Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Childhood Fear: A Door In A Dead-End Hallway

A huge part of being a writer, of being an artist of any kind, of making or doing anything worthwhile, is facing your fear.

Sometimes it means digging in, far and deep, all the way back to the root of who you are, back to your childhood.

Last month, fear was a big theme in my writing, so when my VCFA advisor, the always wise Tim Wynne-Jones, asked me to send him a childhood memory, I knew I had to face the scary ones.

When I was a kid, there was always something wrong with me, and I spent half my time in one hospital or another. I was such a good girl, most of the time, just taking everything the sadistic Soviet medical care sprang on me. Today, I very literally break into sweat every time a doctor invites me into a nice, comfortable chair.

Below is the exercise, and my journey down the hallways of memory. IMPORANT NOTE (at the request of one of the readers): Below, you will find graphic, potentially disturbing material. I won’t blame you if you don’t want to read it. Truly. This is not a fun, light read, I’m sorry to say.

hallway of fearYou come to a door: you know that behind that door is a moment from you childhood. I want you to open that door and tell me what you see. I want you to think with all your senses. I want the lighting and the sound and anything else you can think of. What is in that room?

Ah, but there are many doors on either side of me in this long corridor of memories. Fluorescent lights flicker, dimly purple, above my head, reminding me that I can’t stay here too long; this smell-less, silent place is not one in which to linger. Behind each door, another terror awaits me. This I can tell: there will be no pleasant memories inside the dead-end corridor wing I have stumbled into, ran into, ran myself ragged into – the wing of childhood fears. I walk ahead all the way to the end, spin around, choose a door. I press my ear against the cold metal surface and my skin burns. I hear nothing, not a scream, not a single sound. It should encourage me. I touch the door handle, fingers dry with chill.

I am being silly. I am a grownup! I have made it through these things, all of them. Haven’t I?

My hand slips from the handle. Apparently, the skin of my palm isn’t as dry as I thought. I have to try several times, but at last, I turn the damn thing. The scent greets me first, that burnt perfume smell I know too well, that disinfectant smell that promises nothing good. I take a small step inside and freeze, my back pressed to the closed door, and suddenly, I am eight. Maybe seven.

The windowless room is dark around the edges, but its center is illuminated, like a stage. I stare at the large, comfortable-looking chair dominating the room. The chair is covered with white cotton cloth. My head always swimming with princess dreams and visions of fairytales, I immediately imagine it as some kind of a throne. A man in white scrubs and a woman in a white nurse’s robe are sitting on stools, on either side of the throne-chair and polishing pointy silver instruments. The long scissors, hooks, spoons gleam in the stark white lighting.

The man gets up. He doesn’t smile at me. Most doctors don’t and no nurses ever smile at anybody. But he looks solid and smart and tall, with his wide shoulders and his soft-looking short beard and his glasses, and I trust him when he approaches, takes my cold hand in his large one, and leads me to the throne. I take comfort in the warmth of his hand.

I sit, resting my arms comfortably on the chair’s wide arms. The man, still silent, picks up one wide strip of white cloth. The nurse has another in her hand. Slowly, methodically, the doctor ties one strip around my right arm, while the nurse takes care of the other.

I wish the room had windows, some tree branches I could rest my eyes on. The next moment, the wish becomes irrelevant, as the man comes up with yet another strip of cloth. He leans toward me. A long silver spoon-like tool flashes before me. He is holding it his hand. I catch one last glance of his colorless eyes behind his glasses, before my vision grows dark. The cloth is pressed hard against my eyelids.

I take a steadying breath, my eyes straining uselessly against the darkness of the cloth. I want to ask him questions, but don’t dare. I am too quiet for that.

“Good,” he says. I cling to the word. I am about to take another deep breath, but he says, “Open your mouth,” and I listen, as always, even though too much air is stuck in my chest now.

“Wider,” he says, and the next thing I know his hand is in my mouth. It smells of metal and disinfectant and stranger, his slightly oily skin and bits of hair and sharp knuckles, inside my mouth, stretching, pushing past my teeth, down, down, deep into me. My teeth knock against metal. I don’t know if I am screaming or biting or moving, or if the man is saying something, or the nurse, I can’t hear, and after a while I can’t feel the metal instrument in my mouth, not anymore. I am reaching for breath, it is mine, this mouth, this throat, but his hand is stronger, his hated, horrible hand is pain, everywhere, everywhere, his hand, as it grips and scratches and latches onto to something, some bit of me deep inside my mouth, someplace close to where I hide my voice, somewhere deep in my throat.

The cloth must have moved, because suddenly I have eyes, and I can see it, the hand pulling out, at last, out, get out. Oh, the relief, it floods me with the realization that I am damp with sweat and alive, and for a moment I forget the hurt, and it feels like I’ve won, even though I can see that the hand has gotten out of my throat with a prize. I catch a glimpse of it, a mass of something that for a second I think is alive, wriggly, moving. But then no, I know it’s dead, dead like raw meat in Babushka’s kitchen. I will learn later what the prize was: tonsils, or adenoids, just something nasty gone, no big loss, no big deal.

When they untie my arms, removing the blood-stained cloths, everything swims a little, and the lights don’t seem so bright anymore. They walk me out, holding me by the arms, leading me out of the room at last.

I am weak with relief. I’ve made it. I have made it out. I’ve made it, haven’t I?


June 6, 2013 Posted by | Personal Mirror, Stories, The U.S.S.R., VCFA Adventures, Writing Mirror | , , , | 12 Comments

Social Caterpillar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was a toddler, I was incredibly outgoing.

My mom tells a story of me waking up on a cross-country train in the middle of the night when I was around one and a half or two years old. I only knew two boys’ names at that time, Vova and Andrei, or so my mom says. As soon as I settled into my cabin, I noticed a man sleeping on one of the sleeping shelves, just some traveling stranger.

“Beds!” I exclaimed, utterly fascinated.  Then I proceeded to shake the man and ask him, “Are you Vova? Are you Andrei?”

Mom tells another story of me, at about the same age, being passed around, from passenger to passenger, like a dolly, this time on an airplane (!), where I kept obligingly demonstrating my newly acquired English skills to everyone’s delight. (Again, I don’t remember this. It’s a story told by a loving mother, so take it with a grain of salt.)

“What is English for tul’pan?” I’d say. And then I’d tell them, “it is ‘tulip.’ What is English for ‘ne-za-bud-ka’? It is ‘forget-me-not.'”

Then, I don’t know what happened: was it growing up away from my mom? Was it the pervasive culture of conformity and fear in the Soviet Union that affected me so? Maybe it was just my constant sickliness that kept me quiet and scared. But by the time I reached age nine, I became “the shy child.”

As I grew, the two polar opposites intertwined in the strangest of ways. I was shy. I was scared. Yet, sometimes when I visited with my mom’s friends, or they visited with me, I performed songs for them, complete with props and costumes. Sometimes a mere sight of a boy older than me terrified me, but once I organized a dozen of kids in my yard into a game of play pretend. Another time, I somehow forced a group of my peers into staging a play right out in the yard, also.

I was the biggest chicken. I was fearless. I was the quietest shadow. I was outgoing. I was all of these things.

In grade school, and then, in high school, some years, it felt like I was the subject of every girl’s envy, and even a few boys’ dreams. More often, though, I found myself on the other side. An oddity. Friendless. Tormented. Or worse — invisible.

Who am I today? Who knows? An introverted extrovert?  An extroverted introvert?  Sometimes, it depends on the day.

I will always be part shy child, I think.  On the other hand, becoming a part of the writing community, made me feel like I belong like never before. So many amazing friends I’ve met since I started writing! They enriched my world with their warmth, wisdom and generosity.

And now, as I prepare for the launch of my first book, and as I get ready to start the MFA program in Vermont in less than a month, I’ve been feeling like I am stepping out into an even wider world. The walls that once contained me are getting pushed even farther apart. I get giddy sometimes, just thinking about all the wonderful people whose lives will flit past mine so soon. The new super-talented writer friends I will make. The wise mentor professors. The readers, whom I might never meet, but who, in a way, will know my deepest, most personal secrets, after reading my book.

Over the years, I have grown comfortable inside my own “social caterpillar” skin. I wonder though… is this socially green little creature that I’ve always been, about to take flight? Or have my butterfly wings been flapping for a while already?

Your turn, now! Are you an extrovert? And has it always been so?

Don’t be shy — tell me 🙂


November 30, 2012 Posted by | Personal Mirror, The U.S.S.R. | , , , | 4 Comments

“Soldier X” by Don Wulffson: A Book Impression and My Own Take on the 1940s History

Speak (Penguin) 2001

I usually try to stick to new books when reviewing, but I couldn’t keep silent about this one. My 12-year-old son recommended this book to me, and the concept totally intrigued me. A teenage German soldier gets sent to the front in 1944, at a time when German supplies ae dwindling and the losses are heavy. While engaged in a battle, the protagonist, who has some knowledge of the Russian language, faces a difficult choice: be killed or pass himself for a Russian. He chooses the latter and finds himself on the other side of the war, looking after the wounded in a Russian hospital, where he befriends, then falls for a Russian girl.

This is a “war is hell” kind of a book, and it portrays the horrors of the front in awful, vivid detail. I always appreciate this sort of honesty. However, there were things that bothered me about this book — things I feel a  strong need to share.

The way this book portrays the war is essentially as a squabble between two governments, with little people with no particular feeling for their respective countries’ cause, caught in the middle of it.

I have a a problem with this portrayal. Sometimes, in wars, there really is a bad guy. There is an aggressor.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a little while, you’ll know that I am one of the first people to bash the former Soviet Union. For Stalin and the repressions he started, for the leaders who followed him, who continued his repressions, who kept telling his lies. I support books such as Rita Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray” that talk about the horrors the USSR unleashed on the people of Lithuania and others. However, one thing you must give the Soviet Union is that war.

In one hospital scene in “Soldier X,”  a whole bunch of wounded solders are so disenchanted that they refuse their medals. My grandmother lived through that war, and I’ve seen many others who have. I have heard many political jokes, and I have learned to tell when history textbooks fed us lies that everyone scoffed at. But no one ever questioned why the Soviet people fought the war known to the world as World War II and to the Soviet Union as The Great Patriotic War. For that’s exactly what it was. Hitler started the war with an air raid on June 22, 1941. In the same way that Japan declared war on the US with an attack on Pearl Harbor. People today still remember what they did that day long ago, where they were when the first raid started. The way we Americans remember that awful morning of September 11th ten years ago.

Once the Great Patriotic War began, people united like never before, bonded by grief and disaster, against an attack that left the earth scorched, homes destroyed, food supplies depleted and families broken. Sure, Stalin’s political repressions continued, but much slower than before or after the war. In fact, many political prisoners got a reprieve — hey, fighters were needed. Sure, the Red Army had strict rules — terrible ones, you could say — rules that would not allow soldiers to retreat, and some other barbaric practices that Wulffson talks about in his book did take place. Some Russians did desert, and used the war as their chance to emigrate to the West, even to Germany. But there were hundreds, thousands of other stories. Stories of people proudly leaving their families to volunteer to defend them against the German aggression.

Of course, Germany suffered too. And Eastern Germany in particular went on to suffer for many more years following the war. But that’s a different story. Just like the story of what the United States’ terrible nuclear revenge on Japan at the end of World War II. A different story. But remember that sense of injustice, that rage that filled America after the Pearl Harbor attack? The Russians felt that very same rage and carried it through the war. So to me, putting the Soviets on the same footing as the dejected Germans at the end of the war is, if nothing else, simply inaccurate. The losses were heavy, and fatigue was terrible, but by 1944 the people felt it — victory was drawing close. Sure, the Soviet radio and papers exaggerated the good news, still the news were good and getting better.

Sure, the German troops felt dejected and disgusted with the war as it was drawing to a close, but in the beginning it must not be forgotten that they marched in enthusiastic parades and saluted, eager to wipe out Russia as a country and enslave the Slavs and others that populated it, while on the other side, the Soviets were singing solemn songs and taking war preparation classes in schools as part of getting ready for the attack that was imminent.

At that point in time, those two sides cannot be morally equal. And, contrary to Wulffson’s portrayal, the Russian troops did not perceive it that way. While by the end of the war many Germans might have started to feel doubts about what they were doing in Russia, the Russians knew exactly what they were fighting for — simply — their home.

My feeling is, with the shortage of books dealing with the Soviet role in bringing World War II to successful conclusion, it is important to present an accurate perspective. I thought after my current work-in-progress I’d be done with Russia as far as my books go. I thought I’d be pretty much finished with historical fiction, too. I’ve never been much of a war book person, either. But now, having read this book, I’m not so sure about that anymore. Perhaps one day — a whole bunch of years from now — you’ll see my book set in the 1940s Russia, in the middle of the war.


September 18, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Contemporary History, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , | 4 Comments

Changing Your Fortune: a Grace Lin giveaway

So it’s been a week since the New Jersey SCBWI conference. Already?

Well, I am still all fired up and have a busy writing week to show for it! (Many revising hours — very little human contact — or even virtual activity — not as many revised chapters as I’d like for all that work, but that’s another story. Hey, at least there is forward movement. At least it feels like I am getting somewhere.) Sometimes in writing, and in life, the roads are winding.

Do you know the story of Grace Lin, the author of Newbery Honor-winning “Where  The Mountain Meets the Moon?” It’s all over the blogosphere — how she was growing up the only Asian kid in a not very diverse Upstate New York town, how she made herself believe that she wasn’t Asian.

At the beginning of the conference, Grace told us that when she was young, her ambition was to “make the most amazing Sleeping Beauty book of all time.” She studied classical artists, went to Rome to emulate the great masters, and prided herself in creating technically difficult drawings.

Grace Lin’s identity-searching art, while she was in college

But she felt something wasn’t working. Something was off. She started asking herself, “why was I always imitating?”

“I figured out that the reason I wasn’t ever going to become Michelangelo or Botticelli was because I was Grace Lin,” she said during her conference keynote address last Saturday.

“You should be an artist,” she said, “because there is something you really want to share with the world.”

I have some things in common with Grace Lin. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I always felt like a bit of an outsider. By the time I was a teen, I couldn’t wait to cross the ocean. When I got here, I was so ready to embrace everything American — and toss everything Russian into the depths of history. When I first arrived here, the immigration officials stamped my first name with an embarrassingly long  “Yekaterina” spelling that I hated. In a New York City high school, I told new friends to just call me Kate.

Now, eighteen years later, my American skin feels so comfortable. In so many ways it feels truer than the Russian one that never did fit. And yet, I find myself writing a second novel set in the country of my birth — the Soviet Union. “Why do you need the stupid Russia?” my mom asks me. “Americans want to read something American.” And a part of me cannot wait to tell those sorts of stories too. I want to explore my today and my tomorrow, the country I call home. But first, after wanting nothing to do with any trace of Rusian-ness, I dig into these Russian-Jewish stories that are a part of my history. I dig into the past, into the pain.

But back to Grace Lin.

When she started her career with a small publisher Orchard Press as an author-illustrator,  she was ecstatic. Not only was she going to be able to pay some of those bills doing what she loved with her first picture book “The Ugly Vegetables,” but the world was going to finally see her true vision, hear her authentic voice. Except, she had to keep her expectations small. Several times in the beginning of her publishing journey, Grace Lin was reminded that she was a “multicultural author,” even by the editor who first discovered her. Being a multicultural author was great and everything. But it meant Grace’s books were in a niche market, which placed a definite ceiling on how wide an audience she would be able to attract.

“I tried to fight against the multicultural label,” Grace Lin said, “but it was the Asian books I kept getting noticed for.”

And then, of course, she won the Newbery Honor. The book became a New York Times bestseller. Many, many kids of all races are reading it.

“This book melted away all trace of race and gender,” Grace said, “and in that was truly multicultural.”

At the start of the New Jersey SCBWI conference, Grace read from one of the book’s beautiful chapters. She read a story within a story, about doing the impossible — about changing one’s fortune.

I don’t know what can be more inspiring than Grace Lin’s example, and her heroine Minli’s “IMPOSSIBLE” quest of changing her family’s fortune.

Has anyone ever told you that your task was impossible?

If you stop in to say hi here on this blog, one week from today you just might be one FORTUNATE winner of Grace’s inspiring book. Grace autographed it for you, and even sketched in a special lucky rabbit (very timely for the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, by the way). Whether you win this book or not, remember, fortunes can change! 🙂

June 12, 2011 Posted by | Personal Mirror, The U.S.S.R., Writing Mirror | , , , , | 12 Comments

A Drifiting Friendship And A Giveaway

Nothing is constant in the Universe,  except change, great philosophers say. (Change — and love, I would add — sorry Heraclitus!)

Have you ever experienced these changes when it comes to friendships? What was the longest friendship you have ever had — and have you managed to keep it going strong through the years?

What if a friendship between two nations affected your own personal relationship?

Read my guest post for my friend Joyce Moyer Hostetter http://joycemoyerhostetter.blogspot.com/2011/05/on-two-different-sides-of-growing.html , leave a comment and spread the word, for a chance to win another signed copy of Joyce’s beautiful first book, “Best Friends Forever” (Friendship Press, 1995).  Original, sweet, touching, funny and heartbreaking, this little treasure of a book is perfect for middle-graders (age 9 to 12, especially girls). It would make for a great gift for kids, teachers or parents.

Thanks in advance for spreading the word!!

May 22, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Personal Mirror, Politics and Religion, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , | 10 Comments

Nuclear Memories

Ever since the nuclear crisis in Japan first unfolded, neighbors and friends have been asking me: “Does this bring back memories?”

A Wiki picture

the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after the explosions

I was an unsuspecting eight-year-old Soviet citizen living in the Ukraine when on April 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor ruptured in a series of explosions in the small city of Chernobyl some 155 miles away from my home, leading to the worst nuclear disaster in human history. Even days later — after the nearby town of Pripyat was evacuated and the Western media started raising alarm, many of us ordinary Soviets were unaware. A mere week later we were, in fact, encouraged to attend a May 1st International Day of Labor parade under a light, spring rain, laced with radioactive fallout.

For the record, I didn’t go. My mama, who lived in Moscow at the time and knew some big people through her connections with the prestigious theater arts university she was attending, called my grandmother and me and told us to stay home that day.

Later, of course, the news leaked out, as sure as the radiation that spread throughout the Soviet Union, Western and Eastern Europe, and even the rest of the world. The Republics of Belarus and Ukraine, where I was born and lived at the time, were most affected. Still, news or not, I remember caring very little. The teachers gave us mild warnings: wear head coverings and keep your windows closed. Most kids dismissed the advice —  I was among them. I don’t remember much other than just living my eight-year-old life. Trading calendars with my girlfriends. Playing war out in the yard with the boys.

The following year my mama whisked me away to Moscow Region. Through bribes and connections, she settled me in a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, nestled in the pine woods beyond Moscow. Though I never suffered from TB, my health could have certainly used some of that fresh air and medical care.

In the months and years that followed, things started happening to me — strange things. I started getting sick. One problem followed by another kept landing me in children’s hospitals for weeks, sometimes months at a time. Migraines intensified. They stayed with me, pretty much the rest of my life (though I am doing MUCH better now with long walks that seem to really help, and acupuncture). The best doctors in Moscow, and later on the other side of the Atlantic, tried to make sense of my headaches and hormonal irregularities. Not one of them could give an answer. Of course, we’ll never know for sure how much of it was due to the nuclear fallout. We can only guess.

Today, I am doing well. I have two relatively healthy and VERY beautiful children, for which I am grateful.

Today, I join the world in praying for Japan. I AM thankful that as bad as their crisis is, they are working hard to contain it, and are being much smarter, more efficient and more open about it all, compared to my former compatriots.*

*(Even as I say this, I cannot fail to mention the firefighters and the nuclear reactor workers that were on the ground on that fateful day — and in the terrible days that followed — risking their lives, some unsuspecting, but others knowing, in order to deal with a level 7 nuclear disaster — the kind that so far has never been repeated anywhere in the world — and I hope never will be. Those people died — or survived, some of the lucky ones — as heroes, doing the best they could while dealing with humanity’s worst nightmare. No one could criticize them. No one would want to.)

March 23, 2011 Posted by | Personal Mirror, Politics and Religion, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , , | 9 Comments


The manuscript I am working on (waiting for friends’ feedback at the moment) is set in the 1930s in the then-young Soviet Union.

The 1930s was the time when the USSR was but in its twenties — the youngest nation in the world. It was the time of frantic building, an epoch of wild pride and big dreams. The Soviets were in the middle of the greatest human experiment. They were building the best place on earth, the most humane, the fairest society in the entire world.

For millions of Soviet people, the 1930s was also the time of nightmares. 

Here is a 2-minute video clip from a popular movie of the time.


Do you know whose portrait these people are holding up while marching in a parade? That man with the mustache was Comrade Josef Stalin, the harshest, most ruthless dictator known to human history. Josef Stalin built a system of oppression, under which millions of people were sent to their deaths, or to the remote areas of their country, thousands of kilometers away from their lives and their loved ones. Millions were sent away or shot for making a wrong joke. For not being “political” enough. For having connections to old wealth or old Russian aristocracy. For being too wealthy. Too unorthodox. Too different. For refusing to follow an order. For refusing to seal someone else’s fate with a careless word. Sometimes, they were sent away for no reason at all.

In the video clip, do you know what these people are singing? They are singing, “there is no other land where a man can live this free.”

The 1930s was the time of massive arrests and even more massive paranoia. The 1930s was the epoch of fear that enveloped the Soviet society.

If you have another moment, I invite you over once again to the blog of my good friend and historical fiction author Joyce Moyer Hostetter, where I share a very personal memory of my own fear, half a century later.


Thanks everyone, once again, for stopping by!

February 27, 2011 Posted by | The U.S.S.R. | , , | 8 Comments

Books are Our BFFs: A Giveaway

To continue with last month’s friendship theme, I’d like to offer you a little giveaway to celebrate books and friendship!

You see, starting this blog has been one of the very best things I have ever done. Through it I have met — physically and virtually — some amazing award-winning, up-and-coming, super-talented authors who, most important of all, turned out to be incredible human beings — wise, generous, supportive, inspiring, FUN. I guess that part shouldn’t surprise me too much — people who read and write this many books are bound to have learned a thing of two about kindness and generosity. People like that are also bound to be gutsy and contain a fiery spirit — just the sort of thing I love in human beings. Plus, in their trek toward literary success they have picked up a nugget of wisdom or two, which they are always more than happy to share.

Thus in honor of friendship, wisdom, generosity and — of course — books, which teach us all of those things — I am giving away two books by an author friend I have been fortunate enough to make through this blog: Joyce Moyer Hostetter:  www. joycemoyerhostetter.com   

I have read Joyce’s historical fiction story, “Blue,” Calkins Creek Books, 2006, a few years ago, before I ever dreamed she would actually follow my blog — before I even had a blog. I loved her story — an account of growing up in North Carolina in the mid 1940s, the times of polio epidemic and of course, World War II. 

Now Joyce sent me two more of her works  — her first one  is precious in a way, because it’s no longer in print. Published in 1995 by Friendship Press, “Best Friends Forever” was Joyce’s first imperfect “baby,” or at least that’s the way she describes it. It is a sweet story for young middle-graders about a friendship between n Orthodox Ukrainian girl and an American Mennonite. I am going to have to track down a used copy on amazon.com for me to read, but this spanking brand new signed one I wanted to give away to my supportive followers! The second book Joyce and I are giving away here is “Healing Water, a Hawaiian story” published by Calkins Creek in 2008. This book, which I am also going to find another copy of for my own pleasure, is a fictional account inspired by the actual historical events occurring at a Hawaiian leprosy settlement in late 1800s. The story’s protagonist in battling for survival, must make a choice between aloha — forgiveness — or revenge. It is an inspiration and friendship with one remarkable man who ultimately leads the story’s hero toward making the right choice.


By the way, Joyce and I have timed this giveaway to coincide with a first guest post I am writing for her about growing up in the Soviet Union. Check it out on her blog:


So, without further ado, here is to friendship — and to books!

Leave a comment here — or on Joyce’s blog: http://joycemoyerhostetter.blogspot.com/2011/02/soviet-union-did-have-god-guest-blog-by.html

so I could enter your name in this newest giveaway contest!

February 6, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, The U.S.S.R., Writing Mirror | , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

How to celebrate the New Year, Russian-style

Since Soviet Russia wasn’t allowed to officially celebrate Christmas, we had to have some other major holiday. And it had to be big. Huge. BETTER than Christmas. Thus was born the Soviet New Year, honestly THE BEST holiday EVER.

Think Halloween with its costumes and candy. Add to it Christmas with its dressed-up evergreens and loads of presents. Then sprinkle freely with the regular New Year traditions as you know it — the festive partying all night long, the  champagne, the countdown, the fireworks. And most importantly, don’t forget the Chinese New Year — a new animal patron watching over every successive year, determining your luck. Finally, toss in Russia’s own deep superstitions.     

And you get a holidaygreat for everyone — from families with young kids, to love-stuck teens, to 20-something singles. You get a holiday that outlasted the Soviet empire itself!   

You get the holiday of my childhood — one that I too have trouble growing out of. 🙂                     


I think the most addictive part of it isn’t even all the fun — it’s the superstition. The kind Russians have always been famous for — and which only intensified in the Soviet period when religion wasn’t sanctioned.

According to the New Year tradition which had taken such firm hold on me, what you do on New Year’s eve and on the first morning of the new year will determine how you spend the entire year. What you wear and eat, who you spend your time with, it all matters too. While American Christians are shopping around for better outdoor lights, and the Jews hunt for fancier electric Hanukkah menorahs to display in their windows, Russians buy up little animal figures at the stores, to surround themselves with the image of the lucky animal, and check the major newspapers for horoscopes and instructions on how to best celebrate on the New Year’s eve.

What are you doing this New Year’s?

And what are you hoping for?


The rabbit will supposedly (and HOPEFULLY) bring us all a peaceful year and generally a much happier year for the entire world, after the combative exhaustive Tiger of 2010. (Not that it was bad or anything. To me, at least, this passing year had been filled with great highlights. it’s just been a bit DIFFICULT. Which may have been a good thing, for it toughened me up EVEN MORE, and made me work harder than ever.)

According to the Chinese and Russian horoscopes, 2011 just might be the year when patience, hard work and good deeds pay off (but bragging, showing off, intolerance and aggression generally do not). It is best to greet this year in the colors of the rabbit — white, gray or light brown. God save you if you decide to have rabbit for dinner though, or wear a rabbit fur hat. (Rabbit won’t like it!)

Whatever you do this New Year’s eve then — make sure you don’t fight — or, I don’t know, do something lame like watch soap operas! Make sure you hug your loved ones when the clock strikes twelve, and if you must be separated from someone you love, at least think of them, or call them.

 Stay happy, and meet this year with joy! Then, at the end, let me know what great fortunes the Rabbit brought you!

December 30, 2010 Posted by | Contemporary History, Politics and Religion, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , | 9 Comments

From Russia with love; from Russia with hate


Entering the classroom of a summer course I am taking on English language and grammar, I grab a random desk in the front right corner of the room, and find myself in an international section, all of a sudden. So we get together into a group, where we’re supposed to discuss our relationship to language. The Hispanic guy says he loves Spanish. He talks about how Hispanics tend to stick together as a group. This is kind of interesting, because from what I remember in high school in New York, the Russians also sometimes stick together as a group, but it’s almost like they also hate that they have to do it. Almost like they have no choice. A surprise: a nice young girl who sits right beside me is Ukrainian. She came here at the age of 2, she assures me quickly. How does she feel about her roots? In one of our mini-essays later that week, she’ll write she wishes she could eliminate that tell-all ethnic letter “y” in her beautiful name.

“How about you?” they ask. “You love Russian, right?”

Oh, no, not me,” I say.

 “I love English,” I hurry to tell them, earnestly. Which I do. Seriously, I am in love LOVE love with the English language.


 I hate my scared childhood. I hate the way the Russians will sometimes treat those who wait on them. I hate the pampered, panicky way they sometimes raise their children.

When I happen to witness it in a restaurant somewhere, or catch it in a conversation I’m overhearing, it twists my stomach, that I’m so-much-better-than-you attitude.

When I immigrated here to New York City at the age of fifteen/about to be sixteen, I embraced my new home with all of my heart and soul. It wasn’t always easy, but in high school I tried so hard to hang out with American friends, hook up with American boyfriends ONLY. I wanted so desperately to create a new life for myself, a life that was fully here, and I think today, at the age of 32, I could fully say that I have – created that life. My beloved hubby is French/Italian. My all-around BFF is TOTALLY American, as are all of my writing friends, whom I cherish. I live in a small New Jersey town where there is barely a Russian soul, in fact. I am pursuing two very American professions – writing and teaching school, and earlier, journalism (not beezness, or, say, the medical field, which would be a more popular choice for a Russian today).

And yet, what am I blogging about, right now?

What lullabies do I hum for my American kids when I put them to bed? (Well, for my daughter, anyway, my son is too old for that kind of thing now.)                                                                                                                                                          

Where was my first novel set? In Russia.

And the second one? In the Ukraine/the Soviet Union.

What is wrong with me, then?

I sometimes wish it weren’t so. But the truth is, this yucky-and yet tragically tortured, and twisted and once in a while beautiful Russian-Soviet upbringing is a part of who I am. I think even when I deny it, my writing self knows it. The blogging me knows it. The me who wants to be friends with the Ukrainian girl in my class knows it too.

Yeah, I love English, its’ seeming simplicity, its directedness, its economy, its modern feel. And yet I use Russian words in my American YA novels. I shake my finger at my daughter when she plays a trick on me and playfully call her “hooliganka.

I say I hate my Russian childhood. I hate the fact that I grew up indoctrinated and paranoid. And yet, I also love the freedom of the way I grew up. Playing at construction sites. Roaming all over the city. Getting in a little bit of trouble here and there, and most of the time, getting away with it.

I’d lie if I said I didn’t like the children’s stories I’d been read. Or the way my mama and I listened to classical music together.

I really think I’m as American as anyone else out there, maybe in some ways more so. But I can still admire that Russian figure skater couple on TV, or sway to a velvety melody of an old cheesy Soviet song. 

This is who I am. I don’t think I’ll ever fully embrace it. But I can’t escape it.


Where are you from? Are you proud of it? How does the place where you grew up inform who and what you are now?

Tell me!! 🙂

May 23, 2010 Posted by | The U.S.S.R. | 2 Comments