Svetlana Grobman recalls hearing stories about America when she was a child growing up in Moscow, but those stories never cast America as a golden land of opportunity.
“We were told we lived in the best country in the world,” she says, “and that people in the West were exploited.” Grobman believed the spin for a while, but year by year, the reality of her situation became clearer and she began to question her allegiance to Mother Russia.
A dark-haired, dark-eyed child, Grobman was surrounded by blue-eyed blondes who shunned her because she was Jewish. “Children are cruel,” she says, and it’s clear the memories still pain her.
Her father and mother were both highly educated professionals — an engineer and a doctor — but communism coupled with racial discrimination kept the family on the edge of poverty. Grobman recalls the Russia of her childhood as a colorless place. “Everything was dirty brown and gray,” she says. “There were no bright colors.”
In her memoir, The Education of a Traitor: A Memoir of Growing Up in Cold War Russia, Grobman takes readers behind the Iron Curtain for a revealing look at life in Moscow of the 1950s and ’60s. She captures the everyday life of her young self in vivid detail, giving readers access to tense family dinners, summer adventures and classroom struggles in a place where discontent was growing, despite a government’s best efforts to keep the populace in line.
The book is arranged as a series of short stories. The format suits Grobman because, she says, “I kind of think in stories. Things come to me in pieces.”
In 1989, Grobman, along with her first husband and daughter, left Russia as the regime was crumbling. By 1990, the family was on its way to the United States. “The HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) organization helped Jews relocate,” she says. “The Jewish community of Columbia chose us.”
After a brief stint as a nurse’s aide, Grobman found work at Columbia’s Daniel Boone Regional Library in 1991. With only a rudimentary grasp of English, she started out shelving books. A supervisor encouraged her to get a library science degree, so Grobman went to school while working full time, and at age 45, she graduated college. Her English these days is flawless.
Grobman enjoys working in a place and living in a country where she is surrounded by all sorts of ideas and ideologies. “Americans are excited about everything,” she says. “Russians were superstitious.”
Something else changed for Grobman when she arrived in America. “I’ve never experienced discrimination,” she says. It’s a triumph for the Russian girl who found her storybook ending in America.