How to (Not) Become a Writer: the Soviet Edition
July 28, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Margarita Gokun Silver
I wasn’t always committed to writing, for two main reasons: (1) Soviet teachers and (2) Soviet parents.
I’ll start with the teachers, because when we were growing up we weren’t allowed ever to question the teachers. I’m just making up for lost time.
Most Soviet teachers fell into two camps—flustered or scary. Our Russian language and literature teacher was scary. She usually walked into the classroom with her neck askew like a hawk, her large wire glasses perched on her pointy nose, and her stare steely as if she was practicing to be Stalin. Most of the time she didn’t teach us anything, so we copied forewords and called them essays. I’m not proud of this but, also, I never got caught so I guess that’s something to be proud of? Not that it was easy to catch plagiarism then—Google’s Sergey Brin wasn’t born yet and there were plenty of forewords to go around from all the editions of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky littering our neighborhood libraries. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why Brin invented Google. Maybe his mother or grandmother was a Russian literature teacher.
Then one day my luck ran out. No, I didn’t get caught for plagiarizing. But I got caught for something equally as scandalous (apparently!):
ME [with a smirk and the attitude of a 16-year-old who knows everything]: I don’t really care about Russian literature. I’m going into the technical field. I won’t need it.
MY FRIEND [nodding in agreement]: Lucky you.
I got a 2 (an F equivalent) for my next essay. And another 2 for the essay after that. And after that. When I brought home my third disgrace, my mother decided to take matters into her own hands. She marched to our school, a box of chocolates in her bag, and asked the teacher why her daughter, who until then had been bringing 4s (a B equivalent) for those plagiarized essays (to be clear, my mother didn’t mention they were plagiarized), was now only getting 2s. The box of chocolates was a bribe; you didn’t go anywhere in the Soviet Union without a bribe. The value of your bribe depended on your economic level, with a box of chocolates reserved for the Soviet middle class intelligenzia. (Foreign soap was also a thing, as were bottles of Armenian cognac.)
The teacher explained, eyes owl-wide and shaking her head, that she overheard me trashing Russian literature. Sacrilegious, she meant to communicate. (Note to the legal team: I’m pretty sure that teacher is no more, but if she is, please don’t tell her I named my dog Pushkin.) My mother wrung her hands, added a pleading look at her box of chocolates, and negotiated a truce. That’s how I found my name being called the moment the teacher walked into the classroom the next day.
ME [standing up]: Yes?
THE ENTIRE CLASS (including the boy I had a terrible crush on) [staring with that mix of curiosity, pity, and fear—the same exact kind of stare my great-uncle got when they took him to the gulag]
TEACHER [walking to her desk, gold earrings swinging in her ears]: Why did Tolstoy have Anna Karenina kill herself at the end?
ME [praying that boy cannot see red because I’m turning the color of cooked beet all the way from my ears to my cheeks to my neck]: …
I’m not going to recount the answer, mostly because I can’t remember what I said, but also because it was some Soviet propaganda bullshit I’d gleaned from a foreword the night before. My mother had told me I’d be called on to answer a question and I spent the hours I usually spent staring at the phone willing that boy to ring me memorizing forewords. Because I had a good memory, I passed. The teacher began grading all of my essays at a 3 level, which is like a C but with a lot of parental heartbreak. My mother wondered if the box of chocolates was past its prime because those 3s were accompanied by a Baikal Lake of red-ink comments that pointed out my ineptitude in all things written. I never again said anything about Russian literature aloud. And I wrote off all possibilities of me writing ever again.
Here I should point out that it wasn’t really up to me to write it off. Even if I were the Evgeny Kissin of literature, even if I knew then that I wanted to become a writer, and even if that teacher hadn’t killed any desire I may have had to put words on paper, I wouldn’t have gone into writing. I also wouldn’t have gone into performing. Or into art. Or into any kind of career that didn’t involve a math entrance exam, a study of thermodynamics, or an encounter with cadavers at a Moscow morgue. Which is to say I had a choice that limited me to becoming either an oil and gas engineer or a doctor.
I was not banned from studying something else. Not technically, anyway. Conceivably, I could have told my parents that I wanted to become an actress (I did do a mean interpretation of blue-haired Malvina, Buratino’s girlfriend, in school) or the nation’s next Isaak Babel or a sculptor of Lenin busts (I was very good at sketching statues and because Lenin’s was basically everywhere, I perfected that almost to the level of plagiarizing forewords). Even more conceivably, they would have looked at me and laughed. Not because they didn’t believe in me, but because engineers didn’t give birth to artists in the Soviet Union. And artists didn’t give birth to engineers. I mean, there were six engineers in my family, one doctor, and zero artists of any kind. As a Soviet child, you followed in the footsteps of your parents and grandparents: those were the rules. And we didn’t make the rules. If you were related to physics geniuses and math whizzes, you couldn’t go on sculpting Lenin, even if you were better at that than at math.
Margarita Gokun Silver is a freelance journalist and essayist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and NPR, among others. This essay is excerpted from her recent essay collection I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Other Immigrant Tales). She tweets @MGokunSilver.