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> Books > Reviews > Growing Up In Moscow

The Washington Post

May 28, 1989, Sunday, Final Edition

Coming to America
By Jane E. Good

Memories of a Soviet Girlhood

By Cathy Young (Ekaterina Jung)
Ticknor & Fields. 334 pp. $ 18.95

ONE DAY in February 1979, a Russian Jew named Ekaterina Jung confided to her 16-year-old classmates in Moscow's Sokolniki District School Number One that her family had decided to emigrate to the United States. One of her dismayed friends said with utter conviction that she couldn't understand why the Jungs would want to leave the best country in the world to live in a capitalist nation. Others voiced concern that in five years Katya would return to the Soviet Union pale, worn out from hunger, unemployed and drug addicted. Americans will not be surprised to learn that the predictive powers of these Muscovite school girls proved poor. Now, 10 years later, Jung -- armed with a Rutgers degree and the anglicized name Cathy Young -- works steadily as a free-lance writer and lives comfortably with her parents in New Jersey. What is surprising is that this young Russian immigrant has written an autobiography worth reading, something not often achieved by one of the under-30 set.

Young writes about growing up in Moscow with an intelligence, wit and grace that belie her youth. Her skill at interlacing Soviet jokes into the narrative is a particularly welcome touch. She is at her best when sketching specific events -- a shopping trip that turned up home-assembly walnut bookshelves with sliding glass panels imported from Czechoslovakia; a family vacation to the Baltic coast of Latvia; using a fake ID to gain entrance to the Lenin Library; listening to a pirated copy of Jesus Christ Superstar; devouring books by the 19th-century French author Guy de Maupassant to learn about sex. ("Sex Swedish style -- according to a popular Soviet joke -- is a bunch of Swedish guys and gals getting together and having an orgy. Sex Polish style is a bunch of guys and gals getting together and watching a film of the Swedish orgy. Sex Soviet style is a bunch of Soviet guys and gals getting together with the Polish guys and gals, who tell them what they saw in the Swedish film.") By Soviet standards of the 1970s, the Jung family -- father, mother, daughter, and grandmother -- lived a life bordering on luxury. Both parents were employed, college-educated professionals. The family occupied a two-bedroom private (read non-communal) apartment in a desirable Moscow district. Summers were spent at their dacha, only a 40-minute train ride from the city. There was always a decent meal on the table, and their clothes, while not bearing coveted Western labels, were respectable. Katya attended a special school that offered intensive training in English along with the standard curriculum of mathematics, literature, science, geography and political ideology.

Despite the relative material ease of their lives, Alexander and Marina Jung were dissidents who refused to join the Communist party, listened daily to Voice of America broadcasts, circulated samizdat literature, and ridiculed mandatory ideology meetings where all were required to clap at the right time and to raise their hands on cue. ("A man comes home from a Party meeting and his wife asks him, 'Do you want some borscht?' He raises his hand. 'Would you like some beef chops?' Up goes the hand again. The wife's getting worried: 'Are you all right, dear? Maybe you want a shot of vodka?' The man bursts into applause.") Indeed, Alexander Jung's outspoken criticisms of the regime led many of his colleagues at the state radio station to think he was an agent provacateur for the KGB. (Who else, they reasoned, would say such things without fear of the consequences?)

IF SHE had been abandoned to the mercy of Soviet schools, Katya would have likely matured into a loyal citizen parroting communist platitudes as she learned to take apart, reassemble, and fire a Kalashnikov submachine gun in her seventh-grade military indoctrination class. But the influence of her parents produced instead a free-thinking teen-ager who came to feel oppressed not just because she couldn't say what she believed, but because she was forced to say things that she didn't believe. The distinction was not of small consequence. The stultifying political climate eventually drove the Jungs' decision to emigrate. Being Jewish was the vehicle that allowed them to leave legally, but religious persecution was not the cause for their desire to do so. In fact, anti-Semitism seems not to have disturbed their daily existence, perhaps because practicing their faith was not important to them. Only when the Jungs began assessing college opportunities for Katya did their ethnic origins become an obstacle (in Soviet terms, "Jewish" denotes a nationality, not a religion). Both natural choices for her -- the Literary College and the Philological Department of Moscow University -- were virtually off-limits to Jews.

In broad brush Young's account of her family and school experiences touch on universal themes characteristic to the coming-of-age genre of literature: a toddler's fear of the dark; a child's uncanny penchant to embarrass parents in public; a student's baiting of hated teachers; a teen-ager's drive to beat the system. Moscow's peculiar setting furnishes the detail on the canvas. A cramped apartment means that a Russian child, frightened of the dark, does not have to worry about sleeping alone in a room. A five-year-old whose dissident parents have neglected the basics of her pre-school political training sees a bronze bust of Lenin surveying the neighborhood grocery store and loudly asks what that "weird little guy" is doing up there. A fourth-grader, after listening to a lengthy harangue on the high cost of medical care in the United States by the "class guide" (the teacher assigned as moral guardian to a grade of budding Soviet citizens), asks -- not so innocently -- why an American can buy a car with a month's wages but a Russian can't even get one with a year's wages. The teen-ager assigned to give an oral report on a Russian poet reads from the works of Nikolai Gumilev (shot for alleged involvement in counter-revolutionary conspiracy in 1921) as her ignorant teacher stares out the window.

The contentedly Americanized Cathy Young of 1989 confesses in the book's prologue that her previous life as Muscovite schoolgirl Ekaterina Jung now seems somehow unreal, even fantastic, to her. Yet Growing Up in Moscow is useful to anyone seeking to understand the Soviet Union precisely because it succeeds in making the daily life of an average Russian family during the Brezhnev era so real. ( "Brezhnev is alone in his apartment. The doorbell rings. He goes to the door, puts on his glasses, pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket and reads, 'Who . . . is . . . it?'")

Jane E. Good teaches Russian history at the U.S. Naval Academy.

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