March 07

Russian as an American Language: A Conversation with Anya Ulinich
by David Stromberg
p. 2 of 2

Ulinich also speaks of Russia's diversity resulting from the current influx of refugees and migrant workers who have made their way to Moscow. But the response in Russia is hostile at best, and it is not unheard of for young Central Asian women to be knifed to death on the outskirts of large cities by young nationalist gangs:

America is still a racist society, made worse by the stubborn connection between race and class, a connection perpetuated by the U.S. government's social policies allowing for multi-generational poverty, unequal education, and ever deepening social stratification. But there are degrees of imperfection. People here generally acknowledge that racism is evil, and racist language is a social taboo. In the Soviet Union, the state propaganda paid a lot of lip service to the 'friendship of peoples,' but in practice, Russian society was, and is, racist. Riding a bus in Moscow, I heard two men in suits openly and loudly debate weather or not they would trust an Azerbaijani. A family friend lamented not having a baby with a Jew because Jews, cross-bred with 'pure Russian blood,' make smart babies. Things such as vanity, generosity, trustworthiness, secrecy and violent behavior are discussed as ethnic traits. Ethnic jokes are all the rage.

An ethnic identity, like any identity, should be an individual's private choice. In my opinion a person should own and define their personal identity. If they choose to culturally, or religiously, identify with a group, fine. Unfortunately, for now, if you look a certain way, the ethnic, or racial identity - as well as an accompanying set of assumptions - is hoisted upon you. In my opinion, the U.S. is closer to the point when that will not be the case. Russia, which recently began to round up schoolchildren with Georgian last names, has a very long way to go.

Owning the American Undream
In thinking and writing about Ulinich's novel, it is difficult not to step into the potholes of various politically sensitive names and terms: "teenage mother," "negro" – part of Russian racist vocabulary, where “Nyeger” or “Negro” is the culturally appropriate to call a Black person –"pothead," and "physically disabled." The book is fraught with dire circumstances and impolite reactions and conflicting cultural traits. Ulinich writes about Russian racism together with immigration in America; about class-consciousness in America and materialism in Russia.

Ulinich appears to have equal interest and investment in what she has seen in her American life as in what she remembers of her Russian one, faithfully portraying both Russian and American behaviors, yet she is also aware of the misperceptions between the two cultures. Rather than trying to create a mishmash characters with goofy language, or to regurgitate clichés of Russian beauties and American soul-searchers, she works to redraw the separating coexisting cultural lines. Ulinich has been a good student of America, has learned well its social mores – challenging some, upholding others – but has also held in her memory the vivid vision she acquired in the USSR.

Sasha Goldberg, her protagonist, is constantly amazed by and critical of America and the form of freedom (and ignorance) felt and projected by the people with whom she deals. From the philanthropic adopted guardian to the pothead musician boyfriend, Sasha holds against people their inability to be critical of the thing they are doing. Their forthrightness underlines their lack of alternative, negative, or counter-working perspective. Their sense of conflict is undermined by their fixation on the main goal or activity that defines them. They are hypocritical in the very basis of their lives – in the very way they greet each other. As Ulinich says:

It really rubs Russians the wrong way. Am I using a stereotype or am I not? And I'm speaking from my and my family's experience. It rubbed us the wrong way when you asked someone who's obviously unhappy how they're doing and they say 'fine.' Because they're obviously not fine. And we would say they're hypocritical. This sort of politeness struck us as hypocrisy because we come from a much grumpier place.

Ulinich uses transliterated Russian words throughout the book, and takes the liberty not to explain them all directly. At the art academy, Sasha is chided for drawing babskie shtuchki (loosely translatable as "chic's stuff") and then is asked "What's next? Fairies? Little angels? Stepashka the Bunny?" Context fills in the lack of literal understanding, while those who understand Russian can appreciate a memory of the language. For a Russian speaker it's an expressive moment, a way to enter the intimacy of that language while remaining in the exile of the Latin alphabet; for an English speaker, it is perhaps a reminder that underneath the seemingly understandable prose is a parallel one that is totally incomprehensible.

In her writing Ulinich calls forth images and symbols from various cultural and physical environments through a voice that can be both soft and daring. Whether it's something that started in her childhood, during the years of Soviet art training, after her conceptual, print, and collage work as an undergrad or perhaps during her more concentrated years of large iconic paintings as a grad student, Ulinich has proven herself a strong landscape artist in words. The book's first paragraph is a landscape, perfectly envisaged, balancing humorous and precise details. And as long as Sasha Goldberg is moving, the reader glides and sees with her a series of microcosms made engaging by her physical and emotional alienation.

There is a strong sense throughout the book that Ulinich enjoys weaving personal narratives and histories. "Art and narrative have a conflicted relationship," she says. "It was a relief to be able to just sit down and write a story." It is also something she has a knack for, and which she has not yet fully explored. In a few distinct chapters throughout Petropolis, Ulinich lets go of the close third-person following Sasha and explores other characters – Lubov her mother, Victor her father, Heidi his American wife, Mr. Tarakan the Jewish philanthropist – and in those sections another Ulinich emerges, one who can pen the tight relationship between a character's personality and behavior and yet still can step away from their more comic purpose. These are welcome interjections that take the book beyond the scope of a coming-of-age story to that of a book about breathing characters who have made difficult singular choices that have shaped and complicated their lives.

Like the hybrid language she uses, Ulinich's concerns are also shaped by experience both in Russia and America, making it difficult to say that the book belongs more to one culture than another. And while book is utterly American in its subject – self-realization – it is tempered by a kind of Soviet-realist treatment: the realization is that of a grumpy young single mother who cleans apartments for a living and has a handicapped boyfriend.

Ulinich writes at a moment toward the end of the book: "You're my lover, Sasha thinks to herself in an in-between language. You're my daughter." It is a moment of ownership and of the fulfillment of American ideals, yet with a twist that plays on their expected form. The main character is chubby, the lover is in a wheelchair, the daughter is a blond immigrant, creating a conscious comic dissonance. In this the book may fall on the American side, as its full political implications can be appreciated only in the US, where more people may take such details seriously. Despite the backdrop of American poverty, drugs, and other socioeconomic abuses and problems, it is still possible to see this story as proof that with hard work, open-mindedness, and some luck, social equality can be achieved by a person of any form. In Russia, the idea of a handicapped person living a free public life is so far from reality that the book would probably read like a gross (in both senses of the word) joke.



David Stromberg is Zeek's Book Reviews Editor and the author of three collections of single panel cartoons, Saddies, Confusies, and Desperaddies.

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