Excerpted from You Must Go and Win by Alina Simone, published June 2011 by Faber & Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2011 by Alina Simone. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Komsomol Truth
In late September 2008, I received an email from one ELMON- STRO with the subject line “Hello, Alina! Kharkov on the Line!” ELMONSTRO’s real name, it turned out, was Kiril, and he was a journalist for the Kharkov bureau of the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, which he translated for me as “Komsomol True.” He had learned that I was born in Kharkov and wanted to interview me about my new album, a collection of songs covering the Soviet punk singer Yanka Dyagileva. “If will please you,” Kiril wrote, “reveal to us all news about your creation.”
It was the first time that anyone from the Ukrainian city where I was born had ever taken an interest in my music, and I was surprised. A little touched, even. My family had left the Soviet Union as political refugees when I was too young to remember, but sometimes I felt it anyway: a Kharkov-shaped hole in my heart. Not to mention that the motherland had come calling when I was feeling particularly homeless, having just moved from North Carolina to a temporary sublet in Brooklyn. My new apartment occupied the top floor of an old brownstone that was badly in need of repair. The closet doors were lying in a heap on the floor when I arrived, and there were holes the size of hand grenades beneath the rotted windowsills. Spinning the hot water tap in the shower felt like placing an outside bet on a roulette wheel. And the water didn’t emerge from the showerhead so much as the wall, like it was some kind of life-giving rock. I would press myself against the runoff in the mornings, before the tiles could suck away what little remained of its warmth. It was the kind of place that made you think too much about your station in life, your dimming prospects. If nothing else, I figured, an interview with “Komsomol True” could serve as a pleasant distraction from speed-dialing the three phone numbers my landlady had given me for her possibly imaginary handyman.
We left Kharkov because my father was blacklisted by the KGB, but whenever I asked why, Papa always replied that he’d never know for sure. Did I think he just received a form letter in the mail one day on KG B stationery that began “We regret to inform you…” and ended with a neat summary of his transgressions? If provoked further, he’d always end up demurring, “Don’t make me out to be some kind of dissident freedom fighter,” then retreat to a yellow legal pad full of equations. He refused to romanticize our flight from the Soviet Union, to let me imagine it as some kind of action-adventure movie from the eighties. It’s not like I ever slayed a Stormtrooper, his warning glance seemed to say, or breakdanced my way to freedom.
Papa did admit, however, that it probably had something to do with turning the KGB down when they made him a recruitment offer in college. In any case, it was soon afterward that bad things insisted on happening to my family. My father’s military health exemption (he’d had polio as a child) was revoked without warning and instead of serving in the officer corps, like most college graduates, he was sent off to work in the notoriously brutal building brigades of the Soviet army, alongside violent criminals. My mother was forced to quit her job and was mysteriously unable to find work, despite graduating with top honors from the state university. Unemployment was officially illegal, but she stayed home with me in the flat we shared with my father’s parents and sister while Papa drifted through a string of menial jobs, rarely lasting long at any of them.
You wouldn’t know it from looking at my family now, though. Within two years of leaving the Soviet Union, my father had his PhD in physics and a job at a good university. My mother, like most Russian immigrants, found work doing something with computers that I didn’t understand. And despite having just completed a thoroughly money-losing tour of the United States, even I had distinguished myself enough as a singer to merit an interview request from a newspaper in Kharkov. Thinking that this called for a self-congratulatory moment, I forwarded the message to my parents. I didn’t bother including a note, but the subtext was clear.
From my parents— usually quick with the email— there was a suspicious silence. A few hours later, my phone rang.
“I had no idea that rag still existed,” my mother said as soon as I picked up the phone. “You realize that was the official Communist newspaper?”
I knew that Komsomol was the abbreviated name for the youth division of the Communist Party and had to admit that it did sound pretty retro. But I was still willing to give Kiril the benefit of the doubt.
“Well, it’s a brand, after all— maybe they just didn’t want to give up on a solid brand after investing so much in it during Soviet times?”
“Are you seriously considering doing this interview?”
I hadn’t even considered not considering it. And why did Mama always have to act like someone just dropped an ice cube down her pants?
“Of course,” I answered.
And then my mother gave a very Russian kind of snort that could roughly be translated as “This is unbelievable and you are an idiot,” and hung up the phone.
For the rest of the day, I waited for some word from my father, but finally overcome with impatience, I decided to give him a call, just to make sure he’d gotten the message. When I reached him, he sounded a little surprised.
“From Kharkov! The one from Komsomolskaya Pravda.”
“Mmm. I think I remember something about that.”
“Well,” my father said, with a tiny chuckle, “I guess it is interesting.” He seemed to draw some amusement from the situation, albeit from a very great distance, as though something mildly droll had just happened to an acquaintance on a planet in a parallel universe.