Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour, memories of Soviet Russia by Yelena & Galina Lembersky, reviewed by Alexandra Grabbe

After reading Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour by Yelena & Galina Lembersky, I felt as if I had run the gantlet and stumbled out the other side with bruises all over my body. Why? The authors document the harsh reality of life in the Soviet Union before the end of the Cold War. In this fascinating memoir, the tight-knit bonds of family shine through, as does the healing power of art.

In Part One, we meet baby Yelena, her mom Galina, and Grandma Lucia in the colorful art studio the Leningrad Union of Artists allotted to Felix Lembersky, Galina’s dad. Unfortunately, the powers that be have never appreciated his work because he rejected the idealized Soviet realism in vogue from 1932 to 1988. His “Execution Babi Yar” series presents the earliest known images of the infamous massacre that took place in a ravine near Kiev in 1941. Art is important in the Lembersky household. Visitors to a 1960 retrospective have called the paintings “a breath of fresh air.” Lucia decides she must find a way to get them out of the country. When Felix passes away in 1970, she faces eviction. To obtain an apartment, Soviet citizens spend years on a waitlist. Instead, Lucia brazenly attends a meeting of the Union of Artists and convinces its members that she has played a role in her husband’s art, obtaining permission for a three-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the city.

Everyone in the Soviet Union must have a job, so Lucia watches over little Yelena while Galina is at work. We witness the indoctrination in schools, the importance of friends and neighbors, the overwhelming challenges of daily life in the gray cityscape that is Leningrad. Shortly after Yelena’s teacher tells the class, “Emigration is treason,” Galina starts making plans to emigrate, a coincidence which can only have been confusing to her sensitive nine-year-old daughter. At the last minute, Galina’s visa is denied due to a technicality. Only Lucia manages to leave with the paintings; she is one of the 50,000 Russian Jews who emigrated in 1979.

The Lemberskys do not practice their religion. To do so in the Soviet Union is unwise. Lucia doesn’t discuss the Holocaust with her granddaughter either, or the fact that the Nazis killed her husband’s parents. Since Yelena resembles her biological father who was Russian, teachers do not pick on her as they do with other minority students. At one point, her mother tells her to be grateful for her appearance. Galina, who has dark eyes and looks Jewish, is well aware that life is easier for Russian citizens who are believed to be of the Orthodox faith.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Lucia’s coping mechanism and her relationship with Yelena. When Yelena falls ill, the grandmother takes her to Odessa for the summer. Lucia is always sharing positive thoughts—“Cherish joy. Ward off sad thoughts. Have them bounce off your coat’s buttons.”

Part One ends with Yelena’s abrupt abandonment by her mother.

Galina narrates Part Two. She dreams of giving her father’s paintings to a museum so that everyone can enjoy them. Felix has discouraged his only daughter’s artistic abilities, maintaining she’d be happier as a “mediocre engineer” than a good artist. Galina has followed this advice and secured an IT job with the railroad. The first step toward emigration is to withdraw from her post-graduate program and quit her job. She believes these measures are necessary in order to avoid causing problems for her supervisors who are responsible for the “ideological conformity” of all employees. She finds work first at a supermarket, then in a beauty salon. Galina’s efficiency and honesty lead to further responsibility. These qualities should make her a valuable asset in any workplace, but the other employees bristle when she attempts to correct the irregularities that have practically become policy. I had heard about the corruption in Russia but had no idea it was so pervasive. The OBKhSS (the state law-enforcement bureau for combatting economic crimes) trumps up charges against Galina who is wrongfully accused, sent to prison, tried, convicted, and shipped off to a penal colony for two years. This is the reason she has “abandoned” her daughter. At the last minute, a co-worker, attending the trial, agrees to care for Yelena. The second half of Part Two describes life in the penal colony and will be especially informative to anyone trying to imagine what Britney Griner endured and Alexis Navalny is still experiencing.   

Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour is not the first memoir written by a Russian about life in the former Soviet Union and the protagonists may not identify as dissidents or refuseniks, but it sets itself apart with its matter-of-fact candor. Yelena and her mother live in a Kafkaesque world. In the Soviet Union of the seventies and eighties, it was impossible to predict what would happen.

This memoir is important at a time when Vladimir Putin is terrorizing both the people of Ukraine and the citizens of Russia, conscripting its men to fight in a war the Kremlin calls a “special operation.” The Gorbachev era brought hope for change. Over the past twenty years, that hope has been dashed. When I visited Leningrad in 1997, it was clear the population still made use of the survival skills Lucia taught Yelena. Pedestrians acted as if they were wearing blinders. The rule was to keep one’s head down and not rock the boat. A BBC reporter recently interviewed men on the street in Moscow and one of them expressed the powerlessness people feel in Russia today. After reading Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour, it’s easy to understand why.

Like a Downpour in a Downpour, by Yelena & Galina Lembersky. Boston, Massachusetts: Cherry Orchard Books, January 2022. 272 pages. $19.95, paper.

Alexandra Grabbe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, MA. 

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