All families are complicated. Those forced to live according to the whims of a totalitarian regime perhaps more so. And those, like mine, where some members of the family flee, leaving the remaining members exposed to unhelpful levels of KG B scrutiny, can be described as completely fucked. The day my parents filed their application to leave the Soviet Union, both of my mother’s parents were forced to resign from their jobs at the pharmaceutical research institutes where they had worked for over twenty-five years. By way of explanation they were posed the following rhetorical question: “How can you be expected to produce good research when you can’t even discipline your own child?” A few years later they joined us in Massachusetts. My father’s family, on the other hand, was left more or less unmolested; Papa’s parents both managed to keep their jobs and seemed to live contentedly enough. But soon bad news began drifting over to us from Ukraine, in letters written on painfully translucent paper and via phone calls from my father’s cousin. A year after we emigrated, my grandfather was forced to retire from his job. Then, in the post-Perestroika years, the family suffered a series of financial setbacks followed by my grandmother’s sudden death from diabetes. Aunt Lyuda blamed Papa’s flight from the Soviet Union for putting them all in peril, and for all of the family’s current problems besides. So they no longer spoke to each other, and Mama, who already used the word idiot as if it were a common pronoun, especially had nothing nice to say about that side of the family.
But family matters aside, Kharkov lacked other kinds of appeal. It didn’t cast a particularly long shadow over world history like the ancient capital of Kiev. Nor was it a beautiful jewel-box city like Lvov. Invariably, the two words people used to describe Kharkov were either industrial or big. Occasionally big and industrial were helpfully combined to yield the illuminating phrase “a big industrial city.” I grew up in a sleepy colonial town west of Boston and had very little experience with big industrial cities. So I pictured Kharkov as an apocalyptic version of Springfield or Worcester, places we drove through from time to time on our way to somewhere more picturesque. And I had to admit, traveling five thousand miles just to visit the Worcester of Ukraine wasn’t the most enticing proposition.
After my grandfather died, the only member of the family who Papa stayed in touch with was the Cousin Who Drinks Water. This was the nickname we gave my father’s cousin Lyonya after he sent Papa a twelve-page letter which began with the question “What is Health?” The answer, it turned out, was water. In particular, salt water. And the letter went on to detail the many benefits of drinking salt water in various unorthodox ways, culminating in the optimally beneficial process of drawing it up through your nose. Lyonya was a loyal proponent of this system and vigorously recommended Papa adopt it for himself. The only drawback, he explained, is that sometimes a loose bit of water might fall out of your face during the course of conversation. A small enough price to pay for immortality.
Papa was greatly amused by the letter and felt the urge to share it with someone, but when it came to letters from Kharkov, Mama was never in a sharing mood. So he called me into his study instead and read it out loud, which is how Lyonya became the Cousin Who Drinks Water. It was a long nickname to be sure, a bit awkward in the mouth, but Papa and I were committed to it. The only other story I ever remembered hearing about Lyonya was after my parents’ sole return to the former Soviet Union in 1990. I asked Papa how it was seeing his cousin again for the first time in almost fifteen years, and Papa replied, “It was great. He stood on his head for us.”
Now, I knew that Papa was very fond of Lyonya, who had supported him through many difficult times back in Kharkov and dutifully passed on the American dollars he sent every month to cover my grandfather’s living expenses. The rather fanciful image of his cousin Papa conjured for me can probably be chalked up to the fact that I was a child at the time. Perhaps he also wanted to somehow lighten my impression of life in Kharkov, which only seemed to run the short gamut from crappy to unbearable. In any case, despite my warped image of the Cousin Who Drinks Water, after my grandfather died, Lyonya was the only person left who could show me the things I wanted to see in Kharkov. And it suddenly occurred to me that he wasn’t getting any younger either.
When I announced that I was planning to visit Kharkov, my normally absentminded father snapped to attention. The first thing he said was “That’s a bad idea,” followed quickly by “Do me a favor and don’t tell Mama.”
But Mama did not react as badly as we thought she would.
“Great!” she yelled, launching into full-throated someone- is-shoving-an-ice-cube-down-my-pants mode. “Now maybe you will finally know what a godforsaken hole we rescued you from!” Mama assured me that I would return from Ukraine and spend the rest of my days showering her with things she liked: marzipan molded into animal shapes, gift certificates to Loehmann’s, et cetera.
For weeks Papa kept trying to dissuade me from going, but when I held firm and even managed to convince Josh, my long-suffering husband, to come along, he grudgingly arranged for a meeting with the Cousin Who Drinks Water. Then, shortly beore we left, Papa also coughed up the following unenthusiastic summary of Places of Family Importance in Kharkov:
The most important place is the house where we lived. The address is Krasnoshkol’naya Naberezhnaya 26, apt. 96. It stands near a rather stinky river called Lopan. You are welcome to take a walk along the bank.
The next destination is Kharkov State University. This is in a very big square. In the middle of the square is a park named after Dzerzhinsky— the founder of the KGB. I skipped many classes reading physics books in this park.
Right next to the university is a park called Sad Shevchenko. The marble statue of Shevchenko (a famous Ukrainian poet) is kind of OK. I studied in this park as well.
From Sad Shevchenko you can get to the zoo and see the sad animals. I had a brief career as a night watchman in the zoo, and a more lasting one guarding a small kiosk in the zoo, called Café Petushok.
And just to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed his point, Papa added a final note: “Even if this sounds like fun, I suspect it won’t be.”
Josh and I arrived by train from Kiev on the Stolichniy Express, seated on a bench of genuine Soviet pleather, nervously squeezing hands when we felt the final jolt signaling our arrival. Then an attendant lowered a metal ladder to the platform, and we stepped down, feet finally firm on warm Kharkov concrete. Blinking back nonexistent tears, I stood there uncertainly, waited for the rush of feeling. But there was nothing. Nothing but this sense of whistling disorientation. Making our way to the station, I stopped to examine the Kharkov city emblem prominently mounted to the wall. It featured wreaths of wheat, bushels of fruit, and, hovering above them both, the symbol for nuclear energy. Radiation and produce, I thought to myself, a combination that screamed an urgent need for rebranding. Once inside, we found the station itself unexpectedly sumptuous. From the soaring ceilings and massive chandeliers, one would think we’d just pulled in to one of the loftier cities of Europe. There was no trace of the cold boot of Soviet oppression. If only my family had lived in the train station, we could have been happy here.
The first practical order of business was to inform my parents we hadn’t been vaporized at the border. Conveniently, we found an internet kiosk right inside the station. The cramped room had three computers lined up against one wall and was presided over by a bulbous woman stuffed behind a desk.
“Can I buy fifteen minutes of internet time?” I asked in Russian.
The woman gave me a sour look. I found myself unable to tear my eyes away from her halo of pinkish-burgundy hair. It looked like one of those fiber-optic lamps you see in the windows of head shops, and I half expected it to start rotating.
“Internet? What internet?” she barked.
I apologized for mistaking her for someone who might help us and we went next door to see if the lady at the dry-cleaning kiosk knew where to find whoever was in charge.
“Wait a minute,” said the dry-cleaning lady, and tore open the side door separating the two rooms.
“Sveta!” she yelled. “For God’s sake, you can’t just pretend you don’t work here whenever the tourists come around.”
Confused by the torrent of Russian, Josh turned to me.
“What was that?” “She was pretending she didn’t work here.”
“Oh,” Josh said. “I’m going to go find a bathroom.”
I was still working on the email when Josh wandered back into the room.
“No one will tell me where the bathroom is.”
“Maybe they can’t understand English?”
“It’s weird,” he said, “I think they understand me fine. They just didn’t want to tell me where it is.”
So we went off in search of the men’s room, and it turned out to be a good thing because I’d forgotten that the ladies’ room would only be marked by an inscrutable Cyrillic letter that looks like nothing so much as a caterpillar trying its best to run away from you.
"The language and dialogue in his latest novel, The Whites, gives away his identity -- and that's a good thing.READ the article