How I moved to the US from Soviet Russia in 1980: 'Being an immigrant means living with your soul split in half'

In the final instalment of our series, Elena Gorokhova describes how she arrived to live in the US from Soviet Russia in 1980 and found her new country's unquestioning optimism and dizzying consumer choices strangely alienating

Elena Gorokhova
Tuesday 15 September 2015 01:47 BST
The young Elena back in 'Leningrad' where she became a leading artist of the Leningrad School of Painting
The young Elena back in 'Leningrad' where she became a leading artist of the Leningrad School of Painting

In 1980, the year Moscow hosted the Summer Olympic Games, I packed my Russian life into a 20kg suitcase and boarded an Aeroflot flight across the Atlantic to join my new American husband. As planes from all over the world were landing on the Communist tarmac of my motherland, I headed in the opposite direction, west. I was 24, giddy with the spunk of youth, and – as my mother's favourite saying had it – "the sea was only as deep as the height of my knee".

My seat mate on the plane, a morose-looking American with thin-rimmed glasses and a glass of vodka in his hand, warned me that I would never find a teaching job in the United States. He was a former professor of Russian literature, and as we glided over Greenland, between sips of Stolichnaya, he dismissed my approaching American future with a single wave of his hand. I should have told him that no one in Russia ever sipped vodka. But I didn't. I was a docile ex-Young-Pioneer (the Soviet youth organisation) who had just left her mother and her sister, her country and her friends, and who didn't know if she would ever see them again.

In the sterile maze of Washington Dulles International Airport, which might as well have been Mars, an official pulled me into a little room and pointed a camera at my face. With a new identity bestowed on me by the permanent residence card, I floated out of the immigration office. I felt as though I were inside an aquarium, sensing everything through layers of water, clear and still and deeper than I knew, with real life happening to other people beyond the glass. Cheerful families hurried to their gates or drank coffee around spotless tables; obedient lines of passengers patiently waited for their flights.

Why were those people smiling, I wondered? Didn't they know about the customs officials ready to ravage their luggage, or the stone-faced border guards imbued with the power to turn them back, or the fellow passengers equipped with loud voices and sharp elbows? Didn't they know that a real queue was at least three bodies deep, a squirming mass of humanity, stretching and constricting like a worm on the compost pile at my mother's dacha?

The sign in front of me pointed to something called a restroom, where the floor gleamed, the hand-dryers whirred, and the faucets sparkled. Restroom was a perfect word for all that luxury, which seemed to have emerged straight from the immaculate future of science fiction. I thought of the rusty toilets of Pulkovo International Airport, of their corroded pipes and sad, hanging pull chains that never released enough water to wash away the lowly feeling of barely being human.

The restroom, as the rest of the airport, smelled of nothing, and that absence of odour was puzzling. Back home, Russia assaulted you in your nostrils: milk always on the verge of turning sour, the wet wool of winter coats we wore every day for at least five months of the year, rubber phone-booth tiles buckled with urine, exhaust from trucks that ran on leaded petrol, mothballs, yesterday's soup.

Worlds apart: America's infinite choice, diners where you could simply stop for a drink

Here, people didn't trail the smell of sweat and unwashed clothes, and the cafés full of happy and orderly customers didn't reek of boiled cabbage and dish rags made from old stockings crisscrossed by runs beyond repair. Clearly, I had been beamed up to a different world, like a character from Star Trek, a TV show that would take me five more years to discover.

From Washington, we drove to Princeton, New Jersey, on a five-lane highway wider than any road I had ever seen, wider than the Palace Bridge in front of the Hermitage that spanned the sides of the Neva River back in Leningrad.

New Jersey had its own Hermitage for me to revere: a supermarket three blocks away from my new mother-in-law's house, with its endless isles of food art parading an infinite number of different brands of frozen pizza, pasta sauce, and flavoured yogurts I never knew existed. I went there on a daily tour, creeping past shelves that climbed all the way to the ceiling, past counters with cut-up beef and pork and poultry sheathed in plastic, feeling I was inside the aquarium again, gazing at the real life through the glass.

Gawking at all that meat, sufficient to feed everyone in my entire home town – chopped into pieces for your convenience, big and small, for soup, or stew, or other recipes I didn't yet know how to make – was both spellbinding and eerie. How could I choose one drop in that boundless ocean of food? It was easier to shop in Leningrad: queues always led to products available at the moment, eliminating the necessity of making a choice.

And even if I'd brought myself to selecting a perfect box of cereal, or a flawless apple, how could I take it to a cashier who smiled at me and said hello and politely inquired how I was? What made me so special, so worthy of attention?

Back home, in the cradle of the first socialist revolution, everything was more understandable. Emotions were out in the open, from salespeople's resentment to bureaucrats' indifference. With the absence of social courtesy, you knew when a cashier had had a bad day because she gave you a stony stare, tossing your change into a plastic tray when it took you longer than a second to unzip your wallet. You knew that a saleswoman in a stained white apron thought you brazenly overstepped your bounds when she glared at your request to slice you half a kilo of bologna.

Elena Gorokhova in New Jersey, with her mother and sister, when they visited her shortly after she arrived in the USA

"Slice it?" she would repeat to the people waiting on line, inviting them to join in teaching you a lesson. "Would you also like me to wash your dirty underwear?" she would ask, fists on her hips. You got the message that a wiry babushka behind you on a bus was getting off when her elbow knifed into your kidney. Things were clearly delineated so we always knew what to expect. We felt happy when we were handed the log of bologna we could wrap in newspaper and place in a string bag next to a loaf of black bread, still warm.

Rudeness was ordinary and familiar in Soviet Russia, a way of life adopted by people who were continuously deprived of the most basic things. My mother, suspicious of other people's intentions, always divided the world into those who were ours, svoi, and those chuzhoi, not part of the family. There were only so many soup bones, or beets, or bottles of milk to go around, and if you didn't make sure that your own, svoi, had hoarded enough for today and tomorrow, you might as well pick up the jar of mayonnaise you'd been storing for a New Year's feast and serve it to all those chuzhoi on a silver platter.

Back home, sales clerks glowered and customers cowered. Bureaucrats ordered and the rest of us complied. Life was predictable if you played the pretending game called vranyo, the game I learned in nursery school from Aunt Polya, who was in charge of the kitchen and who wasn't really my aunt. She loomed over us with a pitcher of warm milk and a tray with slices of buttered bread that had absorbed all the rancid smells of the kitchen, watching closely to make sure we ate and drank everything.

We all knew she was watching us, she knew that we knew, and we knew she knew that we knew. She gave us surprise glances, and we chewed diligently, pretending we didn't expect her to look. We all played the game: my sister played it at school, and my parents played it at work. All of us pretended, the watchers and the watched. Life was simple back home: you sliced your soul in half. One half – for yourself, your family and your close friends – the other for all the salesclerks, teachers, and officials, all those chuzhoi who didn't need to know what you thought.

In the United States, how could I get used to a smiling cashier or a cheerful waitress? On a humid day of my first American August, when the heat made me think of a Russian steam bath, my husband decided to stop at a café for iced tea. I was stunned that you could simply stop for a drink here – a result of an individual's whim – and no one was going to yell at you for trying to be special, for standing out from the collective. I was astonished by the waitress who didn't scowl at us as we sat at her table and who pretended that our order of iced tea was exactly what she'd been waiting for. It was so utterly un-Soviet in its good spirits that it made me giggle.

I had a feeling that there was a different reality in my new homeland, simmering underneath all that sterility and order. Why, for instance, did buses speed past me as I was standing at a bus stop? Could the drivers see something about me that made them step on the gas instead of the brake? Later, I found out that in New Jersey you had to flag buses down, but it still made little sense: who would be standing at a bus stop, I reasoned, except someone waiting for a bus? I had a feeling there was a life throbbing under the courtesy and politeness of my new country, the heart that pumped blood to make it all work, to motivate what people did here. That heart was still hidden deep under protective layers of tissue and bone, and during my first months in America, I was not at all sure if I would ever see it.

I was also filled with guilt. I felt guilty for abandoning my mother and sister, for leaving behind the curved facades and lace ironwork of Leningrad. I felt guilty for leaving my father lying in the cemetery on the other side of the Neva under the snow and rain, with Baltic winds slowly erasing his picture from the headstone. I often felt so guilty that the only right thing to do seemed to pack the sundress my sister had sewn from cotton with a cornflower pattern and get on the first flight back home.

But I knew my home was now in America, the antiseptic land of politeness and individual worthiness, of forbidden books and movie thrillers. In the local bookshop, where books banned and censored in the Soviet Union openly lured me from the shelves, I discovered that all those dangerous tomes by Solzhenitsyn and anthologies of Brodsky's subversive poems did not cause a stir in those who passed them.

If only our steely Soviet leaders had known this, they wouldn't have had to spend sleepless nights banning and policing and confiscating these books at the borders, books that didn't force anyone – as it turned out – to become an enemy of the state. On television, I watched scary films about giant bears terrorising a summer camp, about a woman knifed in the shower, about aliens and poltergeists – films that could have never been made in my optimistic motherland, the birthplace of socialist realism. With a tape player in our living room and rows of video cassettes on the shelves, I didn't even have to leave home.

I didn't have to leave home to ask a question or make an inquiry. As my husband explained, I could simply pick up a phone and make a call – a prospect that terrified me. I expected to be admonished, just like I had been back home, for thinking that dialling a set of numbers from the convenience of your apartment could resolve an issue or answer a question. If you didn't have to elbow into a bus, rattle for half an hour over the city's potholes, and then wait in a queue to a clerk's office, you had no right to expect an answer to your inquiry. It took me years of living in America to be able to dial an official number without sweating, to order a meal without an inner apology, to say "I" instead of "we".

It took me years to read the books banned in the Soviet Union. It took me years to realise that being an immigrant means living with your soul split in half, not unlike what we did back in the Soviet Union. One half is here, where my current home is; the other will always belong to what during Soviet times was Leningrad, my birthplace. The longer you live in an adopted country, the deeper your roots grow into the foreign soil, so the wound of the internal divide begins to scab over time. But I know, as all immigrants know, that the scar of exile will always remain. My Russian memories, influences and connections will always remain with me, too, just like a tattoo: Russia inked into my heart.

Elena Gorokhova's memoir, Russian Tattoo (Windmill Books, £9.99), is out now

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