Lenin Lives Next Door
Finalist: Travel/Travel Guide
National Indie Excellence Awards 2014
The International Book Awards
Finalist: Fiction: General
Finalist: Best New Fiction
Readers’ Favorite Book Awards
Finalist: General Fiction
Finalist: Humor Fiction
Finalist: Culture Fiction
Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow:
When HRH met Sally: A Brief Review of Jennifer Eremeeva’s ‘Lenin Lives Next Door’
On the one hand, the “expat’s eye” book has a long and sometimes-distinguished pedigree (heavens, one could even make the case that the tenth book of Pliny the Younger’s Epistulae could be considered an expat’s take on Bithynia-Pontus, first century Roman Turkey). On the other hand writing one means having to navigate a tricky route between blandly affirming “we’re all the same under the skin” banalities like a moralizing Disney special, and falling prey to the kind of patronizing Orientalism that ultimately brands Johnny Foreigner as being a splendid chap but not altogether civilized or grown-up because He’s Not One Of Us. The best of the genre, though, manage to highlight the genuine quirks, cultures and characteristics of its subjects without feeling to need to patronize and in the process not just entertain but also enlighten. George Mikes’s How To Be An Alien remains, in my mind, a classic study of the English which, even though it freely exaggerates and caricatures (“Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot-water bottles”) nonetheless is in so many ways spot-on about the, um, “English Condition.”
In this company, Lenin Lives Next Door, by 20-year-veteran US expat in Moscow Jennifer Eremeeva, is a an excellent addition to the canon that says much about the day-to-lives and aspirations of today’s Russians, still stranded between Soviet legacy and uncertain future, as well as the world of the expat in such a country. Everything from the art of constructive dismissal, Russian-style, to the invisible but iron-hard social hierarchies embedded within expat book clubs is rightly fair game.
Obviously it’s about drawing attention to the foibles and often excesses of both worlds. Indeed, it’s the kind of book crying out for the word “skewering” to appear somewhere in the review. Who or what is it really about, though?
It’s about Russians, including HRH, her various Handsome, Horrible, Helpful, etc Russian Husband, but a certain kind of middle-class-plus Muscovite. Expect no trolley-bus drivers from Tomsk or shelf-stackers from Shali. Likewise, it’s much more about the kind of expat who may or may not live in an actual gated community, but does exist in the informally gated ones of privilege, wealth and shared experiences. Eremeeva’s expat world is not the hand-to-mouth one of PhD students, English-language teachers and would-be journalism freelancers trying to scrape by in this expensive and unforgiving city.
Ultimately, though, it is about the encounter. It is about how Russians and foreigners meet, connect and collide, and through that, about how today’s Russia is still trying to negotiate its relationship with the West, the global market, the new age of world-spanning business, leisure and culture. In many ways one of the most entertaining and also most poignant chapters was Eremeeva’s dissection of the cult of the dacha, the primal ritual through which Russians feel closer to their Slavic peasant roots, even if the banya has an imported scent diffuser. The very primitivism of the dacha, even for people who at home would insist on a high-gloss psuedo-western remont—albeit with a cosmetic bent towards the aesthetics of the Parisian bordello or Ikea showroom—is a central part of the experience. They may live “po-zapadskii” but at least they can know that they dacha “po-Russkii.”
This, for me, was one of the most telling observations of this engaging and breezy book, how Russians themselves are torn between two worlds, and how foreigners seeking to engage with them meaningfully must themselves come to terms with the encounter. Even in Moscow, with enough resolution and money you can almost, almost pretend you are in the West. But Moscow is a jealous mistress and intrusive neighbor and at some point will insist on crossing those boundaries. Just ask any expat who has driven for a while in Russia whether they find themselves being more aggressive on the road when back home. What Eremeeva is describing, then—behind the fun tales of office Christmas parties and what distinguishes an Olga from an Irina—is the encounter, and the way Western influence is reshaping Russia, but only to a point; and Russia reshapes those Westerners who fall into its embrace.
Dr. Mark Galeotti
Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and an associate member of NYU’s History and Russian & Slavic Studies departments.
Comical, thoroughly entertaining, and insightful.
In Eremeeva’s collection of humorous fictional vignettes, an American woman looks back on 20 years living in Russia after marrying her “HRH,” or Handsome (and sometimes Horrible) Russian Husband.
Inspired by romantic, sepia-toned dreams of the doomed Romanovs, Jennifer starts out as a tourist in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, graduating to hosting guided tours and trade delegations. In 1991, she meets “Comrade Smashing,” a military officer: “He had a smile that started in his warm brown eyes and ended at my curled-up toes.” Although she is warned that “Soviet men are impossible,” Jennifer is smitten. The two marry and have a daughter; her husband leaves the military to go into business, and she becomes head of public relations and marketing at a large bank. With the couple doing well in the post-Soviet economy, Jennifer quits her job to write a book much like this one: its topics include home furnishings, food, expatriate life, dachas (country cottages owned by Russians), hospitality, and Russia’s new rich. Eremeeva’s debut is often laugh-out-loud funny; for example, while arguing with HRH about medical insurance—he’s against it—Jennifer realizes that for Russians, “The long-range plan for the distant future option is never their default position except where root vegetables are concerned.” She undergirds her observations with considerations of Russian history that help explain the country’s foibles, such as weather, geography, and its history of serfdom. Regarding dachas, she blends witty observations (one dacha has a state-of-the-art sauna but “eleventh-century toilet arrangements”) with more serious commentary: “The fact of the matter is…the whole dacha thing is a well-oiled machine designed to keep indentured service for females alive and well.” The chapters on Jennifer’s expat friends hold less interest, except for what they reveal about Russia; her interior design friend, for example, is outshone by the work he’s commissioned to produce, such as a staircase “curved in an aggressive trajectory up to the second floor from its anchor: a ten-foot-high bronze nymph holding aloft a torch…[which] burst into neon lime-green, orange, and purple flame.”
Comical, thoroughly entertaining, and insightful.
Expats recalled with biting humor in new book, ‘Lenin Lives Next Door’
Jennifer Eremeeva, a contemporary Jane Austen, finds ‘Marriage, martinis and mayhem in Moscow.’
If Jane Austen had been an American living in post-Soviet Moscow, she might have made similar observations to those in Jennifer Eremeeva’s “Lenin Lives Next Door.” This entertainingly bitchy comedy of manners describes itself as “creative nonfiction”; it is clever, funny and rude about everyone.
Writer and photographer Eremeeva fell in love with Russia while she was still at school, imagining adventures with troikas and headscarves. Many years later, she has married a handsome Russian husband (dubbed HRH) and produced a horse-mad daughter. Two decades of varied work in the fast-changing Russian capital are distilled into a potent cocktail of fashionable parties, family life and lingering Soviet traditions.
The book’s title refers to a building opposite Eremeeva’s Moscow home in which Lenin’s corpse, removed from its mausoleum, is given a regular preservative bath in embalming fluids. It serves as a “tangible link to Russian history” and also as a symbol of the ubiquitous weirdness of Russia.
Each chapter has a theme, like holidays or health, creating an interlinked collection of stories. Celebrating the comedy of life in the “world’s largest country” is surprisingly unusual: “there aren’t so many funny books about Russia out there,” Eremeeva’s narrator (also called Jennifer) points out. She acts as an amusing cultural go-between, comparing Russian and American customs. HRH’s early impression of America, from watching commercials, was that “it consists entirely of toothpaste, cat food, and feminine hygiene products.”
Jane Austen’s satirical laughter is clearly an inspiration. Eremeeva adapts the “truth universally acknowledged” and recasts “Pride and Prejudice.” Family friend Ilya Potapov has “been Bingley to HRH’s Darcy since their military school days.” Which means Jennifer is Elizabeth Bennet, the witty, independent heroine (who confesses in the original Austen that there are: “few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well.”)
The favored few include a vivid cast of friends: Tancy, the chain-smoking “corporate lioness”; Jesus, the gay, Venezuelan interior designer; or Joe from Ohio, who deals in real estate and lives with a stunning Russian girlfriend. The narrator’s verdict on other foreigners is often damning: “the most boring man east of Paris, though competition is pretty stiff” or “She had good hair and bad skin, and she clearly spent a fortune on both.”
Eremeeva derides expat wives who complain about their nannies or communicate with their drivers in sign language. She herself is fluent in Russian and the language threads its way into her humorous tapestry: colloquial swearwords, unpronounceable patronymics and the challenges of cross-cultural parenting. She even unpacks body language like the “enigmatic Slavic shrug” and dedicates most of one chapter to observations on Russian girls’ names, having noted earlier that: “nothing good ever came of an Olga.”
The style is conversational, sharing in-jokes and intimacies. Russophiles can appreciate her veiled love song to the land of sepia tsars and samovars; Russophobes will love her tales of baroque tastelessness and soul-chilling bureaucracy. Her writing showcases the sometimes inextricable, best and worst in her adopted home country.
In 2011 Eremeeva launched her foodie blog “The Moscovore” to share the culinary adventures involved in “finding, cooking, and enjoying great food in the Russian capital” so it is not surprising that food is a major theme in her book. From bad cheeseburgers at the Starlite Diner to “Kamchatkan crab and smoked salmon croquettes” at the “Tartan Ball,” many of her wittiest scenes take place at mealtimes. She creates feasts of pesto and tabbouleh in the land of “cabbage soup and porridge” and laughs at the differences between her buffet parties and a typical Russian celebration involving “mayonnaise-based salads and a jungle of sticky glasses.”
With her hatred of Republicans and wariness of Mormons, goatee beards or “people who use “scrapbook” as a verb,” America could easily provide as many targets for Eremeeva’s satire as Russia has. She is the kind of writer who will always find humor in her surroundings. Like Austen’s Mr. Bennet, Eremeeva seems to ask: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”
Phoebe Taplin, Russia Beyond the Headlines
Jennifer Eremeeva has the keen eye of a David Remnick or Hedrick Smith, but she is a whole lot funnier! Lenin Lives Next Door is a raucous look at how life in Russia has evolved from Soviet days to Putin s time, told by Russia s leading expat humorist. Eremeeva s witty book sheds new light on the Russian approach to culture, business, and relationships today. She plies Moscow theaters, restaurants, and parties, imparting hilarious observations and deliciously wicked commentary. She offers up practical advice (e.g., what to bring if you must ever spend the weekend at a Russian dacha summer cottage) and muses on key issues of contemporary Russian life, like whether you can trust a woman named Olga or Tatiana, or why the Russians have such love for mayonnaise. For anyone who appreciates witty prose and great storytelling, the vodka-infused trials and tribulations of Lenin Lives Next Door are a must-read.
Beth Knobel, co-author of Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists, and former Moscow Bureau Chief, CBS News
“You can’t make this stuff up, but it lends itself to embellishment.”
Thus does Eremeeva explain to a friend what her book, this book, will be about. An unabashed, hilarious, gutsy work of creative nonfiction, Lenin Lives Next Door is the triple-distilled product of two decades of Eremeeva’s life in Russia.
In the best tradition of expat fiction, the book is filled with deliciously eccentric characters that we know are pseudo-anonymized, but who are also just too bizarre to be entirely made up (with a name like Dragana Galveston, you know it has to be good). Indeed, the pseudonyms are plethoric: even her husband is simply HRH (mostly for Handsome Russian Husband, but the first H occasionally gets other meanings). And all this, like Russian literature’s ruse of the “town called N—” makes us feel that her fictions are closer to truth.
A warning: don’t pick up this book if you are looking for a romantic paean to the Russian dusha. Instead, this is about how a young woman, cast Russia-ward by her romantic enthrallment with Nicholas and Alexandra, traveled the country, lived as a native, raised a Russo-American family, and turned into a hard-boiled realist (perhaps even a borderline cynic), yet never lost the germ of her original romanticism. Perhaps.
Eremeeva is a fine storyteller (full disclosure, she has previously contributed to RL), and her tales of expat hi-life, cross-cultural confrontations, and run-ins with history make for enjoyable (and often salty and non-PC) reading. If you want to know what it’s like to live in Russia for two decades without actually doing it, this is where I’d start.
— Paul Richardson, Editor of Russian Life magazine.
Contact Jennifer for a review copy of this or any of her other works.