I Named My Dog Pushkin by Margarita Gokun Silver
For a how-to on getting out of Soviet Russia, for culture clash and integration stories told with a smile and a wink, for a lot of general Russian culture and lifestyle information
Buy a pair of Levi’s, lose the Russian accent, and turn yourself into an American. Really, how difficult could it be?
Fake an exit visa, fool the Soviet authorities, pack enough sausage to last through immigration, buy a one-way Aeroflot ticket, and the rest will sort itself out. That was the gist of every Soviet-Jewish immigrant’s plan in the 1980s, Margarita’s included. Despite her father’s protestations that they’d get caught and thrown into a gulag, she convinced her family to follow that plan.
When they arrived in the US, Margarita had a clearly defined objective – become fully American as soon as possible, and leave her Soviet past behind. But she soon learned that finding her new voice was harder than escaping the Soviet secret police.
She finds herself changing her name to fit in, disappointing her parents who expect her to become a doctor, a lawyer, an investment banker and a classical pianist – all at the same time, learning to date without hang-ups (there is no sex in the Soviet Union), parenting her own daughter ‘while too Russian’, and not being able to let go of old habits (never, ever throw anything away because you might use it again). Most importantly, she finds that no matter how hard you try not to become your parents, you end up just like them anyway.
This book had been on my list for a long time, and I don’t even remember how I originally found it. I am so glad I finally can around to reading it, because I was just as good as I had hoped it would be! Granted, I had no idea who/what “pushkin” was or why that would matter but I got the sense this would be filled with humor and I was correct.
I don’t think I have ever read a story of a Russian immigrant before, so I was pretty new to a lot of the cultural habits that she had as a Russian. It was really interesting to read about because it was new to me, but she also presents it all in a very understandable, relatable, and humorous way. I was smiling and laughing my way through this, despite some of the more difficult conversations. Margarita’s sharp incisions of anything Russian from her life define a lot of her developmental years, and I loved her reflections on it.
On top of that, Margarita’s life is just really interesting because of what she drove herself and her family to do. She ended up being a translator for embassy representative in Italy when she was a teenager, and that done is just a stepping stone in her story. Her determination never seems to waver, even when she’s simultaneously feeling in a pit of despair about something. This is also very much a story about growing up, as Margarita looks back on herself and gently pokes fun at all the ways she failed, overreacted, and generally stressed about fitting in (as she defined it, anyway).
I definitely recommend this book, and honestly I’ll probably go reread it soon because now that I’m writing this review a few months after finishing it, I remembering how much I enjoyed it and wanting to go through it all again already!