'Stalina', the Inspiration

“Just as the future ripens in the past, so the past smolders in the future.”
— Anna Akhmatova

In 1997 I taught an Oral History workshop at a community college in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. My students, in their 60’s and 70’s, had emigrated from Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The stories they told of life during WW II under Stalin were vivid, honest and filled with the irony that is at the heart of the complicated Russian psyche. They were passionate about their homeland, and at the same time conflicted about the end of the Soviet Union. I knew little about Russia, even though my grandparents had come from Russia and Poland in the early1900’s to settle in New York. My relatives had little to say about their homeland except to recount bitter memories of a place they had no choice but to leave because of rampant anti-Semitic sentiments. In order to better understand my students and perhaps shed light on my family history, I asked that they tell us 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. In this stoic and alluring woman, I had found my main character.

My students were feisty, resilient and opinionated and looked upon the frivolity of Americans with disdain and envy. The stories revealed their ingenuity and exuberance born from a passionate connection to family, the landscape of their homeland, and its history. Leaving their country and professional lives as older adults posed many obstacles that were topics of our weekly discussions. They found the US attractive, yet wasteful, and an easy mark for their savvy intellects. In the year I worked with them many documents previously censored by the Soviets were released for the first time. I continued my research with particular attention to life in the city of Leningrad/St. Petersburg, a city whose name changed as Russia continued to evolve. All of this fed into my writing. I began the novel with a short vignette about a young girl’s birthday celebration during Stalin’s final days. I had read that during that time people throughout the country held vigils at their radios listening to broadcasts about his failing condition.

Authors who were important influences for my writing while working on STALINA were Grace Paley, MFK Fisher, Isaak Babel, Anna Ahkmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky and Nina Berberova. I also do photo research, and found the work of photographers who documented World War II and after, compelling and an inspiration for many details.

While writing STALINA I learned about the Summer Literary Seminar in St. Petersburg. The program was a perfect chance for me to visit Russia and research my novel. While there I interviewed people who had lived through Stalin’s time and visited places I had only read about or seen in pictures. I met and read the work of contemporary and classic Russian writers in workshops led by Robert Creeley, Jonathan Baumbach and Robert Olmstead. I read my work at the legendary Stray Dog Café. The trip was an extraordinary experience that fueled my writing with memories of the babushkas selling flowers, the steely light blue of the sky above the Neva River, the earthy taste of wild mushroom blinis, the flea market where I bought a Victrola and some icons that turned out to be well executed fakes, women singing a capella in the metro, the outsized statues of generals and their steeds casting shadows across the well traveled bridges, a massage and steam at a local banya, and so much more.

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