idioms. “You were in a hurry because you just didn’t exist anymore. You were like a ghost walking around in the street. A nobody.” But it was ten years before the war with Afghanistan would end, allowing the rest of Mom’s family safe passage to the United States. Ten years for this man — once venerated by all — to walk the streets of his village invisible, a phantom.
* * *
Families of émigrés whispered rumors that even a job digging ditches in America was better than any life the Soviet Union could offer. I’ll never know, for I have no memories, only photographs, from my infant and toddler years in Ukraine. In the earliest one, I am four months old on my belly — naked and very fat — pushing up onto my forearms on a plush, Afghan rug. Someone somehow got me to look directly into the camera lens. In these black-and-whites from the late seventies, I become progressively fatter, happier. There are several family photos, always someone else available to get behind the camera and snap the shot — a grandma, grandpa, auntie, cousin, or neighbor. My favorite photo is the one where I am pressed in between Dad and Mom. The three of us are dressed in fine winter furs from head to toe, no doubt procured by Grandpa. Mom and Dad are smiling. We look rather well, maybe even happy.
And then I am three, and we are here, in the land of gold streets and easy ditches. But Elizabeth, New Jersey, doesn’t look like the America Dad imagined. The early immigrant photographs tell a different story. They are disorderly, chaotic, taken at weird angles. Dad and I standing together — he in his fro, bell-bottoms, and “wifebeater” tank top — my wild, bushy-haired head at his hip. The camera angle makes it look as if we are about to slide right off the diagonal lawn on which we stand. Another is of me alone in a booth at Burger King, grimacing at the chicken nuggets, fries, and milkshake either Mom or Dad is forcing me to finish — a meal any American kid my age would envy. Apparently I begged for black caviar, a black market delicacy that appeared regularly on the kitchen table at Grandpa’s house in Bershad, but not here. Here, we could have attained it legally, had we been able to afford it.
An enemy of the Soviet Union no longer had friends, family, or a job, because those who might claim him were accessories to crime.
A Soviet citizen could only dream up fictional scenarios for the forbidden paradises they were never permitted to visit. I wonder what kind of life Dad imagined to find here in America, or whether his youth combined with the rumors from abroad might have given him the notion that a family of Soviet-Jewish refugees with no English or college education could assimilate easily here. Never in my eavesdropping on Dad’s vodka- or wine-induced stories did I discover the answer to this. As a child, I could not ask such a question without also insinuating that he was stupid and naive. I would have risked the infamous Russian-dad cuffing, which I spent almost all of my energy in childhood trying to avoid. Thinking back on our ten years in Elizabeth, I’m not sure which one of us worked harder. Was it Dad, trying to run away from a life of poverty, welfare dependence, and his own Russianness? Or was it me, trying to run away from Dad? But in the end, some spark of wildness inside both of us went out for good.
* * *
I watched Mom and Dad spend the eighties pounding the pavement made of grime instead of gold to earn our keep. Dad cobbled together our subsistence living with early-morning paper routes, daytime conveyor belt operations in a factory, and nighttime package-delivery work, catching an hour or two of sleep in between shifts. He worked evenings and weekends to avoid relying on food stamps and government “handouts,” of which he was ashamed. “Nothing is for free in America,” he would say. “If I don’t earn it, I don’t want it.” Meanwhile Mom — once the Jewish debutante of her Ukrainian village, now disheveled, obese, and wearing pants from the sale rack at Daffy Dan’s — struggled and sweat to earn the family’s fourth source of income. She tried her hand at running a small Russian corner store in our neighborhood, and when that proved unprofitable (no one wanted to be spotted shopping for enemy goods in Cold War America), she waxed eyebrows and painted toenails at a salon. Too often, her parenting obligations made her an unreliable employee, and she would be let go. When I was five, Mom taught me to memorize her work number and 911 so she could drop me at home after school and leave me there alone. She’d point me to the couch, hand me a tuna fish sandwich on Wonder Bread, and lock me up like cash in a vault behind the three deadbolts on our front door, with only my dolls for company. “Don’t open the door for anyone,” she’d say before turning the deadbolts. “I have key.” Then she’d vanish to finish her shift. It was a childhood neither Dad nor Mom would have envied—not even in Jew-hating, Communist Ukraine. Their parenting was a gamble—a hope that the ends would justify the means. Nights and weekends, I watched in silence as my family’s drama of immigrant survival played out before my eyes, tiptoeing softly around my young parents made mercurial by anxiety and exhaustion. A child of refugees in America, land of the free, walking on broken glass with the softest of footfalls, hoping not to get hurt.
In our tenement apartment, which was a sort of limbo between Soviet oppression and American redemption, my bedroom was sandwiched between the bathroom and kitchen, both teeming with cockroaches. In the middle of the night, I learned to make noise and listen for the crunches and squeaks of their scattering before turning on the kitchen or bathroom lights. Cockroaches have been known to bite humans, but prefer to harvest eyelashes and fingernail flakes. For years my bedroom somehow escaped infestation, until early one morning I awoke to about a half dozen of these brown-armored pests marching their way upward on my white blanket, their feelers aimed right at my eyes. When I screamed, Mom ran in and rescued me from the terrifying little insect army. After she made up the couch for me in her bedroom, we both sat on the plaid sofa in the living room and cried into our palms.
I wonder what kind of life Dad imagined to find here in America.
During one of our recent family gatherings, I asked Mom to help me recount for us all our Newark-tenement cockroach situation. I didn’t get very far before Mom cut me off. “That never happened,” she said with an angry edge to her voice. “We had roaches once, I called the super, and he took care of the problem for good.” Then she laughed, nervously, it seemed to me, but also to underscore my unreliability. Fastidious Mom — who whisks the plates out from under our forks before we can finish our last bite, who waits outside the bathroom door for the sound of the flush, armed with a toilet scrub brush — is ashamed of all she has ever had to endure that was beyond her control. Mom, who believes she can avoid feeling like a victim by erasing her past, but in doing so, forgets that she — like all her ancestors — is a survivor.
Poverty and deprivation were hard on my parents, who, thanks to Grandma and Grandpa’s kindness and resourcefulness, had been as privileged as two Jews could have ever hoped to be in Soviet Ukraine. But a shithole apartment with a cockroach infestation and a steady diet of cheap fast food were all I had ever known and all I would ever know until adolescence, when Mom and Dad were finally able to extract us from poverty. For me, that was not the hardest part. The hardest part was the silence — thick as fog, loud as war. There are families who thrive in hardship, who find that enduring adversity together somehow thickens the mortar that binds them like bricks in a fort. People grounded in their shared histories, with the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom to stockpile memories. I watch Dad on the couch as he inhales Vysotsky’s words like oxygen, and I know that we are slowly becoming such a family. We are gathering around tables on holidays and special occasions, making Mom and Dad tell us who we are in any way they can, even if the best that they can do is to share with us the songs of a dead Russian balladeer. We are becoming a family with a history, a legacy. But that wasn’t us in Elizabeth. How could it have been, desperate as we were back then to die and be reborn?
* * *
To become American in the 1980s, you could leave no trace of your former self, especially an enemy self. I remember well the reductive caricatures our frightened community of expat Soviet Jews created to explain our new neighbors in Elizabeth. Asians were good with numbers and destined to be rich scientists, Italians were cultured and made delicious food, and Mexicans were industrious because they could work long shifts of menial labor. And Puerto Ricans — we were to stay away from them at all costs. We even caricatured ourselves as we imagined legit Americans would see us — our accents and stern faces would surely give us away. We were spies sent here to steal government secrets, black-marketeers hustling for extra cash. All of us un-American — novelties or enemies, but never people. Separated and sorted by color, then by native tongue, like bottles of juice in the same cooler, each flavor grouped together in a neat row on its own rack. And then there was milk, in gallon jugs, creamy and white, with an entire cooler all to itself. All of the people with money and power on television, from soaps to commercials, had one thing in common — they were wasps. Too green, scared, and jealous to see this for what it was — a mass-market illusion — we proceeded to scrub and erase the Russian from our bodies, brains, and hearts, inside and out. We believed that by homogenizing ourselves in this way, we could become real Americans, blind to the fact that nothing is more American than a refugee, a pilgrim.
Mom, who believes she can avoid feeling like a victim by erasing her past, but in doing so, forgets that she — like all her ancestors — is a survivor.
How hard Mom and Dad worked to lose their accents, to make their Slavic mouths put the h’s and w’s — sounds that didn’t exist in Russian — where they belonged. How carefully they made room for Americans on buses and trains — better to stand and trip at every stop than take the only seat available — having learned how much Americans valued their personal space. To say “please” and “thank you” with words, and at an arm’s distance, when those words in Russian fell out of use for them long ago. In their villages, where openly giving of one’s self to another could be costly — quite literally a matter of life and death — words were not enough. Please and thank you lived in the body — on the eyes, in the kisses, the embraces. How quiet we three were for a decade, trying to forget the mother tongue, to replace her with the softer one, the better one, the Anglo one. There were no lullabies, no nursery rhymes or children’s books, for the only ones we knew were forbidden. There was the constant drone of television English, eighties pop-music English, but among us three there was only silence. I started first grade with the English of a toddler. In Russian years, I was five. In American years, two.
The thing is, my immigrant parents did not understand failure. In the Soviet Union, academic distinction was a direct route to obtaining a good government job and an apartment — with a whole other separate bedroom. As immigrants in America, my parents believed it to be a direct route to staying alive. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the benevolent organization that brought us here, also helped us secure a scholarship for me to attend a Yeshiva elementary school, and because she could not pay for childcare, Mom sent me a year early. She thought she was saving me from too many afternoons locked up alone in our apartment — and saving herself from the guilt of it. The scholarship was also an opportunity to attend school with white children of means instead of getting mixed up with the “wrong kinds” of kids in the urban public school. I was to remain Russian only in ways that served our family’s interests. Academic genius was surely my birthright.
We believed that by homogenizing ourselves in this way, we could become real Americans, blind to the fact that nothing is more American than a refugee, a pilgrim.
Then, in 1982, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. A misdiagnosis, but the best they could do for a kid like me — an awkward, foreign, introverted kid who’d started school a year too early. A kid with the English of a toddler, expected to learn English and Hebrew alongside classmates who were a year older and raised on a steady diet of languages, literature, and privilege. We didn’t understand the diagnosis, but the teachers made it sound a lot like failure. The treatment was to forego art and music classes for extra reading help in a long beige trailer behind the school building and to attend summer school. I was different, low-achieving, anathema to our mission here. And, like most children of Soviet immigrants, I was punished for it. Who knew, maybe the laziness and stupidity could be slapped out of the girl. Maybe she could be forced to sit at the card table in the cockroach kitchen every evening, poring over mimeographed worksheets she couldn’t read. Maybe she could somehow be isolated and humiliated into assimilation. When that didn’t work, the teachers prescribed television.
Not long after the dyslexia diagnosis, Dad came home from work with a used Zenith framed in a fake wood case, dropped it against the far wall of our living room — blocking the light from the only windows — and installed tinfoil bunny ears. Suddenly, I had no use for the plaid couch anymore, taking my seat on the rug, so close that my pupils shone with the tv’s blue light. The picture we painted together — my new best friend and I — looked like the movie poster for Poltergeist. For Mom and Dad, television held the promise of acquiring language and becoming American. To me, it meant I was no longer alone. Too weird and introverted to have American friends, and too Russian to befriend other Russians, who were also steering clear of us, I made my closest friendships with the kids on television. Laura Ingalls was my best friend, though I was jealous that she got to be poor on the prairie, still able to ramble through wildflowers alone, not stuck in an apartment she could never leave unsupervised. And her Ma and Pa and all the conversations they shared — I envied her that the most. Punky Brewster and Samantha Micelli were my fashion consultants, obviously, and Alex P. Keaton was my crush. In the evenings Barbara Walters reported on Nancy Reagan’s war on drugs and the aids crisis, while the Ewings, Colbys, and Carringtons showed us what gold-paved streets were really like for some lucky few, who were nothing like us, but like whom we longed to be. Our teachers. Our family.
Hard as we tried to run from our Russianness, it always caught up to us, finding us in our weakest moments — etched in our bones. Our Russianness found us in car dealerships, like the time Dad had to save all that money in cash to buy his dream car, the Chevy Caprice Classic, because he hadn’t built up his credit yet. But the seersucker-clad salesman heard Dad speak and started making up taxes, fees, and surcharges. Dad knew this because, days earlier, an American coworker had bought the same car from the same dealership at a fraction of the cost. Dad left the dealership red-faced, his wad of cash in his back pocket, pumping his fist and shouting, “I’m not stupid just because I have accent!”
It found us at the pediatrician’s office, when my American doctor subjected me to the same tuberculosis screening and treatment cycle year after year — gouging my forearm with a needle, measuring the area of swelling, telling Mom she thought I might have contracted tb from our dirty, cramped living conditions, prescribing X-rays and antibiotics — only to repeat the cycle for years before she bothered to examine my deltoid, where she found the scar from my tb vaccination. “Wow, I didn’t know they still did that in Russia,” she said. “It’s not much of a risk for American children.”
For Mom and Dad, television held the promise of acquiring language and becoming American.
It found us at the dentist’s when I was eight, and I lay reclined in a chair, staring into the masked face of a man I still call “the Butcher.” Because we, like many immigrants, didn’t have dental insurance, Mom got the name of a Russian “dentist” on Brighton Beach Avenue, or “Little Russia,” who would fill a cavity in his apartment “under the table, for cheap.” Before Mom or I knew what was happening, he came at my molar with his pliers, twisting and tugging as I screamed in pain in between gagging on pools of my bloody saliva. “What are you doing?” Mom shouted over my primal screams. And then the Butcher was shoving a gag of gauze into my mouth, shouting back at Mom, “It’s baby tooth! Cheaper to take out, and even cheaper with no novocaine!” As luck would have it, the tooth had been a permanent six-year molar. Thirty-four years later, the gap still remains — a smooth, clean little valley in my gums I prod with the tip of my tongue. My nervous tic, to fill awkward silences.
And, always, it found me in school, among my tribe of Jewish kids, where Mom and Dad were satisfied that I was tucked safely away from the city riffraff. It found me when I returned from the bathroom to find wads of chewing gum under my desk or messages scribbled on my book covers — Commie go home, Bazooka-shooter, Stupid Sputnik — in red ink. Always in red. It found me ducking into bathroom stalls and empty classrooms when I heard kids screaming from down the hall — “Here comes Stupid Sputnik!” Didn’t they know we were Americans now? Didn’t they know how badly we wanted to be like them? Didn’t they know I had no more Russian? Not a single word. Not even a trill.
* * *
Vladimir Vysotsky wasn’t proud of his demons, but he didn’t try to hide them behind a veneer of perfection. He was a workaholic, an adulterer, and a loving but absentee parent to his two children, who describe him as a “Sunday Father.” Like many of his fellow oppressed Russians, he became addicted to alcohol and cigarettes until both destroyed his organs. To cope with that pain, he became addicted to morphine. In America we worship perfection, but in Russia, it was Vysotsky’s imperfections that made it easier for people to internalize his words, to look into his eyes, and to see themselves reflected back. The Russians called him a svoi, “one of us.” The more flawed Vysotsky was, the more his people worshipped him.
In America we worship perfection, but in Russia, it was Vysotsky’s imperfections that made it easier for people to look into his eyes, and to see themselves reflected back.
I once heard a close friend and devotee of Buddhism say, “Whatever you run from follows you.” When I think about that aphorism, I think about Vysotsky and how, in the end, he never left Russia. I think about all of the invitations to defect he never took. Wouldn’t it have been a mercy to bring his wife and sons to America, where he could have used his celebrity connections to circumnavigate the poverty, pavement-pounding, and identity crisis most of us had to endure to make a life here? But for Vysotsky, that wasn’t the point. The point was that in Cold War America, even famous musicians, even anti-Communist ones, had to sever themselves from their Russian pasts. Here, an immigrant channeling David Cassidy in image and Bob Dylan in verse might still achieve stardom, but without surrendering the Russianness that made him Vladimir Vysotsky, he would never be “one of us.”
The heart attack that finally took Vysotsky’s life is widely believed to have been induced by alcoholism, drug abuse, and the pressures of making honest and authentic art in a regime whose very mission was to suppress honesty and authenticity. There are those who believe defecting to America would have saved his life. If so, he would be eighty-one this year. Could he, too, be living in a lovely colonial among other successful people in a suburb of New York City? Could he, too, be enjoying the company of children and grandchildren who traveled there to celebrate his birth? Could he have become American and remained Vladimir Vysotsky?
* * *
In our living room, Vysotsky is no longer crooning on the television. Dad has fallen asleep with the remote in his hand. I sneak away, leaving my parents lying on their sofas. Upstairs in bed, I continue to suffer from sleeplessness, unable to forget the longing on Dad’s face over “Capricious Horses.” Then it hits me, why I’m so obsessed over his obsession. It’s because we’ve run from the past for so long that I barely recognized the look I saw on his face tonight — the look of someone who is finally letting the past back in.
I look at my husband sound asleep, most of his body buried underneath my son’s gangly limbs. I hug my daughter closer to me. She is almost four; her small body still tucks snugly between my chin and knees. I am happy to be awake in these quiet hours, inhaling the coconut-shampoo scent of my daughter’s soft red curls, watching my son’s belly rise and fall in the moonlight that slips around the edges of the window shades. There is a phrase that Russians sometimes use to describe the bittersweet feeling that comes with enjoying a privilege denied to others — “I envy myself.” I envy that this is a peace that my parents and I have never shared.
I could tell a different story — a safer one — about a perfect assimilation. We arrived, worked hard, pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps without tumbling headfirst to the ground. We shed our Soviet-Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish skins and became American. And we did. But that story alone would be fiction.
Tali Perch is a memoirist and an essayist who enjoys writing about parenting, feminism, cultural anthropology, and her childhood as a Soviet-Jewish refugee. An MFA candidate in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Perch’s work has been published in Sweet: A Literary Confection, Under The Gum Tree, and elsewhere. Currently, She is working on a memoir about the assimilation challenges she and her parents faced as Soviet-Jewish immigrants to the United States in the eighties.
This essay also appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Colorado Review, the quarterly print journal published by the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University.
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