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> Books > Reviews > Growing Up In Moscow

The New York Times

June 25, 1989, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 7; Page 15, Column 1; Book Review Desk

Grandpa Lenin and the Sharp-Eyed Prudes
By Celestine Bohlen

Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.

By Cathy Young.
Illustrated. 334 pp. New York:
Ticknor & Fields. $18.95.

It is fitting at this stage of history that the best books about life in the Soviet Union should be written by people who have lived there, rather than foreigners who have observed it. This is what makes Cathy Young such a valuable witness - from both ends of the telescope. As the title of the book suggests, she was born and raised in Moscow; as the Americanization of her name implies, she has lived in this country long enough to know what it is that makes the Soviet experience so different from our own.

Now 26 years old, Ms. Young has been in the United States almost 10 years, after arriving here with her parents and grandmother just as the gates were closing on the last wave of Jewish emigration out of the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev years. The family was given permission to leave soon after they applied to go, which meant they were spared the embittering period of being ''refuseniks.'' Less than one month lapsed between the day Ms. Young - then Katya Jung - bid farewell to her classmates at School No. 1 in the Sokolniki district of Moscow and the day she was on a train, speeding toward the Soviet border, on a journey that eventually dropped her off at Jackson Heights in Queens.

Judging from the book, Ms. Young, who now lives in New Jersey and has written numerous essays and articles for American publications, has made this abrupt transition with remarkable ease, which gives her tale, told with candor and humor, an objectivity not often heard among recent arrivals from the Soviet Union. Her stories are believable not only because they are so personal, but because they are not written to prove a point: they simply give a glimpse of what it was like to be - quoting from the title of one chapter - ''young, restless, and Jewish'' and in the Soviet Union in the 1970's.

Raised to keep a discreet but skeptical distance from mind-numbing Soviet propaganda, the young Katya somewhere along the line also became a feminist. That vantage point emboldened her further, setting her apart even from her parents and many of her peers, and it adds a rare feistiness to her accounts of how Soviet teen-agers grope to find their identities. On the sexual front, these efforts were typically furtive, often comic and possible only in the Soviet Union - perhaps one of the last bastions of prudery left in Western civilization.

Much of what Ms. Young describes in ''Growing Up in Moscow'' is known to American readers - the ossified Soviet curriculum, the deification of ''Grandpa Lenin,'' the ordeals of shopping, the bossy little old ladies who guard park benches and doorways, keeping a sharp eye out for deviance of all kinds.

But the precocious Katya - in her own words, an ''intellectual snob'' and ''something of a nerd,'' who used to compose novels about ancient Rome in her head while waiting in line to buy wilted greens - has a knack for noticing the realities that undercut the cliches, the nuances that can sometimes confuse casual observers of Soviet life. One major discovery, made as Katya examines her own disgust with the Soviet system, is that while many people were willing to criticize or mock the leadership, the Communist Party or the sorry state of the economy (the book offers a good stock of anecdotes, only slightly outdated), few were willing to break with certain entrenched orthodoxies - in particular, attitudes toward dissidents and emigrants, commonly lumped together as ''traitors'': ''It took some time before I realized with amazement that one could kvetch about lines or about how hard it was to get salami or pantyhose, and tell Brezhnev jokes, and still not understand a thing.'' ''Growing Up in Moscow'' also contains insightful comments about anti-Semitism in Russia and about the pressures on emigrating Jews to go to Israel. Katya herself reacted to hard-line Zionist arguments with the same independence she had shown inside the Soviet Union. ''The public over the private?'' she writes. ''No, you don't - this time, I am going to decide what my cause is and who my people are.''

Ms. Young - a 1988 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Rutgers University - left the Soviet Union well before Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985, ushering in an era of openness and economic reform. But, with characteristic curiosity, she has kept track of what is happening from afar and tries to indicate where her own reminiscences are now outdated. Still, she leaves us with the impression (no doubt the correct one) that much of what she knew in Moscow as a child - the priggish teachers, the understocked shops, crowded apartments and the pressure to conform - has remained the same.

Celestine Bohlen, a metropolitan reporter for The New York Times, is a former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post.

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