DATE July 2, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Peter Huchthausen, author and retired Navy captain,
discusses his new book, "K-19"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In a time when we're worried about the possibility of nuclear terrorism, a new
book tells the story of a nearly catastrophic nuclear accident during the Cold
War. The K-19 was the Soviet Union's first nuclear-powered submarine to carry
nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, missiles that had the capability of
striking the US. During its first publicized mission, on July 4th, 1961, the
sub launched missiles from a test site. On its return, it developed a leak in
the nuclear reactor's cooling system. Fire broke out in the compartment
containing the reactor, releasing high levels of radiation that killed the men
who repaired the leak. Had they failed to repair it, a nuclear explosion
would have released a massive cloud of radiation.
My guest is retired Navy Captain Peter Huchthausen. He served for more than
20 years as an anti-submarine warfare expert. He's the author of the new
book, "K-19," and was the technical adviser to the movie "K-19," which stars
Harrison Ford as the sub's captain; it opens July 19th. The book includes
excerpts of the captain's journals, including descriptions of what happened
after the fire broke out in the compartment containing the reactor. I asked
Huchthausen to describe the captain's account.
Captain PETER HUCHTHAUSEN (Retired; Author, "K-19"): Well, Captain Zateyev
was an experienced submarine commander, and he knew that it was just a matter
of time before he was going to lose control of the reactor, and the reactor
would overheat and possibly cause a fuel meltdown and possibly a major
hydrogen explosion. So he had a very limited amount of time in which to come
up with a solution for rigging a backup cooling system, which did not exist.
And so as the crew were fighting the fire, he was forced into making a
decision whether or to send crewmen inside the shielded reactor space--which
was eventual death, and he knew it--to fabricate a system to provide cooling
water inside the reactor.
GROSS: You know, in the captain's journal, he writes regarding the men who
went to fix the system, knowing that they wouldn't survive. He writes, `It
seems what really determines the choices a man makes in critical,
life-threatening situations, is still his inner conviction, his sense of
responsibility for the events around him, his personal conscience. This is
equally true of both the ones who send others to their death and the ones who
What did you think about reading that?
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Well, it shows that Captain Zateyev was a very thoughtful
man and a very intensive leader who had a great deal of moral integrity, and
as any commanding officer who's faced with a decision like that, he made the
decision that would have saved--at least the best decision, in his
opinion--that would have saved his men. But of course, that was heavy on his
mind, the fact that he was sending individuals in who were certainly going to
die, and the sad part of it is, is that the men he mentions went in
voluntarily, understanding that it was extremely dangerous, probably did not
have a full understanding of nuclear power and the radiation poisoning.
Unfortunately, we now know in that time in the Soviet navy, they had rushed
those ships and submarines to sea to keep up with the United States and the
West, and they didn't properly train them. These were engineers, most of his
young engineers, who had been taken from other submarines or from other ships
in their navy, given a modicum of nuclear power training and then pushed out
on a ship with inadequate safety precautions, inadequate casualty control
training, and just sent out there to demonstrate that they had a deterrent
capability to match the United States', and it was very sad, because these men
probably didn't understand how serious it was when they each entered to do
GROSS: Did the men from the submarine who tried to jury-rig a new cooling
system to make up for the one that wasn't working, did the new cooling system
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Yes, the new cooling system did work. They achieved the
surface; they managed to get safely to the surface and after several attempts,
it finally held and the temperature went down. But they were still faced with
a massive amount of radiation on board that had spread from not just the
reactor compartment, but throughout the submarine, and he knew that prolonged
exposure to this radiation was going to probably kill everybody on board, so
he was now faced with getting them home.
GROSS: Well, home was about 1,500 miles away.
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Right. Some of his officers, who had a little bit better
understanding of the seriousness of the radiation poisoning, suggest that they
take the submarine and beach it at the nearest possible land, which happened
to be a Norwegian-owned island, Jan Mayen Island in the North Atlantic, which
housed the NATO ocean surveillance network(ph). His officers came to him with
that suggestion, and he opted for another gamble, which was to try to
rendezvous with another group of diesel submarines which had been
participating in the exercise, but this was a long shot, and he took that
gamble, and he actually succeeded in rendezvousing with another submarine, who
then helped him evacuate the crew, to decontaminate some of those who had not
been so severely irradiated, and actually abandoned his K-19 and bring the men
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the effects of the radiation. The men
who were actually in Compartment 6(ph), where the nuclear reactor and the
cooling system were, the men who were working to create a new cooling system,
they were exposed to massive amounts of radiation. They all died. What kind
of deaths did they face?
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Well, it was extremely slow and painful. All who died
actually died several days after they got back to home port, so they spent a
good four days in extremely painful condition. They had been burned
internally because they actually ingested a lot of these nuclides as well as
being irradiated through the skin by being inside the shielded reactor space.
You know, there are different kinds of radiation, depending on what your
sources are. Some can be shielded just by holding up a piece of paper, or by
wearing a shirt. Others can be washed off. But if you ingest these into your
body, the process becomes extremely fatal and those ingested nuclides will
cause your body organs to swell and be poisoned. They actually bled through
the pores of their skin, and their tongues were swollen, and many of them
actually actually suffocated because their mucus membranes all were swollen.
It's an awful death.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Captain Peter Huchthausen.
He's the author of the new book, "K-19," which is the true story of a Soviet
submarine that had a nuclear disaster on it just about exactly 41 years ago.
He's the technical adviser to the new movie "K-19," in which Harrison Ford
stars as the captain of the ship. And Captain Huchthausen served for more
than 20 as a Soviet naval submarine analyst. He was involved in
anti-submarine warfare operations.
Captain, since you were involved in studying Soviet submarines and trying to
prevent them from doing any damage, what were some of the Soviet submarine
secrets that you most wanted to find out when you started to have more access
to Soviet records after the end of the Cold War?
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Well, I think having been involved in anti-submarine
warfare most of my career, and then as a submarine analyst in the intelligence
business, and then ending up as attache in Moscow when the Soviet Union was
crumbling, and we began to hear the real stories behind what we suspected, I
think what I wanted to hear most was what really had happened during these
terrible accidents they had.
We had a pretty good idea in naval intelligence of some of these accidents,
but the Soviets were so good in the control on information, that they had
managed to cover up for so many years major accidents. For example, the loss
of a battleship, 24,000-ton battleship in 1955 that exploded, capsized and
sank in a port in Sebastopol in the Black Sea, with the loss of 608 man. This
was the 20th century's largest peacetime naval accident in history, and they
covered it up. The only people who knew anything about it were those who
survived and their families, and this was not released to the world until 33
years later, when the former commander in chief of the Soviet navy died. I
was in Moscow then, in the US embassy, and we began to hear these stories from
survivors who began to step forward and tell their stories.
And the same was about the submarine accidents. We had a pretty good idea
that they had lost a number of submarines, but we didn't know how many men had
been lost, and now we know that during the Cold War, they lost a total of
eight submarines, and that's incredible, and the number of men lost was huge.
We had an inkling, we knew where some of those were, but we didn't know the
real cost, and we didn't know the real causes. And I had experiences in
Moscow that you wouldn't believe, where people were coming out of the
woodwork, asking me if I would take this information and report it, because it
told the truth about the large number of people that were lost during the race
to keep up with us in the Cold War.
GROSS: Do you think there's a lot of radioactive waste at the bottom of the
sea as a result of these nuclear submarine disasters?
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Well, there's a lot more than we wish to know about, and
it's all come forward and the Russians have not been terribly cooperative.
Right after the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the Russian Federation government
was under a great deal of pressure, specifically from the Scandinavian
countries, those countries--and Japan--where they have--large amounts of this
nuclear waste was dumped during the Cold War, and even though the Soviet Union
was a signatory to the prohibition treaty against dumping nuclear waste at
sea, they were doing it secretly and at night, and not logging it, and there
are bits and pieces of submarine reactors and submarine power plants dumped up
in the Novaya Zemlya area and in the Sea of Japan, which is very frightening.
Then-President Boris Yeltsin, under extreme pressure, conducted a survey in
which he tried to--he had experts go out and try to log this material, see
what was really on the bottom, but in that report that came out in 1993--the
short name was the Yablokov Report--they admitted how many reactors were
dumped, but since that time the Russians have clammed up and they've prevented
international organizations such as Greenpeace and European organizations from
going up and investigating where some of this material was dumped.
The frightening thing is, for example, out where the K-219, the Yankee class
submarine that sank in 1986 out in mid-Atlantic, not far from Bermuda, there
were 44 nuclear weapons aboard that submarine when she went down, and although
it's in very deep water, more than three miles deep, nuclear weapons have
plutonium in them, and they all disintegrated and exploded as they sank and
that plutonium is scattered on the sea bottom.
And although some people--the US Navy specifically, who is very parochial
about the dangers of nuclear radiation in the sea bottom, naturally because
they get weak knees when you talk about de-nuclearizing the ocean because our
entire submarine fleet is all nuclear-powered--they say the best place for a
broken reactor or spilled plutonium is at the bottom, and the deeper the
However, the smart people from Woods Hole, for example--they're people that go
down and sample in depths like this--will tell you that we don't know enough
about ocean currents three miles deep to tell you whether or not this stuff
can move and whether or not it might get in the food chain, which would be
disastrous, because the half-life of plutonium is roughly 200,000 years, you
know. That's forever.
GROSS: My guest is retired Navy Captain Peter Huchthausen, author of the new
book, "K-19." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is retired Navy Captain Peter Huchthausen. He worked as an
anti-submarine warfare expert during the Cold War. His new book, "K-19,"
the story of a nuclear accident in 1961 on a nuclear-powered Soviet submarine.
Now I want to ask you a little bit about your experiences in anti-Soviet
submarine work. During the Cuban missile crisis, you were on an American
destroyer that was, I guess, part of the blockade, and what was your mission?
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Well, I was a brand-new ensign on a destroyer out of
Newport, Rhode Island. We were sent out to participate in the blockade, to
stop the Soviets from sending any more missiles into Cuba. We did not know at
the time that part of the secret plan by Khrushchev was to not only put
missiles ashore in Cuba, but to home-port a total of seven ballistic
submarines in a port called Mariel, Cuba, and we just found this out recently
from newly released information from the Soviets, and that's my next book that
comes out in August.
It's called "October Fury," and it's the story of how we encountered four of
those initial submarines, four out of the squadron that was going to be
home-ported in Mariel, Cuba, and we forced three of them to the surface. We
found the Russian commanding officers and we interviewed them, and it's quite
a good story, because we just found out that they had nuclear-tipped torpedoes
aboard, which we didn't know at the time, and that we came very, very close to
a shooting war with them during that time.
GROSS: So how did you force the nuclear submarine to surface?
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Well, we were following them using our sonar and our
passive acoustic arrays, and these were diesel submarines, because Soviet
nuclear submarines were having such engineering problems at the time, and this
was 1962. Most of them were unable to operate in the Atlantic for extended
periods of time, so the initial submarines that the Soviets had to send were
diesel-powered long-range attack submarines of the Foxtrot class.
And we picked up the contact, and we stayed with them, in our case, for 17
hours, and we forced them just by good ASW. We knew where they were, we knew
what they smelled like and what their captains were thinking, and we forced
them to surface.
GROSS: And when you got them to surface, then what?
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Well, we had sent out an international warning to mariners
saying that any unidentified submarine should surface on an easterly heading,
and if you didn't do so, they would be subject to attack. But the Kennedy
administration had just gotten an agreement with Premier Khrushchev that in
turn for not invading Cu--but you probably know the full story--that they
would then withdraw their missiles and of course, this anti-submarine warfare
game was going on during all this, and even though we had reached agreement
that the Soviets would remove their missiles and we wouldn't invade, we, out
there chasing the submarines, were faced with the commanding officers of
submarines who thought we were already at war. They did not know. They were
getting no information, we now know, and that when they surfaced, they had to
surface, and they were prepared to fire because they thought we were going to
try to sink them, and it was a pretty hairy situation at the last minute
there. But happily, the personal integrity of the commanding officers on both
sides involved, any one of which could have started the Third World War, was
so superior that they used caution and nobody shot at anybody else.
GROSS: So is this further evidence that we came closer to a nuclear war
during the Cuban missile crisis than we may have thought?
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: I think we know that were closer now than we ever thought,
because former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in a news announcement
just last year when he was asked by a member of the press whether or not he
knew at the time that those Soviet submarines that we had contacted at the
time had nuclear weapons aboard, and he said no, it was the first time he
heard of it.
GROSS: Well, you've not only served in the American military yourself; your
father was a chaplain in the military. I'm wondering if you watched him go
through a lot of difficult emotional and spiritual crises with the men who he
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Oh, yes, I can remember--well, my dad served in the war in
the Pacific. He was in an infantry regiment, and he fought the Japanese in
New Guinea and Philippines. He took part in the invasion of Lingayen Gulf
and the liberation of Manila, and then he served in Korea. And I can remember
as a young boy, and moving around with our family how intensely close to the
troops my father was, having served in combat with them, and his unit, which
was the 1st Infantry Regiment, one of the oldest regiments in US history,
suffered considerable casualties during that fighting. And my dad was
always--he often talked to me about the possibilities of becoming an officer
and he said to me that even if you're not a member of the clergy, as a
commanding officer, commanding men in combat, you're probably have the
greatest moral obligation to proper leadership than you would as a chaplain
administering to the troops.
GROSS: What was the most difficult moral decision you had to make while you
were a captain in the Navy?
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Well, I think my most difficult moral decision was not
when I was a captain but when I was a young lieutenant in Vietnam. I
commanded 10 river patrol boats in the Mekong delta, and when I had to send
men out into combat and faced with the prospect of losing men who I
commanded--and I did; I had lost 10 percent of my men during the Tet
offensive--I think the biggest thing you faced was the fear that you would not
make the right decision as a commander in the heat of combat, and as a result,
you would lose men as a result of your weakness or your failure to do the
right thing. I think that was the hardest aspect about being a commander,
although I was a young 26-year-old lieutenant.
GROSS: Captain Huchthausen, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Capt. HUCHTHAUSEN: Sure. It was my pleasure.
GROSS: Retired Navy Captain Peter Huchthausen is the author of the new book,
"K-19." He's the technical adviser for the movie based on the story, also
called "K-19" starring Harrison Ford as the captain of the submarine. It
opens July 19th.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, a comic take on life as a Soviet emigre. We talk with Gary
Shteyngart, author of the new novel "The Russian Debutante's Handbook."
Shteyngart was born in Leningrad and immigrated to New York with his family in
1979, when he was a boy.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Gary Shteyngart discusses his new novel, "The Russian
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The immigrant's immigrant. The expatriate's expatriate. The enduring victim
of every practical joke the late 20th century had to offer. And an unlikely
hero for our times. That's how Gary Shteyngart describes the protagonist of
his new novel, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook." It's based on Shteyngart's
experiences as a Jewish Soviet emigre who spent the first seven years of his
life in Leningrad, then moved to New York with his family in 1979. The novel
focuses on the absurdities in the Soviet Union, the US and post-Communist
The novel opens in 1993, when the main character, Vladimir Girshkin, is 25,
frustrated with his job at the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society and
bored with his girlfriend and her torn black shirts and Gothic bracelets and
crucifixes. Never having fit into the US, after the Cold War Girshkin leaves
for Prava, a fictional city in Eastern Europe, which is attracting lots of
young Americans. Let's start with a reading.
Mr. GARY SHTEYNGART (Author, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook"): In this
part of the book, Vladimir Girshkin, who is a kind of malfunctioning
immigrant, ends up in Eastern Europe, and he has developed a sort of cultural
Ponzi scheme with which he wishes to defraud and get money from the many
Americans who have settled in this very hip city in Eastern Europe called
Prava. And at this point, he's selling the cultural Ponzi scheme to the
Russian Mafia, whom he has befriended and who he's working for. And
which--the Mafia is led by a gentleman named the Groundhog. So now Vladimir
`How do we get the Americans to invest in the first place? Here is the
answer: self-esteem. Most of these young men and women are trying
desperately to justify their presence in Prava and the interruption of their
education, their careers and so on. We make them feel like they're taking
part in the resurgence of Eastern Europe. There is an American saying spoken
by a famous black man: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of
the problem." This saying has deep resonance in the American psyche,
particularly among the liberal kind of American this city attracts. Now we've
got them not only becoming part of the solution, but making money in the
process, or so they all think.'
`Wait one minute,' the Groundhog said. `We don't know any Americans.'
`That, friends,' Vladimir said, `is why I'm here with you today. I propose
that I single-handedly infiltrate the American community in Prava. Despite my
fluent Russian and my tolerance of drink, I can easily double as a first-rate
American. My credentials are impeccable. I have attended one of the premier
liberal-minded colleges in the States, and have profound appreciation for the
dress, manners and outlook of the disaffected young American set. I have
lived many years in New York, the capital of the disaffected movement; have
had many angry, disenfranchised friends of the artistic persuasion, and have
just completed a romantic liaison with a woman who in both looks and
temperament personifies the vanguard of this unique social group. Gentlemen,
with no intention of conceit, I assure you I am the best there is, and that's
GROSS: Gary Shteyngart, would you describe the Ponzi scheme that your
character comes up with?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, it's a--it's a very complicated Ponzi scheme.
Basically there's these Americans running around who have no business being in
Eastern Europe, but who have come the way many Americans came to Prague in the
early 1990s, to make a go of it, to try--at one point I call it the five-year
plan of alcoholic self-discovery. So Vladimir, being a Russian but one who
has lived in America for a large portion of his life, wishes to defraud them
through launching, for instance, a literary magazine called Cagliostra(ph),
which is the name of a Sicilian charlatan, I believe, in the Middle Ages, and
through other kinds of literary and cultural conceits. It's sort of a
cultural Ponzi scheme, which is a term that came to me after--in the course of
one's life in New York, one goes to many--one has to support one's friends and
one goes to these bizarre performances and, you know, mime and acrobatic acts.
And then your friends go to your performances. So it's sort of this pyramid
scheme where everybody supports everybody. But in the end, the amount of
actual raw talent is quite small.
GROSS: Now this Ponzi scheme is designed to play on Americans' `shaky
self-esteem.' Why did you focus on self-esteem?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, because despite being the citizens of a global
superpower, many Americans feel themselves culturally inferior to Europe. And
I think this may have to do with the fact that America's at the helm of
popular culture throughout the world, which is often seen by others as being,
well, offensive, for instance. Last year I traveled all over the former
Soviet Union, and here is a culture that's sort of in the making because the
whole socialist template has fallen to the wayside. And what has come in its
place is American popular culture.
For instance, I was in Georgia, and there was a gentleman with an accordion
who sings Britney Spears songs. You know, he has a very kind of old-fashioned
voice and he sings (Singing), `Oops, I did it once more, bum, bum, bum, bum,
bum,' to an accordion beat. It's really funny and kind of sweet, but at the
same time a little scary. And I think that that's what many Americans are
afraid of that they are doing this to the planet at large. It's
GROSS: About being an immigrant, you've said, `Getting out of Russia was
certainly no panacea. We brought the Soviet Union with us wherever we went.'
What do you mean?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, it's inescapable. I mean, we're--let's look at it this
way: Jews and Russians are some of the most anxiety-ridden, oppressed and
maligned people in the past two centuries. And when you put them together,
Jewish and Russian--Russian Jews--it's the making of a mental health crisis.
You know, we've been through so much in the past century and there's no way
that you can simply move--you know, you get off the plane at Kennedy Airport
and all of a sudden you are a different person, a person free of the madness
and fears of these Eastern countries. And all of a sudden you become a happy
American. It just doesn't work that way.
And I think a lot of people miss that because even if you're driving your
Volvo and you have your Oberlin T-shirt on, you certainly are not the same as
a native-born person who has these accoutrements. So there's no way one can
shake off history. History follows us wherever we go, I think. And if I ever
breed, if I ever have children, I would wonder even if they would
have--through having me as a father whether they would have some of the echoes
of this terrible, terrible background from which we come from.
GROSS: Your family left the Soviet Union when Brezhnev allowed Jewish
families to emigrate. Did you practice Judaism in the Soviet Union and did
that change when you moved to the States?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: I didn't practice Judaism. I practiced socialism in the
Mr. SHTEYNGART: As a small child, I was in love with the Communist Party,
with the Red Army especially and Lenin. You know, I can still remember songs,
(Singing in Russian). It means, `Lenin, he is always alive. Lenin, he is
always with you.' And as a child, I was very sick--a typical, you know,
Proustian kind of sick child syndrome--and I would listen to these songs and
read these books and I would feel as if Lenin was almost my big buddy, you
know. And I would open the window and there his bald head would be staring
back at me. There was one of the biggest statues of Lenin was right outside
where we lived. So I was in love with the Soviet Union.
And then we came to the first stop for Soviet Jews what was Vienna, then Rome.
And in Rome, I was seven years old and my father told me that, you know, it
was all lies; none of this was real. And I remember it was the first instance
of heartbreak in my life. I couldn't believe it. I used to play with these
clothespins that I imagined were Aeroflot planes--Tupolev is the name of the
make. And then I remember switching to Boeing and the Concorde and that was
sort of my first change of heart.
And then when we got to America, I was sent to Hebrew school and we gave
Judaism a go. And it was terrifying. The kids--this was--the war in
Afghanistan was just starting up and Russians were highly unpopular. You
know, remember the movie "The Day After" and everything like this. So we were
the enemy. And the kids would taunt me and make fun of me mercilessly. And I
also had this very thick bear coat, and they would call me the stinky Russian
bear, much as they do Vladimir Girshkin, the protagonist in the novel. So you
know, I tried Judaism as much as I could, but that didn't really pan out. So
I ended up in Stuyvesant High School, which is one of the math and science
high schools and it's sort of a holding pen for nerds in New York.
And there--at this point I was giving capitalism a go. With all of my heart I
wanted to be a capitalist. We had watched "Dallas" religiously, my mother and
I, talking of--speaking of religion. J.R. was a god of sorts. So I tried
that for a long time. I really wanted to make money. And I remember in
sophomore year--this is so embarrassing to say--I worked with the George Bush
campaign. I was a volunteer. And I sat with all these women in these huge
fur coats and me, you know, a small Russian immigrant sitting there making
cold calls, getting people to vote for Bush. But that wasn't panning out,
either. So Selig-like I decided to take on at this time a fourth identity
after loyal Soviet citizen, Jew, capitalist. At this time I decided to become
a hippie liberal. And this led me straight to Oberlin College.
And at Oberlin I was very much welcomed by--we had a pol--I was a political
science major. And I remember there was a visiting professor who would
translate Brezhnev's works into Yiddish. You know, this was the sort of thing
that went on there. And there the comrades welcomed me with open arms, too.
I wrote a wonderful piece. It's called Back in the USSR where I--it was
almost apologizing for Lenin's--the way he had treated--the way he had brought
the various nationalities into the fold of the Soviet Union.
So basically after all these different manifestations, the real question was
sort of: Who am I? You know, who is this Gary Shteyngart? Which one of
these, you know, to put it into a Queens accent. And I didn't know. And it
was about this time that I began writing "The Russian Debutante's Handbook."
And my alter ego, Vladimir Girshkin--this is when I decided to use him almost
as a vehicle for exploring this question.
GROSS: My guest is Gary Shteyngart, author of the new novel "The Russian
Debutante's Handbook." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Gary Shteyngart. He's the author of the new comic novel
"The Russian Debutante's Handbook." It's based on his experiences as a
Russian emigre. He was born in Leningrad and emigrated to New York with his
family at the age of seven.
Let me get back to your childhood. When Lenin was your hero and you sang
songs about him and...
Mr. SHTEYNGART: And wrote about him, too.
GROSS: And wrote about him. I mean, this is just what they wanted, isn't it?
To get, like, young smart minds like yours and convince them that Lenin was an
idol, a hero, somebody to be sung about and written about and idolized in
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Sure. Yeah, in some ways the Soviet Union made children of
us all. You know, I think no matter what your age is, the idea was sort of to
put you in this childhood state of mind and to worship a father figure, or the
father figure is the Politburo if you will, which never really worked except
under Stalin when there was really no choice. But, yes, this is exactly the
sort of thing that they wanted. And it's not like there was much of an
alternative, you know. There wasn't Michael Jordan in the way you would
worship in the United States. They had a monopoly on thoughts. And for a
young child--I mean, I don't know how long this would have continued. I
wanted to join the Red Pioneers, but we emigrated before that was possible.
The Red Pioneers is the Communist youth group for children.
GROSS: Right. Now you've been exposed to, like, hero worship as Lenin as a
child in the Soviet Union. Then you came to the States during the Cold War
years when in many political circles Lenin and anything Communist was reviled
and was a subject of hatred and fear. Then you went to college where there
was a lot of serious intellectual pursuit of the history of socialism. So
having gone through all of these different points of view about socialism and
communism, did you find it very confusing or did you kind of emerge from that
with a point of view of your own?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, I think the 29 years that I have lived on this Earth
have been sort of a grand tour of the failure of these various systems to
satisfy their populations. Obviously, America, even under the free market
system, does a lot better than socialism certainly ever did under Russia, but
one can't turn oneself--one can't simply embrace that as well. One has to be
critical. So I think, you know, from Lenin worship to Reagan worship in the
space of five years, that's quite a jump. So I think I've really seen it all.
And my life has been full of these strange juxtapositions.
I remember my parents came to visit me in Oberlin College. You know, and
these are people who have a slightly jaundiced view of socialism. And they
were sort of walking through Oberlin and there were all these signs, `The
Democratic Socialists of America welcome you to their socialist powwow.' I
remember at one point my father was walking through the central square in
Oberlin--this is the strangest juxtaposition. I'll never forget it. He's
walking across the square and somebody has drawn a giant vagina on the square.
And it says beneath it, `Mom, Dad, you capitalist pigs. Here, I have tasted
my lesbian lover's vagina and may you capitalist pigs go to hell.' And my
father is sort of sleepwalking right past it; not saying a thing. Well, he's
talking to the tour guide about, you know, `Please tell me about the rebate
for Macintosh laptop computer for incoming freshman student.' And meanwhile,
he's standing--and I'm thinking, `Dad,' you know, `get off the vagina. You're
standing on somebody's giant genitals.' And that's when it struck me that the
story of my life is so inexplicable. All these endless juxtapositions, you
know, from the red flag to a meter-high vagina. It was time to get cracking
on the book. And at Oberlin is where I started to do so.
GROSS: Now how did working on the book help you figure out your life?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, in the end only analysis can really help in this
endeavor. But going through Girshkin--Girshkin became a good friend of mine.
Girshkin is the protagonist. Vladimir Girshkin became a very good friend of
mine. And, in fact, when I--one of the reasons I sat on this book for seven
years--you know, I didn't send it out; I didn't think it would go anywhere--is
because it was hard to let him go. He was like a girlfriend you don't want to
break up with even though the time has come. He was an alter ego. And also I
could put him through things I would never put myself through, although in
some ways my experience echoes his; sometimes it's almost 100 percent, the
symmetry. But I could look at him, I could look at the way he reacted to the
people around him and I could draw lessons about my own life and I could try
to change my own life ultimately, which is what I did.
And the creation of Shteyngart as a viable persona began, I think, when I
started seeing an analyst. And this is when I began to realize that one of
the major problems we had in the Soviet Union was the lack of mental health
treatment. You know, in Russia you saw a psychiatrist--you were sent to a
psychiatric hospital for writing something like "The Russian Debutante's
Handbook." But mental health care, per se, did not really exist. The vodka
bottle was what you turned to for solace. And then I was working for this
wonderful agency called the Educational Alliance at the Selman House(ph). And
they had this program--I don't know if they still have it--called Project
Help. And it was a substance abuse treatment for Russian immigrants, but it
also had this psychological component.
And in interacting with the staff and patients of this program, I started to
realize exactly what we had on our hands. And that's when I began to think,
`You know what we really need instead of all these IMF and World Bank programs
in the former Soviet Union, we need to send a planeload of nice New York
social workers into Russia, in the former Soviet republics, and this would be
the best use of World Bank money.' Because without the in--forget the
infrastructure and the banking system for a while. We have to start at ground
zero in a sense, and that is to work in terms of psychology with the people
who have been left behind.
GROSS: So it's been helpful to you to undergo psychoanalysis?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Oh, yes. Yes, very helpful. It's just...
GROSS: Did you grow up completely without that concept in the Soviet Union?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Oh, of course. Of course. Again, there were psychiatric
hospitals, but this was a state weapon...
GROSS: That was punishment. Yeah, right.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: It was punishment. Oh, yes. Little did I know that it could
be such a blessing. And only at Oberlin did I realize that everybody had an
analyst in Oberlin and, you know, people would give me nice recommendations.
And eventually I found a wonderful analyst in New York.
GROSS: There's a part in your novel where Vladimir, the main character,
wonders if the fall of the Berlin Wall has made him somehow more timely in the
way that people regard him in the United States. Did you go through that,
too; that thinking somehow like being a Russian American was almost more
fashionable at about that time?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Well, one of my favorite lines of Vladimir Girshkin--he says,
`You know, it is better to be patronized than to be ignored.' And, yes, I did
discover that being a small furry immigrant had its cache and that I could
parlay that. And in Oberlin it was wonderful, you know, because I did feel so
ignored for a large part of my life. I didn't fit into any social structure
that I can imagine. But all of a sudden being disenfranchised, as I said
during the reading--being disenfranchised was a positive thing in Oberlin and
being an immigrant was a positive thing, too. And I could work with it. So
there was--that did happen to me. And in the end you don't feel any better
simply because people are interested in you because you don't fit in. This is
not what one wishes to achieve, of course. But it was an
interesting--anthropologically speaking, it was an interesting experience, and
it was something that definitely informed my work.
GROSS: My guest is Gary Shteyngart, author of the new novel "The Russian
Debutante's Handbook." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest Gary Shteyngart is author of the new comic novel "The Russian
Debutante's Handbook." It's based on his experiences as a Russian emigre. He
was born in Leningrad and emigrated to New York with his family in 1979 at the
age of seven.
You've lived in the United States since the age of seven. In what ways do you
still feel very Russian?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: You know, people ask me, `Where do you feel better, when
you're in Russia or when you're in America?' Of course, the answer is in
America. Russia is such a depressing country and will be in the foreseeable
future. Sometimes I feel that I feel best when I'm on an airplane between
continents and I'm surrounded by foreign nationalists. And this almost feels
natural to me, this constant state of movement, of migration. I don't want to
bring up the stereotype of the Wandering Jew. I hope I can look beyond that.
But on the other hand, it does happen to some extent.
In this country--I have never fully assimilated into this country. I can
speak the language fairly well. But especially, you know, I used to have a
girlfriend from North Carolina and I would go visit North Carolina and, of
course, I went to college in Ohio, and people--you know, as soon as I opened
my mouth, there would be this amazing gap. It seems that our experiences were
so different that I even tried to adopt a Southern twang. For a while I said
things like shoo doggy, you know, but it didn't work. Nobody believed me.
And only in New York, when I touch down in New York on an airplane, do I feel
like I'm on solid ground, because here everybody's from somewhere else and it
really doesn't matter where you're from. So New York feels like home to me to
some extent more so than the countryside.
GROSS: Are there any souvenirs that you've kept from your Soviet childhood?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: My walls are festooned with these giant posters. I actually
got them after I came, but there are these giant posters. And one is of
this--it was called: The All Voluntary Union of the Army Air Force and Fleet.
It wasn't very voluntary, of course, but it was this scheme to get children to
give up their lunch money to, you know, the air force. And it was this huge
poster with a Yuri Gagarin-type fellah and he's holding onto his face helmet
in this almost oy-like gesture. And it says in big letters--big Cyrillic
letters it says: `Learn to defend the motherland.' Ah. And so I wake up
every day and before I get to work I see Yuri Gagarin and I feel something's
been lost, something's been gained, and I get to work.
And some other hilarious propaganda posters--one is--I mean, this would be
kitsch, I think, anywhere else, but there's this black fist holding up an
AK-47 and it says: `The battle continues. Angola will win.' And it's a
poster for the Angolan Communist government. And, you know, you see the
Angola, the Communist star and their symbol, which is, I think, the machete.
I mean, what's scary about all this, you know--I idolized Lenin. Lenin was a
mass murderer. I mean, the myth of the benevolent Lenin has been thrown onto
the ash heap of history. I mean, what kind of a childhood are we talking
about when your older buddy is a mass murderer? So it really gives you
something to think about, if not write about.
GROSS: You not only left the world that you grew up in, but that world
doesn't exist anymore.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yeah.
GROSS: The Soviet Union doesn't exist. Your city of Leningrad is now...
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Yeah.
GROSS: ...St. Petersburg again. You've been back there. How does it look
different and feel different than it did when you were a child?
Mr. SHTEYNGART: It looks awful. Moscow has become sort of a more Westernized
city, but Leningrad or St. Petersburg, if you will, is still falling apart at
the seams. All the money is parked in Moscow. So all these things that were
sort of--you know, the trams sort of ran on time back then and all the
infrastructure has frayed and there's certain streets, the main street,
Nevsky Prospekt looks very Western. It's filled with Benetton stores and
whatnot. But for the most part, it looks decrepit and the people look like
they've been through a war. You know, often it feels that the Cold War did
have a winner and a loser and we lost the Cold War, the Russian people lost
the Cold War and they look like it. You ride around and you see some grandma
standing on the sidewalk and selling a sock, one sock; not two, mind you, one
sock, and this is not how we grew up.
It was a poor country by Western standards, but there was something like a
middle class. And you knew that if you wanted health care and an education at
some level you could expect that. Jews faced anti-Semitism and there were
other barriers, but for the most part you knew you weren't going to--that the
world wasn't going to fall away beneath your feet, which it has for the 250
million people, or even more, that live in the former Soviet Union.
The mortality rate is through the roof. Russia will have a population of 140
million, I think, in a year or so. And I think in the next century it may
fall to 100 million. The average life expectancy of the Russian male is 55
years, so it's a terrifying place. And it wasn't exactly so when I left it.
It was a place that lived--that was based on lies, built on lies. But in
terms of the way people lived, most people expected a brighter future than
they do at the present.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SHTEYNGART: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Gary Shteyngart's new novel is called "The Russian Debutante's
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We have some great musical programs coming up this week. Tomorrow we talk
with the producers of a new CD of Frank Sinatra's Hollywood recordings.
Thursday we listen to rare Louis Armstrong tapes and talk with the director of
the Armstrong House and Archives. And Friday we remember Rosemary Clooney
with a 1997 concert and interview. She died Saturday. We'll close with a
recording from 1990.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. ROSEMARY CLOONEY: (Singing) First, daffodils and long, excited cables and
candlelights on little corner tables, and still my heart has wings. These
foolish things remind me of you. The park at evening when the bell has
sounded, the Ile de France with all the gulls around it, the beauty that is
springs. These foolish things remind me of you.
How strange, how sweet to find you still. These things are dear to me. They
seem to bring you near to me. The scent of smoldering leaves, the wail of
steamers, two lovers on the street...
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