Like a Drop of Ink in a Down­pour: Mem­o­ries of Sovi­et Russia

September 1, 2021

Like a Drop of Ink in a Down­pour: Mem­o­ries of Sovi­et Rus­sia traces Yele­na Lembersky’s child­hood in Leningrad (Saint Peters­burg) in the 1970s and 80s. Her life is upend­ed when her fam­i­ly decides to emi­grate to Amer­i­ca, but instead her moth­er is charged with a crime and unjust­ly incarcerated.

Told in the dual points of view, this mem­oir is a clear-eyed look at the real­i­ty of life in the Sovi­et Union dur­ing the Cold War, giv­ing us an insider’s per­spec­tive on the roots of con­tem­po­rary Rus­sia. It is also a com­ing-of age sto­ry, heart­felt and fun­ny, a tes­ta­ment to the unbreak­able bond between moth­ers and daugh­ters, and the heal­ing pow­er of art.

Discussion Questions

As his­tor­i­cal dis­tance grows between the Refusenik peri­od of the 1970s and 80s and today, sto­ries of courage and resilience become all the more impor­tant to be told and remem­bered. Like a Drop of Ink in a Down­pour is a sear­ing and inti­mate mem­oir of the expe­ri­ence of three gen­er­a­tions of women in Sovi­et Rus­sia – grand­moth­er, moth­er, and daugh­ter – two women and a child whose lives were bru­tal­ized by a polit­i­cal sys­tem that was both cru­el and arbitrary.

Told in the alter­nat­ing voic­es of moth­er and daugh­ter, Gali­na and Yele­na Lem­ber­sky, their sto­ry also pro­vides a sweep­ing overview of dai­ly life in Sovi­et Rus­sia and the per­va­sive cor­rup­tion of the hier­ar­chy that reached down to the indi­vid­ual and dic­tat­ed where they lived, what they ate, and how they should think.

When the fam­i­ly applied to emi­grate in 1980, Gali­na was charged with an eco­nom­ic crime” and impris­oned; her eleven-year-old child, Yele­na, was res­cued by an acquain­tance. The mem­oir presents Yelena’s vivid­ly paint­ed rec­ol­lec­tions of her child­hood with the two women she deeply loves— her moth­er and grand­moth­er— her palette dark­en­ing with fears for her moth­er thou­sands of miles away in the Sovi­et gulag and her grief over their separation.

While Yele­na paints word pic­tures, Gali­na offers poet­ry. Describ­ing her prison exis­tence as between hope and hope­less­ness,” she nonethe­less remains a devot­ed moth­er, advis­ing, instruct­ing, and encour­ag­ing her daugh­ter through her mov­ing, lyri­cal let­ters and poems.

One of the few Eng­lish lan­guage mem­oirs com­posed by women about life as refuseniks in Sovi­et Rus­sia, Like a Drop of Ink in a Down­pour is a sig­nif­i­cant, beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten addi­tion to this body of lit­er­a­ture. It is all the more res­o­nant today with Russia’s war on Ukraine.