Living the Dream: Russian Author Elena Gorokhova

America has given Russian-born author Elena Gorokhova the opportunity to express herself—and hunt for bargains.

After a shaky start, Elena Gorokhova has become comfortable with life in America.
Happy Landing: After a shaky start, Elena Gorokhova has become comfortable with life in America. "I would never go back to Russia," says the Ridgewood resident, "because Russia today is abomniable."
Photo by Lauren Perlstein

It’s been more than 30 years since author Elena Gorokhova fled the Soviet Union for the United States, but she’s still not entirely comfortable with American abundance.

“It was so simple in Russia,” says the 59-year-old Ridgewood resident. “You had two pairs of shoes, and both were terrible. But here, how can you choose in this ocean of footwear? This ocean of everything?”

In fact, Gorokhova has chosen a comfortable, unpretentious suburban New Jersey lifestyle for herself and her family. A wife and mother, she has held one job for 33 years at Hudson County Community College, where she is a professor of English as a second language. She’s slightly embarrassed by that degree of stability in this land of opportunity. Her two critically acclaimed memoirs better testify to her enterprising, ambitious nature.

Her first book, A Mountain of Crumbs (Simon & Schuster, 2009), a vivid coming-of-age story, is set in the Soviet Union during the era of Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Deprivation was the norm and independent thinking was suppressed. Her new memoir, Russian Tattoo (published in January, again by Simon & Schuster), picks up Gorokhova’s story in 1980, the year she arrived in the United States. She was 24, and despite her fluency in English, clueless about America.

“I could’ve arrived at the moon and it would’ve been the same,” she says. “It was completely alien.”

In Russian Tattoo, Gorokhova shares this sense of displacement in ways comic and profound. In a cafeteria, she is baffled by the ketchup bottle on every table. And it’s ketchup that squirts all over her new sundress as she bites into her first hamburger. She is stunned by the notion of iced tea. Isn’t tea supposed to be served scalding hot? Supermarkets appear to be “the size of stadiums.” Most remarkable, there’s never a line for food.

“It was a very difficult time the first few months,” she tells me as we settle in for an interview at her dining room table. “It was very embarrassing in many ways, culturally.”

These days, she has found her own cultural niche. The four-bedroom house she shares with Andy Perlstein, her New York-born husband of 33 years, is tastefully furnished in calming shades of beige. Her kitchen counter is stocked, American-style, with bottles of sriracha sauce, balsamic vinegar, Gulden’s mustard, even that treacherous Heinz ketchup. But her lasting connection with Russia is evident, too, in the dining-room display cases filled with intricately patterned, cobalt-blue Lomonosov china from her native Leningrad; the rows of Russian nesting dolls on her shelves; the paintings of Russian country scenes in the living room.

For this guest, she brews a pot of black-currant tea (“typically Russian”) to accompany some “tastes”: small bowls of ersatz caviar, one made from eggplant, one from mushrooms and mayonnaise. She serves them with dark sourdough bread called Borodinsky, baked in Brooklyn and, like the tastes, purchased at B&B International in Fair Lawn, which specializes in Russian foods. (The bread, Gorokhova explains, is named for the Napoleonic-era Battle of Borodino, described by Tolstoy in War and Peace.)

Russia continues to tug at Gorokhova’s heartstrings and, as she was surprised to conclude in the course of her own writing, was not the monster that prompted her escape all those years ago. “Looking back now,” she says, “I understand that I really wanted to get away from my mother.”

Gorokhova’s mother, Galina Maltseva, was a demanding matriarch, but above all, she was a survivor. Having weathered the Great Famine, Stalin’s terror and World War II, the senior Gorokhova, widowed in 1966, was determined to steer the lives of Elena and her older sister, Marina, a distinguished actress in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

As for Elena, her mother, a physician, pushed her toward a respectable career in medicine. But as a schoolgirl in the 1960s, Elena fell in love with the English language, an unusual obsession for a Soviet youth. She mastered English, and found work as a tour guide and university English teacher. In 1979 she met Robert, a graduate student from America who would become her ticket to a new life. They married the following year.

Marriage, it appeared to Gorokhova, was the only way a Russian woman could alter her destiny—and extract herself from a mother’s grasp. “Nobody ever moved,” she says of Soviet life, “because apartments were very difficult to get. You were sort of anchored to a place. The apartment that you ended up in was going to be the apartment that you would die in unless you married someone, and you would go to live with the other family.”

Gorokhova wanted more. “I wanted my own life,” she says. “I didn’t want to be home at 10 o’clock and explain everything to [my mother] and be under that control.”

Marrying an American—and one who had a teaching assistantship at the University of Texas—was a means of breaking from both the mother and the Motherland. But as we learn in Russian Tattoo, Gorokhova’s first attempt at matrimony disintegrated rapidly. Lonely in the “sterile strangeness” of Texas, she found refuge with her only other American contact: Robert’s progressive-minded psychotherapist mother in New Jersey.

Ironically, it was her mother-in-law who introduced Gorokhova to her future second husband. Perlstein proved to be a warm and sympathetic soul who smoothed Gorokhova’s transition to American life—“the first person not giving me a sidelong glance, as if peering at a curiosity.”

Gorokhova grew to admire the American temperament. In the Soviet Union, she tells me, “rudeness was everyday. I think it comes from lack of everything.” Service people were particularly abusive. Dare to ask the deli counterwoman to slice your bologna, and you were likely to get a lecture: “Do you want me to wash your dirty laundry, too?”

By comparison, in America, social courtesy is the rule. “I wonder,” she writes in Russian Tattoo, “if anyone gets angry here.” Americans, says Gorokhova, are routinely polite. “This was very surprising,” she says. “To see that people don’t yell at each other on an everyday basis on the street.” Gorokhova also sees her new countrymen as open-minded and giving. “Americans are very helpful,” she says. “They help immigrants. They donate to charities, which of course in the Soviet Union were nonexistent. There were no charities. There was nothing to donate anyway; we didn’t have anything.”

Perhaps it’s the deprivation of her Soviet youth—you waited in line for everything—that has fueled Gorokhova’s fascination with shopping and what it represents. I ask if she has become a better shopper.

“Well, I couldn’t be worse than I was,” she admits, “but it’s still overwhelming.” She stays away from malls (“too young, too commercial”) and prefers to shop at discounters like TJ Maxx, where she enjoys combing the racks for bargains. “Any idiot can walk into a department store and spend $200 and buy a pair of shoes,” she says. “But try to find that bargain pair of shoes that are beautiful, that fits you, and it’s inexpensive. It gives you this thrill.”

Time and again, Gorokhova proves a shrewd observer of her surroundings and her personal foibles. In her writing, she displays an ease with the English language and a mastery of American idiomatic speech. In person, her accented English unfolds slowly in well-articulated sentences. As she talks, her hands provide graceful punctuation. Fielding questions, her fingers work her temples, massaging thoughts into carefully constructed answers.

Her writing is exquisite in its simplicity. Here is her description from Russian Tattoo of a late-night visit to a Jersey diner: “We drink coffee and eat eggs over easy, a new expression Andy has taught me. It is a freeing feeling, completely un-Russian, to sit at a restaurant at an off-meal hour, to be able to eat breakfast at night.”

Writing Russian Tattoo was a simpler chore for Gorokhova than A Mountain of Crumbs. (The latter title comes from a game her grandmother devised, mounding up crumbs of black bread and sugar during the Soviet Union’s leanest years to show her brood they had a veritable mountain of food to eat.) That first book, 15 years in the making, was an arduous exercise in learning to write in English. She used English-language books by the likes of Paul Theroux, J.M. Coetzee, John Updike and her mentor, Frank McCourt, as exemplars. “I had special notebooks where I would write down sentences that impressed me—elegant metaphors, passages that worked for me. I’d write them all down because I wanted to imprint them on my brain. And that’s how I learned.”

Russian Tattoo took only three or four years to write. It led Gorokhova to unexpected places, exploring her complex relationships with her mother and her Jersey-born daughter, Lauren.

Gorokhova’s mother, Galina, came to visit in 1988 when Lauren was born. She ended up living with Elena and Andy until her death in 2012. At first, Galina was as demanding as ever, but over the years she mellowed, accepting that she was no longer the head of a rigid Russian household. “She learned not to comment on anything,” Gorokhova says. “Not to comment on my life. Not to tell me to wear a hat.” She even kept quiet when Elena and Andy threw out an old TV because the remote control no longer worked.

In time, Elena became the domineering parent, trying to impose her will on her independent-minded daughter. “I was turning into my mother,” she says. “I was trying to control my daughter, the way my mother controlled me.” (Lauren, now 26, lives in Brooklyn and, Gorokhova proudly relates, has embarked on a career as a photographer.)

Gorokhova is pleased that her daughter has shown an increasing interest in her Russian roots, even taking Russian-language classes while attending the University of Vermont. For Gorokhova herself, maintaining a link to Russia is not a matter of choice; it’s an undeniable, indelible part of her, like a tattoo.

“I obviously adjusted to this country, and I feel comfortable enough living here,” she tells me. “I like living here. And I would never go back to living in Russia, because Russia today is abominable. But I think that being this Russian soul, this Russian connection, will always stay with me.”

Gorokhova senses a similar tension among all the immigrants she teaches—“mostly Hispanic kids,” but also Asians and Arabic-speaking students—at Hudson County Community College. “I think every immigrant has a split soul,” she says. Their scars bridge what she calls “the divide of exile.” She is supremely impressed with her students and the stories they share in essays about their paths to America. “These students are the best in my college,” she says. “Everyone envies me because I teach immigrants. They want to learn English. They want to be [in the classroom]. They know that is their ticket to a better life—speaking English, writing English, reading English.”

I ask Gorokhova if she thinks she is living the American dream.

“I think I’m living my own dream,” she replies. “I think the fact that I was able to write down what I knew, and it was published and people actually read it, was a dream to me.”

So what’s next?

Gorokhova says she is trying her hand at fiction. The story she has in mind will be based on her sister’s life as an actress in Russia. There’s no plot yet, and Gorokhova seems uncertain if fiction is her thing.

“Andy wants me to write a book of recipes,” she says with a laugh. “He thinks it would be much more popular.”

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