Born in Soviet Ukraine, Steven Volynets immigrated to the United States as a child. He turned to literature after several years as a journalist; since then, he has written fiction, essays, reviews and literary translation. His work has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and lauded by publications such as Glimmer Train and The Paris Review. Moment spoke with him about his new story, his childhood in Russia and his evolution as a writer.
Read his story, “Turboatom,” winner of the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest, here.
by Marilyn Cooper
Did you have any direct experience with Chernobyl?
That’s easy: none whatsoever. Reading authors like Ken Kalfus and Svetlana Alexievich, both remarkable chroniclers of Soviet life, made me realize that what happened in Chernobyl was at least as consequential to the collapse of the USSR as all the diplomacy and Cold War posturing combined. No Iron Curtain could keep radioactive rain from falling on Austria or Finland. Chernobyl became a metaphor for the end of the Soviet mythology, its final, apocalyptic expression. Otherwise, save for the actual factory in Kharkov the story is named after, “Turboatom” is pure invention. I think about fiction in the most basic sense of the word, as the art of the “what if.” Thousands of Soviet families experienced this terrible accident as a kind of Shakespearean food for powder, doomed to senseless death, loss of loved ones, radiation sickness and cancer. “Turboatom” is merely a “what if”—what if this happened to my family?
Please describe your background. How did you become interested in writing?
Since I was little, my parents did everything to nourish my imagination. They read to me, played records, encouraged my drawing, which I still do. Children’s books were scarce in the Soviet Union. Everything was. So I entered the world of mature reading relatively early: the mind riddles of Poe and Conan Doyle, the crazy, colorful world of Gogol, the modernist rhythms of Mayakovsky. It was never intimidating because it was play. So I started to emulate them, dream up my own stories. But things changed after we immigrated to the U.S. We lived in poverty, often in unsafe Brooklyn neighborhoods. The expectations shifted. On top of years of backbreaking labor, both of my parents endured stunning indignities and traumas of cultural isolation—all for me and my younger brother. Pursuing the arts was deemed an indulgence, as most immigrant kids would attest. So it took a long time until I gave myself permission to become a working writer—first as a journalist, a literary translator and, ultimately, attempting to write my own prose. We still struggle. New York can be an unforgiving city. But one can only pretend to be somebody else for so long.
Did your family practice Judaism in Russia?
We were a pretty typical Soviet family, completely devoid of any religion, which was prohibited in the USSR. The great Nicole Krauss has talked about the Jews as people of the book, that no matter where we are in the world we are connected by our religious customs and traditions. But what if you take the book away? And what if you take away the notion of secular Zionism embodied by Israel? And what if you go even further and erase all knowledge of ancestral past, a painful fact of life for so many Eastern European Jews like me—Jews who have no idea who they are or where they come from, because their predecessors all perished in the bloodlands between Hitler and Stalin? That’s the basic question of “Turboatom”: If you jettison all those tropes of Jewish identity, is there anything left of us that’s Jewish? The Soviet Union is a perfect laboratory for exploring these questions. Going beyond religion and statehood, authors like Lara Vapnyar, Masha Gessen, David Bezmozgis and others have used it to search for something unique but elemental about Jewishness: our language and history, our fear and sexuality, our violence and freedom.
When did you come to this country and why?
I barely hit puberty when we immigrated to the U.S. as part of the last wave of Soviet Jewry granted the status of refugees. At that time, the institutional anti-Semitism was no longer as rampant as that of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but the Soviet Union was collapsing. In many ways, it still is. There was fear that the shards of ancient hate toward Jews in Europe would reassemble into something even uglier—a fear not at all unfounded, as it turns out, given the current resurgence of anti-Semitism in that part of the world. Another, unstated reason was total economic chaos. I do not long for the Soviet system, but national health care, public housing, full employment, world-class education—often dysfunctional but available to all—were all good things. Rash privatization reforms eviscerated all of them. Leaving Kharkov was the most difficult decision of our lives. We were the fortunate ones. Still, to be uprooted from a place, especially one that no longer exists, is something I grapple with every day. Regardless of where they are from, this sense of perpetual in-betweenness haunts all immigrants in one way or another the rest of their lives.
What are you working on now? What are your plans for the future?
“Turboatom” is part of a collection of tightly linked stories I have recently completed, called Foreverfall, about sanitation workers, nurses, cleaners and other quiet, often invisible lives that make New York City possible. They are immigrants from places like Haiti, Mexico, Italy and Ukraine. Slava’s story in “Turboatom” is one of several major family threads that run, and sometimes intersect, throughout the collection. I am also working on a novel that will span from Europe at the end of World War II to present-day New York. It’s about crime, presidential politics, real estate and movies! It’s a real mess.