The daughter of a Jewish Azerbaijani father and a Russian mother, Sophia Shalmiyev grew up in 1980s Leningrad hearing her grandmother recite anti-Semitic jingles, ruffling Sophia’s hair as if this act of act of affection could erase the sting of her words.
As it would turn out, Sophia’s Jewish roots would save her from a life of destitution, as her father secured visas himself and his daughter, first to Italy and then to the United States a couple years before the fall of the Soviet Union.
I was lucky to not become a piece of trash in Russia, and I should thank my father every day for that reason alone…
Shalmiyev’s grandmother may have ruffled her hair, but her mother Elena suffered from alcoholism and—rarely for the USSR—lost custody of her. In her debut book, Mother Winter, Shalmiyev writes about becoming motherless and struggling to find mother figures—and locate her own mother—while forging a new life in the US. The memoir is written to her mother, often using the pronoun “you”, to speak to her through these pages, whether or not Elena will ever read them.
Elena marries at a young age and succumbs to alcoholism, hardly uncommon in the Soviet Union. But it wasn’t as acceptable for mothers as for fathers, particularly in the view of her own father:
With the help of a determined public defender who agreed with my dad’s sentiment that ‘Woman Chronic Alcoholism, Stage II, is more severe and tragic than in a man,’ he claimed me for his own, unheard of in Russia for a young man. The fog of war of their custody battles meant we didn’t retreat from the story of her as the clear enemy.
Shalmiyev’s father isn’t a model parent by American or perhaps any standard. He hits his daughter when she wets her pants and is oblivious when, while sojourning in Italy awaiting passage to the US, his boss in Italy sexually assaults her. She was only twelve. Shalmiyev’s father also talks Sophia into panhandling in Italy to make extra money. Once they arrive in the US, father and daughter settle in Philadelphia and her father’s new wife, Luda, eventually joins them from Russia. Luda, only twelve years Shalmiyev’s senior, can never fill the role of mother. What’s more, Luda reviles Elena’s memory in front of Shalmiyev, calling her marital predecessor all sorts of vile names.
Yet the subject of Elena remains off limits for Shalmiyev and her father. As she grows into a young adult, her yearns for her mother becomes ever more palpable. In her twenties, she returns to Russia for the first time, in search of Elena. This homecoming will be bittersweet, with childhood memories that don’t match reality.
Before the glory of the white nights never materialized, because I was mostly paralyzed with dread and feelings of incompetence for not knowing how to find my mother, we managed to board a flight to Moscow, with a connecting flight to St. Petersburg. What I didn’t remember from my childhood is that the international and local airports are two separate entities.
Shalmiyev writes in a non-linear style with short paragraphs that often veer off into philosophical musings about numerology (with a focus on the number four; Russians, she writes, are “scrupulous followers of numerology”), motherhood, feminism, and even Chinese culture, whether the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four, or the number four itself:
The Chinese believe the number four to be the unluckiest number known to man, since it sounds like the Chinese work meaning ‘death.’
Her disjointed style evokes a childhood filled with turmoil between her divorced parents and her father’s emigration to the United States, with twelve-year-old Sophia in tow.
Shalmiyev herself develops a rebellious streak, leaving her father and step-mother on the east coast of the US and heading to the Pacific Northwest and tries to find mother figures at college by working at a peep show venue. She doesn’t marry someone Jewish. But she ends up with her own version of the American dream.
Her characters, as flawed as they may seem, embody human nature everywhere, whether it’s in Central Asia, the former Soviet Union, Europe, or the United States. As Shalmiyev ends her book, it is a reminder that life rarely turns out the way we expect as children, but rather is something we create for ourselves as adults.