This reading group guide for Russian Tattoo includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elena Gorokhova. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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In her bestselling memoir A Mountain of Crumbs
, Elena Gorokhova describes coming of age behind the Iron Curtain and leaving her mother and her Motherland for a new life in the United States. Now, in Russian Tattoo
, Elena learns that the journey of an immigrant is filled with everyday mistakes, small humiliations, and a loss of dignity. Cultural disorientation comes in the form of not knowing how to eat a hamburger, buy a pair of shoes, or catch a bus. But through perseverance and resilience, Elena gradually adapts to her new country. When her mother arrives from the Soviet Union to help care for her infant granddaughter, she ends up staying twenty-four years. Initially provoking conflict, the arrival of her mother is the catalyst for a growing sense of understanding and redemption. A poignant memoir of three generations of strong and strikingly different women struggling with separation and loss, humor and grief, and power and powerlessness, Russian Tattoo
is a story of empathy, insight, and reconciliation. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In Russia, what qualities in Elena caused Robert to be drawn to her?
2. On the plane from Russia to America, Elena mistakenly assumes that the uncooked mushrooms served in the lunchtime salad must be poisonous. After incredulously asking Robert about this, she reflects that “what may have seemed interesting to Robert in Russia—my exotic ignorance—was now silly and annoying, a liability rather than a charm.” What are other examples of Elena’s “exotic ignorance”? Is Elena correct in thinking that Robert now sees her cultural missteps as less than charming?
3. Discuss “the pretending game called vranyo
” that Elena describes as something played by every Russian. What is this game? Discuss moments in the story when Elena, too, plays the game of vranyo
. Do you think people in America play it, too?
4. As a citizen of the former Soviet Union, Elena has formed a sense of self very different from that of most Americans. She wonders if Americans “are born with an inherent knowledge about themselves as individuals—not as part of various collectives.” Do you detect an absence of personal initiative in the Russians among whom Elena lived? How does her sense of self evolve after she moves to America?
5. In Russia, Elena says, “you knew how everyone felt about everything,” whereas in America, she often cannot read people’s true feelings. What other differences does Elena take note of in her new country?
6. Elena describes herself as “damaged by her Motherland.” What does she mean? Do you agree? Do you think Elena still views herself this way later in life?
7. Robert and Andy both pursue Elena, albeit in very different ways. Compare the two men’s approaches, both to wooing Elena and to introducing her to America.
8. The narrative moves back and forth between Elena’s American present and her Russian past. Did you like her digressions into that past?
9. When Elena’s mother comes to America, the two women clash over many things. Do they agree about anything at all in this new life together? How, ultimately, does she come to terms with her family’s intrusion on her personal life?
10. Elena has a tumultuous relationship with her own daughter, Sasha. What causes the distance between them? How does Elena eventually reconcile their differences?
11. After Elena’s sister Marina comes to America, Elena and her family must adapt to their new roles: Elena’s mother “as the hostess in her own apartment,” Marina “as caretaker and newcomer,” and Elena as “a guest, a translator, and a cultural advisor.” How do the new roles differ from their old roles in Russia? How does each woman adjust to the present?
12. Language plays an important part in the story; for example, Elena often uses and explains a Russian word in detail when a simple translation will not suffice. How does language increase the distance between the characters? How does language bring them together?
13. Elena has a recurring dream of getting on an Aeroflot plane to Leningrad. What is its significance?
14. Elena’s mother exclaims at the “beautiful tattoo” displayed by an ice skater on American TV. Why is Elena so surprised to hear her mother speak those words? Why do you think Elena chose Russian Tattoo
as the title of the memoir? Enhance Your Book Club
1. It is often said that America is a nation of immigrants. Share a story of your own or relate a story you’ve heard from a relative or friend about coming to this country from elsewhere. Do you find similarities to Elena’s experiences?
2. Suppose you were hosting someone coming to America for the first time. How would you introduce life in your own hometown?
3. For a close understanding of day-to-day life in post-Soviet Russia, read Elena’s previous memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs
. A Conversation with Elena Gorokhova How did you decide to write a follow-up to A Mountain of Crumbs?
Initially I had a different project in mind, a story based on my sister’s life: her growing up in Ivanovo and becoming an actress after World War II. But I received so many emails from readers who wanted to know what happened after the protagonist said good-bye to her family and country and got on the plane headed for Washington that I was inspired to write the second half of the story. It was also my attempt to figure out, through writing, the dynamics of my own relationship with my mother and my daughter. How did writing Russian Tattoo compare to writing your previous memoir? Ws it more difficult to write about this more recent part of your life?
It was a very different process. A Mountain of Crumbs
required a long time to take shape and find its voice. I had been writing snippets of stories to see if they would congeal into something unified by bigger themes. Russian Tattoo
took only about three or four years, and I think it was the death of my mother in 2012 that gave the book its ending. Only after she died could I look back and evaluate my relationship with someone against whom I had defined myself my whole life. What advice would you give to a young Elena Gorokhova just arriving in America?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be a Young Pioneer who does only what she is told, who salutes the good and never comments on the bad. I would tell her that Americans are open and generous people who take pride in helping others, and I would advise her not to be afraid to connect with them. The people around her are going to help her understand the essence of the culture and the soul of the new and unfamiliar place. Are there any writers who have influenced your work? Do you have a favorite memoir writer?
There are three writers (and all three wrote memoirs) who are both my favorite writers and who, in different ways, have influenced my work. I would give a lot to have lived at the turn of the twentieth century and been able to send my stories to A. P. Chekhov, who, in addition to being an extraordinary explorer and master interpreter of the human soul, was a generous mentor to lesser writers. I am grateful to J. M. Coetzee, who graciously took the time to read both of my books, and while I will never approach his masterful precision of language, I hope I have learned from him the courage to explore the visceral and the uncomfortable, to shine a light into those places in our souls that may better be left in the dark. And finally, my memoirs would not be what they are without Frank McCourt, as brilliant a teacher as he was a storyteller. He taught me about “hot spots,” those momentous tectonic shifts that realign and alter our lives. He taught me to dig deeply into the loam of memory and resurrect the ghosts of the past. What do you find easiest to write about? Do you have a strategy to extract yourself when you get stuck in the writing process?
It is easy for me to write about places. It is not so easy to write about people. People are complicated and unpredictable. They never stand still, powered by the blood flow of their desires. Trying to write about people, I often get stuck crafting dialogue or threading motivation. How do I extract myself? I watch people and ask myself why they do what they do. I read Chekhov and Coetzee. I get help from my psychotherapist husband, who—luckily for me—knows about people. Are there any things about living in the United States that still surprise you, even after all the years you have been here?
The people’s curiosity and courage still surprise me. The openness to different ideas and the tolerance of otherness still surprise me. The New York City energy still surprises me. If I were given a choice to live anywhere, I would choose to live right here, in New York. The story you tell is split into five parts: the first four are named for people essential to the story (Robert, Andy, Sasha, and Mama), but the last you name for Petersburg. Can you explain the thoughts and reasons that led to this structure?
This memoir focuses on different characters as time progresses: first husband, second husband, daughter, mother. The last character is the city where I was born and to which I returned, Petersburg. In my mind Petersburg is a character, just as all the others are. I see it as a living entity. It changes, yet holds onto its history, eager to accommodate everyone it has touched—both its present and its former residents—into the fabric of its multilayered memory. In the book you push Sasha not only to learn about your family’s past but also to speak and read Russian. Why did you feel it is so important to pass down this cultural heritage, when you tried so hard to leave it behind?
I think there is a difference between the system I tried to leave behind (the Soviet Union, with its dogmas and its lies) and the Russian culture, with its literature and its language. I love Russian literature, and Russian is my native tongue. I wanted my daughter to be able to speak and understand my language, to want to read the poems and novels I read. Foolishly, I wanted her to be like me. But she isn’t me. She is a different person, with her own roots (American), her own experience and knowledge, and her own soul. Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction? Will your next project be a novel or a memoir?
I think I’ve revealed as much of my life as there is to reveal. I hope my daughter will still speak to me when she finally reads the book (so far, she has refused to read it). I hope other people who are characters in my memoirs see events as I do. But since I can only tell the story one way—the way I remember it, the way it left an impression in my heart—I think my next project will be fiction. Writing fiction is safer because you make it up. No one can accuse you of distorting the truth, which is never pure or simple. It is as tangled and complicated and narrator-specific as life itself.