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Russian Tattoo: A Memoir


Russian Tattoo: A Memoir

A 20-kilogram suitcase holds everything Elena Gorokhova brings with her when she leaves behind her life in Soviet St. Petersburg to head to the United States in the 1980s. But Elena is not fleeing the repression or deprivations of the Soviet regime. She’s escaping an overbearing mother. While the Western imagining of life in the Soviet Union is markedly different from the American consumerism of the ’80s, mothers exerting pressure on their offspring is a near-universal occurrence that translates even when cultural differences are lost.

Elena’s clear voice carries through RUSSIAN TATTOO as her youthful rebellion develops into an attempt to redefine her relationship with her mother and finally into greater understanding as she experiences motherhood herself.

"RUSSIAN TATTOO is a gripping story, Elena Gorokhova is a clear-voiced and human narrator, and her life is captivating without becoming incomprehensible."

As a 24-year-old, Elena leaves her home to marry a young American graduate student she barely knows. Determined but terrified, she tries to find a place for herself in her new husband’s life in a country and culture far more different from Russia than anticipated. Even armed with a degree to teach English, Elena finds her basic language skills and cultural comprehension a serious handicap. Worse still, her husband shows very little interest in supporting his new wife. Sent to live with her mother-in-law, Elena finds herself falling in love with a family friend, Andy. At once guilt-ridden and unapologetic, she leaves her husband to move in with her lover. It’s a daring move --- and one she never regrets.

With Andy’s support, Elena finds a job at a college teaching English and begins feeling confident that she will not end up starving on the streets, as her mother has warned. Financially and emotionally secure and pregnant, she decides it may be time to battle her real demon, who comes in the form of an elderly woman constantly plying her with hearty Russian dishes and urging her to dress more warmly. Her mother descends on her American bliss, shuffling in to disrupt her parenting efforts and daily life.

Elena’s story is familiar on many levels: as an immigrant, as a daughter and as a mother. Like many before her, she will never quite feel comfortable in her adopted country, but is no longer a member of the society she left. She also finds that no matter the culture, children fight their parents. Her mother’s aging and confrontations with her force Elena to reassess her relationships. Her honest portrayal of her feelings towards her mother is valuable; despite the much longed-for moment of truth, there is no perfect reconciliation or tearful moment of all-encompassing clarity. Elena can never quite forgive her mother’s tense control over her childhood and youth, but she does come to accept that it came from her intense love for her children, a desire to protect them, and the fearful conditions through which she lived. The lingering question is whether or not Elena’s mother would have been less demanding had she lived under other circumstances. It’s impossible to say.

RUSSIAN TATTOO is a gripping story, Elena Gorokhova is a clear-voiced and human narrator, and her life is captivating without becoming incomprehensible. The glory of the book is in its little things: the pride that comes from feeling respected by a parent, and the trust needed to humble yourself before them.

Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on January 8, 2015

Russian Tattoo: A Memoir
by Elena Gorokhova

  • Publication Date: January 26, 2016
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1451689837
  • ISBN-13: 9781451689839