Title: Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow
Author: Jennifer Eremeeva
Genre: Memoir, Humor
Publisher: Small Batch Books
I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
The spring of 1996 I answered an ad in my university’s paper, “ESL teachers for private school in Moscow, Russia.” Four months later I boarded a plane with 3 other newly graduated women headed for a yearlong contract in the former USSR’s capital. A whole hand wasn’t needed to count what I knew about Russia. I was naive and young, stumbling without a compass into a culture I knew nothing about.
What I could have used was a copy of Jennifer Eremeeva’s memoir, Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow. Eremeeva, unlike me, landed in Moscow with a full study of Russian history and culture and, most importantly, language skills. In her early Moscovian days, she eked out a living giving tours of Moscow to English speakers. Then she met her handsome Russian husband, set up house, and spent twenty years living amongst the Russki’s. She knows a thing or two about how to mingle with the vodka and champagne crowd in the world’s largest nation, things she shares with equal servings of history, wit, and realism in her writing.
So if the scenic pictures of Sochi sent you searching for your passport, here’s a few of lessons I learned from Lenin Lives Next Door that might help you in your travels, armchair or otherwise:
1) The “babushka” squad is to be feared. The sweet sounding word stands for grandmother in Russian and belies the grandmas’ militaristic approach to the adage “it takes a village.” Babushkas spare no words in advising how to raise children, how to dress, and what to eat. When the author’s daughter fails to don her snow pants before exiting the bus, Eremeeva strategizes on ways to dodge the stout elder broads, good strategies to remember if you find yourself face to face with the tongue-lashing grannies. I remember being yelled at by these women and, for once, was glad my Russian skills were so wanting.
2) Making BFFs with the locals may not be possible. The Soviet government had strict rules about fraternizing with foreigners. Seriously, until reading Lenin Lives Next Door, I had no idea that this was the case. The school I worked for imported American teachers annually, our alienism wasn’t strange to the friendly and hospitable Russian teachers we worked with. I assumed most Russians were as open, but honestly, my social network consisted of expats, which in a strange loop probably had somewhat to do with Eremeeva’s observations of what living under a police-styled state does to the national psyche.
3) Taking a gypsy cab alone is not advisable. Gypsy cabs are unofficial cabs in Russia. To hail one, you stand on the curb, stick your arm out straight about 30 degrees from your side, and wait for someone who’s looking to fill their gas tank with your rubles. As a trusting youngster, I hopped into several of these without considering the soberness of the driver, the pocket gouging I was taking as a foreigner, whether the nuts and bolts of the vehicle would withstand a pothole, and of course, my own personal safety. I did slow down use of these paid-hitchhiking excursions when my friend got a hand placed high on her leg by the driver. Eremeeva scrutinized the drivers with more wisdom than I ever applied, “Is the driver’s Ossetian accomplice lurking in the backseat, poised to whisk you off to white slavery and the opium dens of North Omsk?” I didn’t even know opium dens existed in Omsk. Like I said, knowing the language helps a lot.
4) Vast differences exist in health philosophies between the Americans and the Russians. While Americans are lectured from birth on the harmfulness of tobacco smoke from spokespersons with electronic voice boxes, the Russians, as Eremeeva points out, have a saying: “The one who doesn’t drink or smoke is the one who dies healthy.” Eremeeva handles the discrepancies between the West and the Russians as she does with every aspect of life, with light-heartedness and obvious respect for Russians.
5) Finally, I learned I should have changed my name. A chunk of one chapter is dedicated to Eremeeva’s education of a young male expat to the ways of Russian women, an education centered on what’s in a name. Lena’s in Russia are apparently, “the Eeyores of Russian women.” She goes on to match many female names to personalities much like an astrologist describing someone based on their birth month. I’m a Leo by the way, so I’m a crotchety short-tempered Eeyore. Watch out.
As an armchair traveler, I’ve enjoyed my share of expat memoirs. Many tend to take potshots at the host country and slather on humor as a salve for their superiority. In contrast, Eremeeva’s approach is tender and appreciating. It’s obvious from her tale that she respects the Russian culture and though she encounters obstacles and frustrations, derogatoriness is absent from the text.
So, even if you’ve not purchased a one-way ticket to Sochi, pick up a copy of Lenin Lives Next Door. You’re guaranteed to find it more insightful than a Washington Post article about Putin’s latest alpha-male feat and ten times more hilarious. It’s available in print or e-book.