Novel Grapples with Truth and Lies in Stalin’s Russia

Ridgewood author Elena Gorokhova's debut novel, "A Train to Moscow," traces the life of an actress seeking refuge in fictional characters.

The cover of Elena Gorokhova's debut novel, "A Train to Moscow."
Elena Gorokhova's debut novel, A Train to Moscow, is out now.

Growing up in Stalin’s Russia, lies infected every corner of life. For Sasha, the central character in A Train to Moscow, becoming an actress and transforming herself into fictional characters offers the only refuge from those lies. 

“That’s the paradox,” says Elena Gorokhova, the novel’s Russian-born author, who immigrated to America in 1980 and lives in Ridgewood. 

A Train to Moscowout now from Lake Union Publishing—is Gorokhova’s first novel. She has written two widely praised memoirs: A Mountain of Crumbs (2009), about her early years in what was then Leningrad, and Russian Tattoo (2015), about her adjustment to life in America.

The character Sasha is based on the author’s older sister Marina, an actress whose work in the theater enchanted the young Gorokhova: “I was fascinated by this process of becoming someone else.”

In her novel, Gorokhova vividly describes Sasha’s childhood in the small town of Ivanova, with its ubiquitous breadlines, boiled potatoes, mothball aroma and official lies. Against the wishes of her overbearing mother, the defiant Sasha flees to Moscow, where she is accepted by a prestigious acting school. A successful career follows, but Sasha remains in turmoil, battered by ill-fated affairs and finding truth only in the war diary of a long-lost uncle.

Writing A Train to Moscow was a five-year journey for Gorokhova, who took acting classes in New York to help master the material. Unlike a memoir, she says, “fiction is completely unpredictable. It takes you in a direction you were not planning to go.”

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