NOVEMBER 20, 2021
“BUY A PAIR of Levi’s, lose the Russian accent, and turn yourself into an American. Really, how difficult could it be?” asks Margarita Gokun Silver in her new memoir, I Named My Dog Pushkin (And Other Immigrant Tales): Notes from a Soviet Girl on Becoming an American Woman. This latest contribution to the already substantial genre of Soviet émigré literature plunges the reader into a world in which Coca-Cola is synonymous with freedom.
In 1989, Gokun Silver was a 20-year-old engineering student at the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas. She and her family obtained fake exit visas and one-way tickets out of the country. Like many Soviet Jews, they could no longer tolerate the antisemitism which defined Soviet bureaucracy and everyday life. The paradox of Gorbachev-era glasnost is that while the policy was meant to promote freedom of speech, it also normalized hate speech in certain elements of public discourse: “[A]ntisemitism evolved from its ‘respectable,’ under-the-surface, institutionalized, run-of-the-mill animosity and discrimination into loud and in-your-face bigotry and hate. Many Jews responded by packing their suitcases.”
Applying for an exit visa in the Soviet Union was tricky, especially for Jews — hence the need for fake documents. Those who were denied exit visas by the Soviet authorities became known as refuseniks, destined to live as outcasts. To make matters even more complicated, Jewish families were only permitted to reunite with relatives in their ancestral homeland — that is, Israel. Since many Soviet Jews didn’t have family in Israel, the author explains, they had to get a little creative. And so with the help of American Jewish associations, many Jewish families obtained fake exit visas through “invitations” from made-up relatives in Israel. The fact that there were no direct flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv at that time worked in their favor: they had to fly to Vienna first, and from there they could set off on their journey to the United States.
These details are riveting, though it’s a pity Gokun Silver didn’t include more of them for the sake of readers less familiar with what life was like for minorities in the Soviet Union, as it would have helped them appreciate the urgency and uncertainty of her family’s journey. Equally moving is her description of her family’s time spent in Italy before arriving in the United States, where her linguistic prowess landed her a first job and taste of independence that she would not have experienced had they remained in Moscow.
As the book moves closer to the present, I Named My Dog Pushkin takes on a different tone. Gokun Silver’s desire to rid herself of everything that makes her Russian goes into full force. The story of an immigrant struggling to fit in is far from new, but with numerous references to Russiagate shoehorned into the text, one can’t help but feel she’s writing for a very specific audience: Rachel Maddow viewers who fervently believe Russia is unequivocally bad, but who concern themselves largely with its purported actions vis-à-vis the United States. (Too many of those who love to pontificate on whether or not Trump is a Kremlin agent seem to have little interest in the more blatant crimes of Putin’s regime, such as its near-decade-long war against Ukraine, which has claimed tens of thousands of innocent lives, but that’s a different story.) Gokun Silver informs the reader that she wants to lose her “villainy-sounding Russian accent” because “the Russian accent just sounds crude” and “there is nothing sexy or remotely attractive about it.” It would make more sense if she had arrived in the United States as a child — other children can be cruel — but she arrives as a grown woman, strong in her personal convictions. Why does it have to be such an embarrassment for her future husband to discover how her grandfather makes tvorog (cottage cheese)? These elements, though played for humor, are poignant reminders of how difficult it is for many, if not all, immigrants ever to feel truly at home — even in a nation of immigrants.
Gokun Silver’s views on America remain rose-colored, but they do develop beyond a longing for Levi’s jeans and Coca-Cola. “When you immigrate to the US from behind the Iron Curtain, you ponder a lot of questions about America,” she writes. “Why are there no fences around these houses? I can see straight into their living room — don’t they have curtains in this country? Cereal served with cold milk — what kind of soggy hell is that? This tomato has no taste — did it even come from the earth?”
At these moments, the reader may wish that she’d managed to delve deeper into the absurdities of American life, rather than staying at the surface level, entertaining though that may be. Her passages on co-parenting with an American husband almost reach that level of introspection, only for her to veer off into the topic of Russian immigrants voting for Trump in 2016 and against him in 2020: “This is because tax oppression is apparently real in this country, where we pay taxes at lower levels than most progressive countries, but also because they equate the Democratic Party with Brezhnev and who wants another go at those eyebrows?”
She concludes by declaring that, unlike her fellow Russian immigrants, she’s on the right side of history, and while that may be true, it does feed into the black-and-white stereotype of “good” and “bad” immigrants.
Gokun Silver ends I Named My Dog Pushkin by conceding that she still holds on to parts of her Russian heritage (albeit in the most infuriating way possible):
My Russianness has persisted — possibly in the same way Putin’s presence continues to hover over what remains of Trump. Or over what remains of the GOP and #MoscowMitch. Or, Politburo-save-us, over our future elections, our democracy, and our computer systems.
This overshadows what begins as a beautiful description of the importance of New Year’s celebrations for Soviet and post-Soviet people, and the index that follows of what she decided to “keep” from her Russian heritage, including several dishes from the region. The reader cannot help but wonder: Why must Putin be mentioned so many times in a memoir about a Soviet immigrant’s life in America? Considering how many non-Russians from across the former Soviet space also speak Russian as one of their primary languages, would it not be better to avoid associating it with everything that is bad about Russia?
Gokun Silver is a gifted, witty writer, and I Named My Dog Pushkin will find a receptive audience. One hopes that, if she tackles the subject of immigrant life again, she will offer more personal reflection, more concrete detail, and fewer echoes of dominant media narratives.