From Russia With Love


318 Episodes from the Life of a Russian Artist
By Grisha Bruskin
Translated by Alice Nakhimovsky
376 pages. Syracuse University Press. $34.95.

It is an unwritten rule of sculpture that statues are supposed to remain on their pedestals, much like children must keep their arms inside the car. But Grisha Bruskin evidently did not receive the memo that day in art school. His “Step,” from a series called “On the Edge,” evokes the same sort of vertigo as Shel Silverstein’s cover drawing to Where the Sidewalk Ends. Bruskin’s figure, dressed in a suit and a trench coat with his hat in his hand, bolds steps off his podium. The viewer gets to decide whether the figure will land safely or whether he is about to plunge to his death.

If the figure in “Step” can be interpreted as leaving the (at least perceived) safety of the pedestal for an uncertain future, the leap of faith might be a self-portrait of the Russian, underground Jewish artist, who immigrated to New York at age 43 in 1988. Even the title of his recent poetic memoir, Past Imperfect, suggests a repressive past that Bruskin abandoned for a more perfect future, explains translator Alice Nakhimovsky in the introduction. It also literally refers to the Russian grammatical form of the “imperfectum,” she adds, or “a past that repeats itself without conclusion, a past you can return to and hang out in.”

Bruskin’s past continued to repeat itself and to resurface in his life even after he moved to New York. In one episode, he encounters a 93-year-old woman named Valentina Aleksandrovna, who lives in Long Island in a “transatlantic lost world” that seems to come straight from a Bernard Malamud novel. Aleksandrovna has decorated her vacation house in a style that is “indistinguishable from a Moscow dacha,” with “innumerable photographs of Cossack captains...[,] icons, portraits of the Tsar-Father.” When told that the Communist regime has collapsed, Aleksandrovna “whispered through her tears: ‘I waited for this all my life.’”

As a child growing up in Russia, Bruskin experienced a lot of anti-Semitism. In the episode entitled “For Being Honest,” Bruskin tells of “tough guys” who corner him and his distant cousin Lyonka on a merry-go-round and demand to know if they were Jewish. “I understood that if we said ‘yes,’ we’d be killed on the spot. If we said ‘no,’ we would be shamed for the rest of our lives,” the young Bruskin thinks. But when he admits to being a Jew, he does not become canonized as another Jewish martyr worthy of mention in the fast-day prayers called kinot. “The ex-con reached into his pocket and gave me a candy. ‘This is for being honest.’” In another episode, a Jewish “invalid” named Serafima Moiseevna adopts an orphan named Valentin. The adopted boy grows fond of asking his mother, “Moms! Hey, Moms! When we start beating up Jews, Moms, will we beat you up too?”

Throughout the book, Bruskin approaches his topics, which range from tragic to absurd to comedic, with a deadpan and often ironic manner. He remembers a girl Sofa telling him of another peer, Isak, “There are Jews and there are Kikes. You and me, Grisha, we’re Jews. But Isak is a Kike.” Elsewhere, he tells of his mother crying when she remembers witnessing a Cossack cut off her aunt’s finger to obtain a snugly-fit gold ring.

The night after his works sold for $500,000 in the 1988 Sotheby’s Russian art auction that launched him to success, Bruskin and his wife Alesya found five rubles in the street. “Should we pick it up or are we already rich?” Alesya wonders. Bruskin tells her, “Take it just in case,” and indeed, “the Soviet State would think up some way to appropriate such a large sum of money.”

Despite the many sad and shocking tales of anti-Semitism and KGB tyranny, Bruskin and his friends pursue a hedonistic life full of alcohol and women. Bruskin’s first kiss came in eighth grade, in art school. He offered to walk home with the model, who was 18 and “very pretty,” according to the art teacher. “As we said good-bye she suddenly gave me a real kiss on the lips,” Bruskin writes. “Having received the first kiss of my life, nervously excited, I returned home and ran right into the bathroom. Until morning I didn’t stop brushing my teeth and washing my mouth out with potassium permanganate. I thought that the kiss had left me with awful alien girl microbes.” A few years later, Bruskin and his friends had come a long way when they spy on “healthy girl athletes” showering. The girls notice the peeping Toms and threaten them, but knowing the athletes would have to dress before giving chase, the boys take their time in departing.

Bruskin’s other love affairs are equally dramatic. He was first betrayed by a lover in nursery school, when he fell for the ash-blond haired Natasha. “Unable to think up anything better, I proposed that we take down our pants together and compare notes,” Bruskin remembers. But the couple was discovered and punished with a day-long time out. “Natasha snitched to the teacher that I started it and stopped talking to me,” he writes. “That was the first betrayal of my life. I suffered greatly.” In another betrayal story, a girl Bruskin loves, along with several of her peers, raid the teacher’s class register and read the students’ biographies aloud: “‘Barinov, Russian!’ ‘Yashin, Russian!’ ‘Nazarov, Tatar!’... ‘Bruskin, Jew!’” Grisha notices that the girls look at him differently after that revelation.

Another “nice little girl” named Katya angrily calls our hero a Jew, but later comforts him, “What are you so upset about? Jews and Stupidhead, they’re the same thing.” Bruskin also falls “passionately” in love with his teacher Marya Ivanova, whom he hails as his “ideal. Nobody on earth was wiser, kinder, or more beautiful.” But when in the second grade, Ivanova dyes her “noble-looking gray bun” an “unsuccessful brown,” Bruskin’s ideal dims and suddenly becomes “a stupid, mean, semiliterate auntie with tiny needlelike eyes and a sharp protruding nose.”

But even as Bruskin devotes a lot of attention to his childish crushes, he devotes just one section to his first wife, titled “Down with Marriage! Up with the Life of a Wild Wolf!” Bruskin attends a birthday party after having just split with his first wife (the only detail she receives in the memoir) and is “in a state of heavenly euphoria, basking in bachelorhood.” Yet, even as he shouts down with marriage in favor of wild wolfhood, “Right away, my eyes lit on a beautiful, graceful girl, my future wife, Alesya.”

When he first introduces Alesya to meet his great uncle and aunt, Iosif and Rebecca, they accidentally mix up the date and arrive one day early, catching the couple unprepared. Iosif feels under-dressed in his “handsome vest, with a tie on,” so he runs to change into a jacket. Rebecca sternly eyes Alesya without a smile, and asks, “Grisha, is this your life’s companion?” Bruskin confirms that Alesya is indeed his fiancée. “‘Oh, what a sweetie!’ she exclaimed, instantly melting.”

By nostalgically loving his imperfect past, Bruskin shares a lot with artists like Marc Chagall and with writers like James Joyce, who seemed to love Dublin more and more the further away he traveled. The reader gets the impression that Bruskin’s relationship with Russia follows his young unrequited love interests—he is star struck, while she calls him a dirty Jew. This imperfect past continues to shape the Jewish artist even after he arrives in New York, and it is that phenomenon of the old world still informing the new one that not only makes Bruskin’s poetic memoir such an enjoyable read, but also makes his paintings and sculptures particularly poignant.