We’re pleased to present an excerpt from Soviet Stamps, the new book from artist, writer, and Vol.1 Brooklyn contributor Dmitry Samarov. Samarov describes it as follows: “Through written vignettes, artwork, and family photos the book charts Samarov’s emigration from the USSR in 1978, on to his attempts to fit into American society and peripatetic attempts to earn a living, while continuing to create artwork.” It’s available online and can be purchased in New York at Quimby’s Bookstore NYC.
I come from a country that no longer exists. I don’t mean that in any dramatic or metaphorical sense. I was born in the Soviet Union in 1970, we immigrated to the United States in 1978, then the country collapsed in 1991. Moscow, the city where I was born, still stands, but is now the capital of Russia. On Google Street View, I’ve looked at the building that housed the communal apartment in which I spent my first six years, but I felt no recognition seeing the façade, sidewalk, windows, no stirring of memory. When people find out where I’m from, one of the first questions they ask is whether I’ve ever been back. My stock answer is that there’s nowhere to go back to.
Of course a memoir is an attempt to go back. Writing about the events of decades ago is a particularly self-conscious kind of time travel. You know there’s no way to shed the accumulated experiences of intervening years. A forty-nine-year-old can’t begin to even pretend to be a seven-year-old. In painting there’s been a worship of children’s creativity for many decades. The idea is that a child’s way of making art is unencumbered by intellect, self-consciousness, doubt, history, or any other possible obstacle; that it’s somehow pure. I’ve nev- er entirely bought this romantic notion. I have no interest in returning to an innocent state, nor to channel some naïve version of creativity. Thinking about events that happened forty years ago is not a matter of returning to those times. An adult’s idea of childhood has very little to do with that actual childhood. The idea of trying to re-create the sensations of that time from inside seems like some sort of magical possession ritual and holds very little appeal for me (were it even possible.)
So why write about the past at all? The simple answer is that it helps you make sense of the present. Everything you’ve done and every place you’ve been alters where you end up. This is where being from a place that no longer exists comes into play. Emigrating from the Soviet Union is the central event of my life. It always will be. It lurks in the background of everything else that’s happened to me. It’s the foundation of everything that I am. Coming to an understanding——or at least some peace——with immigration’s mystery is the reason I’m writing this book. There’s probably no way to be free of one’s past, but I hope there might be a way to be less haunted or hindered by it.
No one else in my family sets as much stock by our immigration as I do. My parents were both thirty when we moved and my brother was four. They were fully formed people, while he was barely self-aware. All I can report on is how it appears from the out- side, but none of them seem as affected by the event as I was and continue to be. My parents already knew who they were and Boris hadn’t had time to decide yet; I was just in the process of becoming whoever it was I was going to be when the whole context of my existence was removed with very little warning or explanation. I was told we were going on vacation, on a trip, but we never came back. On the day of our departure, I ran away to the playground out- side my grandparents’ apartment building. I sensed something was wrong, that something was about to change in a significant way. This is not to assign blame. Most Jewish families offered the opportunity to leave the USSR in the 1970s would’ve leapt at the chance. There was no viable future for freethinking people in that country, much less freethinking minorities. It was a no-brainer that my parents had to leave and try to build a new life in America, but to a seven-year-old who knew nothing but life in Moscow, it was a catastrophe.
I don’t mean to say that my childhood in the USSR was a paradise from which my parents banished me. My mother claims I was a much more happy-go-lucky child before we left, but I suspect she has rose-colored glasses, the way mothers often do when remembering their children when they were very young. My father, on the other hand, is convinced that I’d have felt like an outsider whether we’d moved or not. Some people can feel at home anywhere, whereas others are unsettled even though they’ve never left their hometown. I ask both my father and mother about what I was like in order to see how it jibes with what I recall. Of course their memories have undoubtedly changed over time as well, so this is unstable ground to get a fix on. I doubt that parents ever see their children clearly. There’s so much invest- ment of time, effort, and emotion (not to mention DNA) involved that the picture that emerges is either overly sentimental, idealized, or otherwise altered to remove the real flaws that make us who we are. Still, because they were in their twenties and thirties during the time in question, I have to rely on their recollections for at least part of this picture.
I feel on more solid ground when asking them about their youth rather than my own. Hearing them talk about themselves helps me to fill in the gaps, to picture them as people in my childhood world rather than just parents. They’re less sparing or forgiving with memories of themselves than they are with memories of me. It’s difficult to explain to them that I have no interest in finding out whether I was a good boy or a bad boy or to fix something that was broken. What I’m after is a description of the events that led us from Moscow to Vienna to Rome, then to Billerica and finally to Brookline in Massachusetts. We crossed the divide of the Cold War just as the side we were coming from was beginning to disintegrate.
Like a fading memory, the disappearance of the Soviet Union makes the job of tracing my origins much more tenuous. It’s as if someone took an eraser to the blueprint of a building and got rid of the first few stories. You can infer their structure by the visible floors above, but questions will always remain about the foundation.
My father’s father wasn’t around much the first five years of my father’s life. After World War II, many Jews in the Soviet Union were either stripped of their positions or sent off to work in remote regions. Stalin punished them for imagined crimes against the fatherland——the chief one being the ethnic lineage they had no control over. My grandfather was a tank engineer, a loyal career army man, but his faith in his country was repaid with banishment. He was a stern older man by the time my father was born. That, coupled with his absence, made my father afraid of him. Gentleness and intimacy were not currencies much in use in that household. Not on the male side in any case. My father decided early on that to thrive he needed to ask for almost nothing, especially not emotional support. He never wanted to be a burden. Never wanted anyone to make a fuss over him. The thing to do was to shut up and do your work, and the rest would take care of itself.
My mother was the eldest of two girls. Her sister, Galia, was born a year after her. My mother was the pretty one while her sister was considered the smart one and was thus her father’s favorite. Insecurity about her intellect ate at Mama all the way into her adult life. I heard about it from her all the time. She wanted to be a dancer when she was little but was born with one leg shorter than the other, making that dream only a dream. She became a doctor instead. Caring for others instead of her- self has always been one of her defining attributes. She met her first husband in medical school but was about done with him by the time she met my father. According to her, I’m the result of their first night together.