Thursday, September 29, 2011

STALINA: The Survival Expert

Russians have a peculiar habit of naming their young after poets, scientists and war heroes. Yet, it must’ve taken a special inspiration to christen one’s daughter Stalina after the ill-famed Soviet tyrant. Or, it may have been a brilliant attempt at survival: even Stalin wouldn’t send a Jew named after him to Siberia. While this cultural subtlety may not have been apparent to an American ear, it interested Emily Rubin, a New York writer, broadcast professional and stage manager, who herself had Russian roots. 
Emily met Stalina while teaching an Oral History class to Russian expatriates at the Brighton Beach Community College in 1997. Her students, the former USSR citizens in their 60’s and 70’s, told intense and vivid stories of the World War II, Stalin’s regime and life in their old country. Emily asked her students to tell her about the person for whom they were named. Each student’s account brought up stories of war heroes, scientists, painters and poets along with dreams for future generations. Among the Yuri’s, Anna’s and Tatiana’s there was a woman named Stalina. She stated very simply that she was named for Stalin.  With her name, she explained, she carried her country’s painful history. Emily said that in this stoic and alluring woman, she had found her main character.
A sixty-something émigré, Stalina became Emily’s inspiration for the book.  But, Rubin was interested not only by the woman’s life journey, but also by the Russian history and its citizens’ exodus of 1990s. To research her book, Rubin joined the Summer Literary Seminar’s program in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2002, where she conducted interviews, visited historical sites and read at the legendary Stray Dog Café frequented by many famous Russian writers and poets, including Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetayeva. She also attended writing workshops at The New School.  It took her several years to finish the book, and her unexpected breast cancer battle had slowed down her progress, but she was determined to see her work in print.

Rubin’s vivid description of Stalina’s 18th birthday instantly deposits us into the Leningrad’s reality of the 1950s.  Stalina is allowed to invite only three guests because Stalin is dangerously sick, festivities are banned and citizens are holding vigils at their radios. Seasoned survivors, Stalina and her friends find a way to celebrate without music and laughter: they agree to interact like their favorite silent movie star Charlie Chaplin. The talent of surviving with a smile becomes Stalina’s most distinctive quality. It carries her through the journey of leaving her motherland with a bag of bras and porcelain cats, and helps her make her American dream a reality as she transforms a short-stay Connecticut motel into a fantasy destination. It also fuels her revenge on the high-rank government official, who, years ago, was responsible for the disappearance of her father and her childhood dog Pepe. Once a professional chemist trained by the Soviets to “make things smell like what they are not” Stalina knows neither fear nor limits when it comes to choosing her weapons, including her mother’s ashes.

Stalina is a journey into an absurd world that nonetheless was reality for more than one Soviet generation. It won’t necessarily explain why Russians think the way they do, but it will put you into a Russian mindset for the duration.


  1. Wow. Lina, such a fascinating book! I imagine it's a read that tugs at the heartstrings. Thank you for sharing, this will be put on my "must read" list.

  2. Great! yes indeed very nice book and I enjoyed reading it, looking forward to your next post!

    # survival expert