Musings Publishing (2015)
Reviewed by Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views (06/15)
Article first published as Interview: Svetlana Grobman, Author of ‘The Education of a Traitor: A Memoir of Growing Up in Cold War Russia’on Blogcritics.
Svetlana Grobman was born in Moscow in 1951. She became a Jewish immigrant when she moved to the United States in 1990. Grobman was an engineer and an editor for the Soviet Encyclopedia in Russia. Currently, she is a librarian and freelance writer living in Columbia, Missouri. She has published articles and personal stories in a variety of places, including the Christian Science Monitor, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Rural Missouri, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. The Education of a Traitor: A Memoir of Growing Up in Cold War Russia is Svetlana’s first book length publication, and she is currently working on her second.
Susan: Welcome Svetlana, and thank you for being here. Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Svetlana: I came to this country at the age of 39 with no English and no knowledge of American life. At first, I worked as a nurse’s aide at a nursing home (I worked nights, so I wouldn’t have to talk much). Then, I got a job at a public library shelving books. When my English improved, I went to a Library Science School and, in 1997, I became a full-time librarian. At about the same time, I married an American man, and we’re still together.
Susan: You have several published articles and personal stories, including a story called My Valentine in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Here Comes the Bride; but The Education of a Traitor is your first book, and your childhood memoir. How important was it for you personally to get your story on paper for the world to hear?
Svetlana: When I first began writing, I wrote mostly about my adaptation to America, which was hard, confusing, and funny at the same time. I also wrote about learning English and getting used to being an American wife, not as easy as you think! Later, though, my husband began urging me to write about my past.
At first, I wasn’t sure I could do it, because, for one thing, that would mean reliving things I wanted to forget. Also, I wasn’t sure I could sustain readers’ interest for 300 pages. I knew I could do it for ten pages, but for a whole book? Yet the more I thought about it, the more I felt that my husband was right.
We sometimes think that only extraordinary lives and terrible events should be remembered, but I don’t believe that’s true. Ordinary lives must be remembered as well. I, like millions of other Russian citizens, lived in a cloistered society under a corrupt and oppressive regime, brainwashed at every turn. It is important to understand how this life impacted us, and what it did to our relationships and our world view.
Ironically, Russia has been in the news lately, and Americans seem to have a hard time comprehending its nationalism, its disrespect for International laws, and the power of its propaganda machine. But, as for me, I can see the roots of Russia’s current behavior in the period of Soviet history described in my book.
Susan: I love the title, it’s so forceful and chilling – how did you come up with it?
Svetlana: As a post-war child, I grew up reading books and watching movies about WWII. In them, there always was a black-and-white distinction between those who died for our country (heroes) and those who didn’t (traitors). This often made me feel uneasy, for I wanted to be a hero, but, at the same time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to die to prove it.
In the end, I didn’t have to face death to be called a traitor. All I had to do was to ask for a transfer to a better school (I was 15 at the time). Later, when I applied for an exit visa, I was called a traitor many times, because there was no word like “ex-patriot” in the Soviet vocabulary, only “defector” and “traitor.”
In my book, I wanted to show the transformation of a naïve girl into someone who recognizes that she is surrounded by lies, and who stands up for what she believes in.
Susan: Our reviewer, Sheri Hoyte, said “Humor and irony fill the pages, and often seem to soften the reality of the situation being recounted.” How big a role did your candid attitude play in recounting these stories from your past?
Svetlana: Two Russian authors influenced my writing: Anton Chekhov, known for his plays (Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya) and short stories, and a Yiddish author, Sholem Aleichem (the musical Fiddle on the Roof is based on his stories). The latter especially was known for mixing drama with jokes and tears with laughter. That is how I perceive life, too. Besides, life in Russia was often so absurd, that is was actually funny.
Susan: What was your biggest challenge writing The Education of a Traitor?
Svetlana: Two things – not falling into the trap of feeling pity for myself and also sustaining my readers’ interest – for my book has no wars (although WWII looms on the background), no sex scenes, and no car chases. It’s a quiet book, and I had to find a way to keep my readers going. I decided to do that by telling stories. Each chapter tells a separate story, although I hope that, taken together, they manage to illustrate what life was like in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Susan: Being an immigrant myself and having to learn English as my third language, I can honestly relate a little with your background. Could you please share with us about coming to the United States and how, at the age of 39, you learned the English language?
Svetlana: I am Jewish, which in this country is considered to be a religion (or an ethnicity), but in Soviet Russia, a country of atheists, “Jewish” was a “Nationality.” And although we didn’t wear yellow stars on our clothes, the way German and Austrian Jews did during WWII, we all had a line, “Nationality – Jewish” written on all of our documents, medical’ records, and school rosters.
Anyway, I came to the United States as a Jewish refugee. Unfortunately, I had never studied English (I took German in school). The good thing was that my library job exposed me to a multitude of books, including English study guides. So, after work, I just stayed in the library and studied. People helped me, too. Someone told me that to remember a word, I needed to write it down ten times. She was right. It worked.
Another thing that helped me (although it didn’t feel like a help at the time) was the fact that I landed in a small Midwestern town with no Russian community to speak of. So, from the beginning I found myself immersed in the English language. Later, when I married an American, I began speaking English 24/7. In fact, I am more concerned about my Russian now than my English.
Susan: Aside from writing, what are your other interests?
Svetlana: I love photography. In fact, if not for writing (my first love), I’d be meddling in photography. As it is, I add photos to everything I write: my book, my blogs, and my stories.
Susan: I understand you also like to read and your favorite genre is non-fiction. Why are you drawn to non-fiction?
Svetlana: When I was young, I read a lot of fiction. I loved romance novels and I liked sci-fi. I switched to non-fiction after I came to this country. For one thing, it was easier to read, since non-fiction books tend to have a smaller vocabulary. Also, I needed to learn about my new country, and non-fiction taught me that.
Later, I became interested in American history and in psychology, and I began reading non-fiction in earnest. I do read fiction sometimes, especially historical fiction, but I tend to like kind and somewhat humorous books.
Susan: What is the main message you hope readers take from The Education of a Traitor?
Svetlana: My message is simple. History matters. People matter. And the banality of evil must be acknowledged.
Susan: Do you have a new book planned in the future, and if so, what can you tell us about it?
Svetlana: My next book tackles several themes: immigration, identity, and things that keep families together. It is set in this country with flashbacks to my past.
Susan: Before we go can you tell us about your website and what additional information can be found there about The Education of a Traitor?
Svetlana: My website svetlanagrobman.com provides information about my forthcoming (and past) interviews, readings, and other events. It allows readers to contact me, and it is also a place where I publish my essays.
Susan: Svetlana, it has been a pleasure chatting with you today and I look forward to seeing more work from you in the future. Thank you again for stopping by.
Svetlana: Thank you, Susan. It’s been a pleasure for me, too.