These exceptional stories take place in Magadan in far northeast Russia, “once the gate to the most brutal Stalinist labor camps.” Magadanians live in roach-infested communal apartments, where they share stoves, tables, telephones, bathrooms. Others dwell in dreary, if newer, khrushchyovkas in “one- or two-room apartments … mass built” during the Khrushchev years. One sees everywhere remnants of the Soviet past — in the “leprous” statue of Eduard Petrovich Berzin, in the “corrective camps” he directed, now tourist attractions.
“Despite its isolation, every Russian of a certain age … shudders at the memory of our hometown,” Tolik remarks in “Closed Fracture.” One of the few in the book to leave Russia, Tolik lives in California but visits the old country.
Other characters make do as Magadan’s winters, “the quiet white days,” pass. Life’s “what-ifs” trouble and console them. Set in 1975, “Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas” describes a married woman’s encounter with a handsome Italian en route to Moscow. “What,” she wonders, “did a sportsman of international caliber, rich and free, see in a tired, ground-down Soviet woman?” Nevertheless, she considers meeting him in his hotel room. Her final decision reflects her strength, or hopelessness. The Moscow trip over, Tanya returns to her husband and children in Magadan, “Gulag country — the gateway to Hell, people called it.”
In “Strawberry Lipstick,” the recently married Olya comes back to Magadan after accompanying her officer husband to “the Kamchatka Peninsula.” Separated from loved ones while trying to love Alek, whose gambling and drinking worsen, she learns where the heart belongs.
Other magical stories grace the book. In “Kruchina,” a Russian woman visits her daughter and granddaughter in Fargo. Staying in a house that would be palatial by Magadan standards, the bewildered Masha grows resentful of Americans’ “long, boring, happy lives.” What can they know of the famine and terror of the old times?
Still other stories capture the passion of artistic expression. In “The Uncatchable Avengers,” 9-year-old Dima Ushakov performs in a piano competition. When his piece goes well, he rushes “half-mad” into the street: a curious reaction to the power of art. “It was snowing. Snowing in May!” he exults, as if discovering the possibilities, the “what-ifs,” life holds. Like Tanya in the Italian story or Dima here, characters are conditioned to find the best in bad situations as though, prisoners, they mine for gold in the labor camps of the Kolyma region. Those who find large pieces of gold — Dima with his piano performance — have their sentences shortened.
Melnik immigrated from Magadan to Alaska when she was 15. By recollecting the past, she has discovered a deep mine of beauty and sadness.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.