Concepts such as privacy, romance, and personal happiness are fundamentally at odds with totalitarianism.
Out of all works of fiction published in the year 2020, The Nesting Dolls by Odessa-born Alina Adams is easily the most urgent. It dramatized what American readers, especially young American readers, need to understand about the life under socialism, but are rarely told.
If discussions about the reality of it do take place, the truth is quickly swept under the rug — real socialism hasn’t been tried, they are assured. So instead of developing sympathy for those who suffered in some of the most oppressive societies on Earth, they are encouraged to imagine the impossible. Adams, on the other hand, created characters who inspire sympathy and encourage understanding.
Thematically, The Nesting Dolls is part Joy Luck Club, part Doctor Zhivago, and part Misha Shafutinsky. The latter is a Russian American and Russian singer-songwriter who made a name for himself performing in Brighton Beach restaurants frequented by the ex Soviets in the 1970’s, and 80’s. In the final portions of her book, Adams pokes fun of a certain awkwardness, and the narrow, scary outlook of the Russian émigré scene that produced Shafutinsky.
This is not why the novel is important. Like The Joy Luck Club, The Nesting Dolls is a saga of multiple generations of women in a single family. What Amy Tan did for Chinese Americans, Adams does for women of Soviet Jewish decent.
Starting in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and leading the reader through the Gulags and the dissident underground of the Brezhnev era, the writer concludes her book in pre-pandemic New York City. Because of the central position that women occupy in both the Russian and the Jewish societies, it’s about time a story like this is written.
The female perspective shines through the novel. Adams often turns her attention to mundane details that make or break a woman’s day and that are of particular interest to women of the Second World War who, even in more peaceful time following the death of Joseph Stalin, didn’t have access to consumer goods readily available to their Western counterparts. As any former Soviets would tell you, this was no trivial matter. Not when the logistics of packing for the obligatory month of collective farm labor in the countryside dominate one’s thought for weeks. And how does one travel in a box car with a poorly toilet-trained toddler?
Adams quotes a Brighton grandmother who, after a lifetime of second shifts and poor living conditions, quips that taking care of a baby in America is practically a vacation. This is the kind of opinion that the old Russian-speaking women voice frequently. The writer has a good ear for Briton Beach conversations, along with the dialect and the habits of the former Soviet Jews, and she documents it all with great precision.
The novel does not merely let the reader know how much material well-being we take for granted because its characters, like everyone else in their time and place are not just poor and hungry. What they lack most is freedom, and it’s the lack of freedom, as Adams demonstrates, that corrodes the souls of Soviet people. This deprivation most noticeably manifests itself in love triangles that became the focus of her fast-paced narrative.
You may recall from a few years back a silly American book by a silly American doctor (as in Ph.D.) Kristen Ghodsee called Why Sex Was Better Under Socialism. In it, Ghodsee confidently reassured young American women that Eastern European gals, having been taken care of by their governments, didn’t need to marry men who’d provide for them and instead had strings of affairs with interesting people, like artists. Where they found enough artists to go around, the estimable American professor did not explain.
Adams, who was born in the Soviet Union and knows the Russian émigré community and all of their grievances like the back of her hand, has a more realistic assessment of amorous exploits under socialism.
Faux Stalinist modesty notwithstanding (in the opening chapters, the author mentions the Socialist Realist ideology-driven rejection of the nude), sex did exist in the USSR. It was as tortured as the rest of the Soviet life, and while artists and revolutionaries definitely carried a cultural cache, running off with one was not advisable. Not only because of the mercurial nature of people frequently involved in such occupations, either. It’s just that women were preoccupied with more pressing issues, like survival, and men were debased by the criminal regime ruling over them.
As Adams vividly demonstrates, not only are concepts such as privacy, romance, and personal happiness fundamentally at odds with totalitarianism, but the best way to break through from the socialist mindset is by pursuing romance.
Not because ‘the personal is political,’ but because personal matters are simply too important to squander. True liberation comes with opening of possibilities, not by political diktat.DONATE
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