The former Soviet Republic of Latvia, a small nation with a population less than one-fourth the size of New York City, is almost entirely unknown outside of Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea states. Its literature rarely appears in English, but recent efforts by publisher Peirene Press’s Home in Exile series, an effort to bring contemporary authors from across Europe (and especially, to the west, the lesser-known nations and languages) into English translation has introduced Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk to the Anglophone world. The curiously titled novel is an exploration of the pains of motherhood and depression, and to a lesser extent childhood and life in a nation that’s under the constant pressure of occupation.
Soviet Milk unfolds the environment and ethos of life in Soviet Latvia through the dual stories of mother and daughter, interwoven across time from the moment of their births, until the stories meet in the novel’s present. An unnamed mother and her daughter are at its center, both first-person narrators; there are no chapters, and the story flits between the characters’ perspectives to slowly accrue the atmosphere of family life at the intersection of state and patriarchal oppression. Ikstena’s story seems autofictional both because of the (non-)coincidence of Ikstena being the same age as the daughter would be today, and because the first-person narrative style does such a powerful job of roping the reader into these nameless characters’ realities. Soviet Milk reads less like fiction, the story of others told by another, and more like an experience related by a close friend or a lover about her childhood.
Ikstena’s novel deals primarily with two major themes: motherhood/daughterhood and Latvia/Soviet rule. Both concerns are highlighted by Ikstena’s title, which refers dually to the Soviet “imposition” of milk on schoolchildren like the daughter and to the milk of the mother withheld from her daughter as a result of postpartum depression. In Soviet Latvia (and, Ikstena seems to suggest through vignettes in the mother’s life that occur in Moscow, in the USSR as a whole) milk is the substance of life and family, Sovietness its substrate. Milk nourishes, while the Soviet gives reason and meaning to the body sustained by such nourishment. Yet for the mother, Soviet life is anything but fulfilling, and as a result of her long-term depression her daughter spends childhood both desiring the mother’s affection and afraid of her unpredictable temperament and (occasionally suicidal) mental state. Importantly, the daughter’s narrative puts no blame on the mother, but rather presents her depression and pain matter-of-factly, suggesting it’s a fact of life in Soviet Latvia.
Seen through the eyes of two women whose lives are structured by the state and by Soviet patriarchy, Ikstena’s post-Soviet novel of Latvia figures the Baltic state as an always anti-Soviet nation. Sure, Ikstena’s characters meet with happy Soviet Latvians, such as the grandmother and step-grandfather, but these seem the ideological outsiders when compared to the intensity of the mother’s disgust for Soviet rule. To be clear, the mother is not a Latvian nationalist but her disdain for Communism manifests in her depression and begins to weave narrative arguments about the effects of Soviet life on women. For the mother, a doctor and obstetrician, Soviet men are a burden who impose children on women—an anti-heteropatriarchal argument that rings true to the history of Soviet idolization of the Mother Heroine.
Ikstena’s autofictional history exposes the violence of the Soviet institutionalization of motherhood as a civic duty that was incorporated into the ideological and social structure of Soviet life beyond the demands of patriarchy’s tacit cultural rules; for example, women who bore a certain number of children were inducted into the Order of Maternal Glory and won accolades akin to those of war heroes for providing children and labor for “mother” Russia. The Soviet bureaucratization of the mother inserts itself into the personal lives of mother and daughter in Soviet Milk and causes a dilemma: on the one hand, the novel suggests that motherhood is not a natural extension of womanhood, and should not be considered as such; but on the other hand, it wants to make clear the daughter’s desire for a relationship, one beyond taking care of a suicidal mother whose career was crushed by her ambition conflicting with party politics.
In Soviet Milk, the daughter finds comfort and love in other family members and friends, but there’s still the sense that something is lacking without that relationship with her mother, whereas the mother has few such compunctions and worries only that she will mess up her daughter by being a mother and fulfilling the patriarchal and Soviet roles of motherhood. This is manifest in the motif of milk and the curious adjectival appellation of the title. Milk represents a normalization of maternal instincts at the level of the state, with the state becoming the virtual teat of the schoolchild as they are each “forced” (or, rather, afforded the opportunity for universal milk consumption under communist resource sharing) to drink milk once a day at school; the daughter’s distaste for milk makes her a potentially suspect citizen and bad Soviet, as well as abnormal in the eyes of the state/subject-parent/child relationship square. This relationship is further underscored by the mother’s abandonment of the daughter in the first weeks of her daughter’s life—because she is afraid to share her breast milk, which she believes is rancid.
Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk is an important and touching portrait of motherhood, daughterhood, and mental health in Soviet Latvia, but also a timely meditation in our contemporary moment on patriarchy, the Soviet Union, and possibilities of mother-daughter/female homosocial relationships. It is also beautifully translated by Margita Gailitis, who attends well to Anglophone audiences by occasionally preserving phrases from the Latvian original (especially when songs and political slogans are quoted) and pairing them side-by-side with English translations. Galaitis and Peirene Press have brought an important work of contemporary European literature at the intersection of feminist and post-Soviet writing to a broader audience, and in doing so have introduced a powerful new voice to the English-language readers.