Sana Krasikov's collection of short stories, One More Year, delves deep into the lives of characters trying to make it in the new Russia. Each story carries an underlying sense that the strong do what they will, and the weak do what they must.
But Krasikov doesn't consider her stories cynical, she says they're realistic.
"I think, if you're in Russia, you can't sometimes afford not to see it like that," she tells NPR's Michel Martin, as part of Tell Me More's summer BRICSION series.
Krasikov was born in the Ukraine, and grew up in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and the United States. She brings all of these experiences to her characters, but Moscow is the setting for many of her stories in One More Year.
The story "The Repatriates" is set in Russia's booming 1990s and is about a Russian emigre couple, Grisha and Lera Arsenyev. Grisha is an ambitious professional who spent years trying to climb up the Wall Street ladder without much success.
"These aren't people who are necessarily occupied with questions of survival," says Krasikov. "They're really trying to go where they can make the most money and where they can live the best."
Once Grisha sees the potential in Russia's growing economy, and an untapped real estate market, he jumps at the chance to return to his thriving homeland.
His wife Lera follows him back to Russia, but after more than a decade away from Moscow, she finds that her surroundings are — as Krasikov puts it — "almost gothically unfamiliar to her."
All around her, Lera becomes suspicious of family, friends, and passersby trying to scam her. But later she finds the biggest scammer of them all is her own husband.
Thriving In A Cutthroat City
In "There Will Be No Fourth Rome," Krasikov tells the story of two childhood friends reuniting in Moscow after their lives have diverged.
The narrator grew up in the U.S. and works as a young accountant. Her friend Nona, on the other hand, is a Georgian refugee who had always lived on the edge of Moscow society.
When they meet, Nona has given up on school, she's sleeping with a married businessman from Germany, and she's pregnant with his child.
"From outward appearances, it just seems like she's given up her dreams ... and is at this man's beck and call," says Krasikov. "But then, as you become more familiar with the situation, you see that that's not really what's going on, she's very clear-eyed about what she's doing."
Nona isn't just sleeping with the businessman, she's running his business, and has even become a cruel foreman.
"On one hand, [Nona] rolls her eyes at the grandiosity of Russian nationalism," says Krasikov. "On the other hand, she's really thriving there, because she's able to survive in that cutthroat world."
In Krasikov's version of the new Russia, money is king, and anyone who doesn't believe it, is fooling themselves.
"The character of Nona thrives in this place very much because of a certain contempt she has for it," says Krasikov. "Whereas the characters who have certain spiritual or sentimental attachments sometimes are taken for a ride. Some of them are very much dreamers, but they can't always afford to be."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now, we turn to our summer reading series. Here at TELL ME MORE, we live in the news world and we depend on headlines and breaking news to keep us up to date on how countries and people are changing, but we also understand that, sometimes, fiction writers can tell those stories - dare we say it - even better than we can. So, this summer, we're taking a look at some of the literature from countries that are on the rise in the global arena, the so-called BRICS nations, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
And, while these countries are gaining power internationally, we're reaching out to some of their powerful storytellers. Today's chapter focuses on Russia. Sana Krasikov is the author of a collection of short stories called "One More Year." She grew up in the Ukraine, the Republic of Georgia and the U.S. She's lived in Moscow and that city provides the inspiration for a number of her stories and she's with us now.
Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
SANA KRASIKOV: Thank you.
MARTIN: Now, you may not think of yourself this way, but you're one of those global figures, you know, globe-trotting figures that could really write about anywhere. Why did you choose to focus so many of your stories on Russia?
KRASIKOV: I think having just a nascent understanding, obviously knowing the language and having traveled there and lived there. I think there's a lot of interesting parallels with life in the United States and I've lived the variety, the duality of the experience, so it was a natural to write about it.
MARTIN: Why do you call the collection "One More Year?"
KRASIKOV: That line comes from the second story, about a woman who's had to leave behind her son and she's made this devil's bargain of - in order to ensure a good life for him, that she's had to leave him and, when he visits her after many years, he calls her on it and he says, every year, you say it's one more year. It's one more year, but when am I going to have my mother back?
And I saw that the situations that were temporary for many of my characters had a way of becoming permanent, that when people turn their whole life upside down, they change everything with their life. They don't often think that it's going to be forever. They think it's just going to be for one year or for two years. It's hard to commit to a completely and different life and so we tell ourselves it's just one year.
MARTIN: Your story, "The Repatriates" - it's set in the boom years of the 1990s for Russia. It's about two Russian emigres who live in the U.S. and who, by - you know, all accounts, just looking at their lives on the surface, you'd think, you know, they're perfectly fine. They're a success, but then they decide to move back to Russia. Can you just set the story up a little more for us?
KRASIKOV: They're professionals who - you know, these aren't people who are necessarily occupied with questions of survival. They're really trying to go where they can make the most money and where they can live the best. And Grisha Arsenyev is one of these men who is very ambitious and he and his wife have a fairly good, stable life. He ends up working on Wall Street, but doesn't rise as quickly on Wall Street and returns, essentially, to start a Russian Fannie Mae, you could say.
His very loyal wife, Lera, follows him back and, of course, the city that she finds more than a decade later is almost gothically unfamiliar to her.
MARTIN: The thing about this story, I think, that fascinated me is that it's a side of immigration that you don't often hear about. I think, in the U.S., the way immigration is talked about at the moment, it's very much a one-way journey. This story takes the other side of it, somebody who's disillusioned in America, but then the story takes kind of a turn. I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit about that.
KRASIKOV: Really, when I was writing this story, I was constructing it almost like, you know, those little dolls inside the little dolls, because his wife follows him to Moscow and starts meeting old friends she hasn't seen and she starts seeing these scams all around her. And, of course, it all builds up to this bigger scam, which is that her husband is playing her for a fool.
MARTIN: But, in another of the stories you call "There Will Be No Fourth Rome," first of all, what does the title mean?
KRASIKOV: Right. I was spending some time in Moscow and it was the 850th anniversary of the city. It was something. It was one of these grand holidays and this motto of the city kept coming up and it was - there have been three Romes. Moscow is the third and there will be no fourth. So I guess there was Rome, there was Constantinople and then there was Moscow.
And so, in the story, this young woman who came of age in the United States and she goes back and meets a childhood friend and neighbor and their lives had diverged quite a bit. And they're riding in a cab in this particular scene and the friend just rolls her eyes. The grandiosity of Russia really repels her. It's not enough that it's the third Rome. There has to be no fourth. They have to be the best, you know, now and forever.
MARTIN: Is there a larger message you're trying to say, in terms of what it takes to make it?
KRASIKOV: Yeah. You know, it's interesting because that main character in "No Fourth Rome," Nona, is very pregnant with the child of this foreign businessman who's got a family in Germany and, from outward appearances, it just seems like she's given up her dreams, you know, shoved her medical diploma in a drawer and is at this man's beck and call.
But then, as you become more familiar with the situation, you see that that's not really what's going on. She's very clear-eyed about what she's doing. She's become a real capitalist. She's not just sleeping with this man. She's running his business. She's making sure he's not being cheated by his Russian partners. And she herself is quite a cruel foreman. I mean, she's essentially running a sweatshop.
On one hand, she rolls her eyes at the grandiosity of Russian nationalism. On the other hand, she's really thriving there, because she's able to survive in that cutthroat world.
MARTIN: The overall impression that I get from the stories, besides the absolute kind of clarity and the beauty of it and the very deep, I think, emotional insights - but the cynicism of life right now. And I just wondered, you know, do you see it as life in Russia as just being very cynical right now? You know, the strong do what they will. The weak do what they must.
KRASIKOV: I think, if you're in Russia, you can't, sometimes, afford not to see it like that. I did - I mean, like the character of Nona thrives in this place very much because of a certain contempt she has for it, whereas the characters who have certain spiritual or sentimental attachments sometimes are taken for a ride. Some of them are very much dreamers, but they can't always afford to be.
MARTIN: Sana Krasikov is the author of a critically acclaimed collection of short stories called "One More Year" and she was kind enough to join us from Katonah, New York. Sana, thank you so much for speaking with us. Congratulations on this wonderful work.
KRASIKOV: Thank you, Michel. Thank you so much.
MARTIN: Next week, join us for the next chapter in our summer BRICS-tion series. We'll focus on India. Guest host Jacki Lyden will be here, and she will speak with Aravind Adiga about his book, "Last Man in Tower." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.