The Story Behind A Train to Moscow

The Story Behind A Train to Moscow

How much does a novelist make up? After writing two memoirs, A Mountain of Crumbs and Russian Tattoo, after exposing every detail of my Russian and, subsequently, American life, there was nothing left for me to examine on the page. If real-life ceased to pulse with unexplored motivations, the only possible path seemed to lead to a fictional reality.

But making things up turned out to be more challenging than dredging events out of memory, whose silty bottom had always revealed some unexpected finds. Perhaps I should have settled for a life of non-writing: teaching English to my immigrant students or traveling around my motherland to witness another election victory by Putin. But I didn’t. Instead, I blithely ignored Chekhov’s advice to all future fiction writers: “Esli mozhesh ne pisat, ne pishi: If you can live without writing, do not write.” I knew I couldn’t.

How much in a novel comes from a writer’s life? A Train to Moscow is set during and after WW2, in three places in Russia: Moscow, the capital; the provincial town of Ivanovo; and Leningrad, the former capital of the country known now as St. Petersburg. Leningrad was where I lived the first twenty-four years of my life, a place I still know deep in my bone marrow. In my student days, I often took an overnight train to visit Moscow, which those of us born in the real capital of the tsars condescendingly called a “big village.” I didn’t know Ivanovo well, but my older sister grew up there and it is her stories that let me visualize the old dilapidated houses, the dust swirling around horse-drawn carts inching along unpaved roads, and the lilacs stretching their branches over wooden fences.

My older sister, trained in the best drama school in Moscow, became a prominent character actress in a Leningrad repertory theater in the 1960s, just like Sasha, the narrator of A Train to Moscow. From my sister, I know what went into that rigorous training, from silent improvisations of everyday routines, to Stanislavsky-inspired etudes, to scenes from classical plays.

I spent my teenage years in the wings of my sister’s theater, breathing in the air of art and magic and pretending that I, too, could be an actress. I couldn’t. But that theater, with all its makeup, costumes, and posters, belonged as much to me as it did to her. Like an actor, I needed to remember every detail of the house and the backstage to file the images onto the lower shelf of my heart and use them later in writing.

My sister was born in 1942, so the time of the novel’s post-war shortages – both of food and men – is burned into her memory. It was also a time of grief and fear. The time of Stalin’s purges and Gulag labor camps. There isn’t a Russian family who didn’t know of someone arrested and executed or sent to the northern fringes of the country to serve time as a political prisoner. In our family, it was my mother’s uncle, who was sentenced to years in a labor camp for telling a joke. He never returned.

My mother’s two brothers went to defend their country and never came back from the war. One of them was an artist, whose story is fused into this book. Like Sasha’s uncle, he graduated from the Leningrad Art Academy and when the war broke out, was drafted to the front. Unlike Sasha’s uncle, he was mortally wounded and died in his home in Ivanovo in 1942. The other uncle was stationed at the border between the Soviet Union and Germany, a tiny cog in the unprepared Soviet Army that didn’t even issue guns to its untrained draftees. Officially, he is still missing in action.

In the novel, the two switched places. The artist became the soldier missing in action, and all those What if questions sprang to my mind, laying the groundwork for his story. What if he hadn’t been killed and made it all the way to Berlin? What if he, unlike his staunch communist father, had questioned the infallibility of my righteous motherland and the façade of lies erected and safeguarded by its leaders?

 Other characters in the book are also based on real people. My mother was a mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. She may not have been as harsh as Sasha’s mother, but she was tough and controlling – a survivor of famine, Stalin’s terror, and the savagery of war she witnessed as a surgeon at a frontline hospital. Yet she paled before a true authoritarian – my grandfather, the commander of the house: an incorrigible Bolshevik, rooted into the Soviet soil like a mighty oak. I still remember his solidity, his overwhelming presence, his unquestionable dominance. My grandmother, a trained opera singer who was never allowed to sing on stage, was the necessary glue that held the household together with her never-ceasing housework and her all-encompassing love.

To get in touch with the inner processes of acting, I attended classes at the HB studio in New York City, the program where Uta Hagen used to teach. Of course, I never made it past the second level, but I thank the studio for letting me audit their master classes so I could glimpse the mystery of becoming someone else. I hope Uta Hagen wouldn’t bristle with contempt at my descriptions of Sasha’s onstage transformations in the novel.

 “All writing is autobiography.” These words of J.M. Coetzee, a master of autobiographical fiction and fictionalized memoirs, used to puzzle me. Now, after completing my first novel, I am beginning to understand and humbly appreciate his wisdom. The cast of characters in the book – my family – became a microcosm of their Soviet motherland. Based on my family history, A Train to Moscow became a novel of family secrets, artistic struggle, ambition, loss, and strangled love.