Svetlana Grobman is a librarian at the Columbia Public Library, as well as the author of the book "The Education of a Traitor: A Memoir of Growing Up in Cold War Russia", which was published in March.
They say that cats have nine lives. I don’t know about that, but I have had three. My first life, which lasted for 39 years, was spent in Moscow, Russia, between the Second World War and the fall of the Soviet Union. My second life began in 1990, when I, an immigrant from Russia, arrived in Columbia, where I am still living. And my third life started in 2015, the day my book, “The Education of a Traitor: A Memoir of Growing Up in Cold War Russia,” came out and began making its own way in the world.
Actually, let me rephrase that. My third life was conceived five years before that, during a conversation I had with my American husband.
At the time, I was working on a book describing my adaptation to Missouri, which for me, then a 39-year-old woman who spoke no English and who knew nothing about life in America, was as disorienting as if I had landed on Mars. I had lots of fun working on that book, because the most difficult moments of my immigration were long gone, and I could indulge myself by recalling funny stories about my learning English — mixing up words like “Wales” and “whales,” getting puzzled by expressions like “they dropped the ball” when no balls were in sight — and trying to comprehend the multitude of choices offered to me every time I went shopping.
Yet my husband believed that the most important thing for me to write about was different.
“It’s your life in Russia that will interest people here the most,” he said. “You should write about that.”
I started the next day — my working title, “From Moscow to Missouri,” also suggested by him.
Don’t get me wrong. I never felt that my life or experiences were exceptional. Far from that. I was just one of the millions of people who lived under an oppressive regime cut off from the rest of the world, and who was constantly brainwashed about the superiority of her country.
Yet the reason I wrote my book is that I believe that the banality of evil and the way it affects the everyday lives of ordinary people must be acknowledged. For if we don’t recognize the wrongs of the world, we’ll never be able to put things right.
It wasn’t easy to go back in time and relive my earlier years. In fact, sometimes I didn’t want to go on writing about it. Yet at other times, looking back at my life and family, I felt that some things were so absurd that they were funny.
In any case, my book, which has gone through 25 rewrites and several name changes, finally came into being this March. And while it’s true that the country I left in 1990 is no longer the country of my youth, it is also true that some fundamentally wrong things, like the brainwashing of Russian citizens, are still going on today under the depraved regime of President Putin.
As for me, I hope to write more books. In fact, I will go back to the one I left off five years ago and try to make people laugh over the adventures of a clueless Russian immigrant. Yet "The Education of a Traitor," and the girl looking wistfully at the reader from its cover page, will, probably be, as my husband said, the most important work of my writing life.