Stalina–a strange name until you learn that she’s a Russian Jew born to a poet at the height of Stalin’s paranoia toward Jews. Perhaps her parents thought she’d be protected–after all, who would want to arrest, imprison, or execute someone named after their beloved leader? Even that magic totem doesn’t fully protect her family from tiny divisions of power and influence that rendered the idea of Soviet equality a joke.
When glasnost and perestroika open Russia to the West, Stalina leaves as soon as she can, walking out of her job as a scientist creating scents that cover up the odor of nerve gas, packing a suitcase full of Russian-made bras (expatriate women can’t get any that suit their particular needs) and heading to the United States. A childhood friend has promised her a place to live and a job–a chance to leave her gray life behind and start afresh.
Her job is at the Liberty Motel, a hot sheet hotel that originally catered to weary long-distance truckers but is now a rendezvous for illicit love affairs. That’s fine with Stalina, interested only in hard work to earn a paycheck; when you must change sheets every hour or so, you really earn that money.
Stalina wants to put a twist in the business. With the owner’s grudging permission and a few bucks, she begins transforming those drab anonymous rooms into fantasies: a beachside cabana, a theme park, a gazebo in a rainstorm. Word about the rooms begins to spread; repeat customers want to try the different themes, and business skyrockets. What she doesn’t know is that there is significant competition in the short-stay industry and her success translates to trouble for the Liberty Motel.
Stalina is the ordinary person at the center of an odd world, one which most people don’t know exists. From the businesslike owner to the couple carrying on a long-term affair, Stalina engages with people who ordinarily shun or fear such contact. Stalina is an innocent in many ways with those who want to take advantage of her. As Russians have through the centuries, she endures good and bad with equanimity.
Emily Rubin taught an oral history class in Brighton Beach, a Mecca for Russian emigres, garnering much insight into Stalina’s voice from her students. Her real talent lies in making this woman into a singular and memorable character in a singular and memorable read.
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