Three gen­er­a­tions of women in the USSR: the author’s aunt, Jan­na; grand­moth­er, Khan­na; and great-grand­moth­er, Fey­ga, in 1941Cour­tesy of the author

Write what you know. Isn’t that what all aspir­ing writ­ers are told?

Well, when I was first start­ing out as a writer, here’s what I knew: I knew what it was like to be a Sovi­et Jew­ish immi­grant. I knew what it was like to grow up as an out­sider in Amer­i­ca. I knew what it was like to nav­i­gate two cul­tures with­out ever feel­ing like I com­plete­ly belonged in either of them.

But this was the ear­ly 1990s, and what I knew was not what read­ers want­ed to read. Or, at least, it wasn’t what pub­lish­ers want­ed to publish.

My first pub­lished book was a romance nov­el set in Eng­land dur­ing the Regency peri­od. About as far away from a Sovi­et Jew­ish immi­grant expe­ri­ence as pos­si­ble. And yet, I still used the write what you know” max­im. I made one of the char­ac­ters a Jew hid­ing her her­itage, nav­i­gat­ing two cul­tures with­out ever feel­ing like she com­plete­ly belonged in either one.

The Fic­ti­tious Mar­quis was pub­lished by Avon in 1995. Twen­ty-five years lat­er, the Romance Writ­ers of Amer­i­ca pro­nounced it a Trail­blaz­er, the first own voic­es Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal.” Who knew? I cer­tain­ly didn’t!

In 2002, in the wake of the Olympic fig­ure skat­ing cheat­ing scan­dal, I once again turned to what I knew. Hav­ing worked as a tele­vi­sion researcher for ABC, NBC, and TNT, I wrote a series of fig­ure skat­ing mys­ter­ies set behind the scenes of var­i­ous skat­ing com­pe­ti­tions. Our hero­ine is a young, Jew­ish female researcher. But, Amer­i­can born. The two cul­tures she nav­i­gates are the real­i­ty of fig­ure skat­ing, and the real­i­ty of oth­er­wise sane people.

It wasn’t that I didn’t try to pitch sto­ries that drew more from my own back­ground. In fact, while work­ing at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, I decom­pressed from the stress of live tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion by writ­ing the out­line of a nov­el that would take place in the USSR as Joseph Stal­in was deport­ing entire vil­lages of land-own­ing kulaks to Siberia — and of the Jew­ish fam­i­ly that acci­dent­ly got swept up along with them.

The feed­back I received from edi­tors, how­ev­er, was, No one’s inter­est­ed in Rus­sia. Rus­sia just doesn’t sell.”

The author’s fam­i­ly at the air­port in Rome on their way to Amer­i­ca in Jan­u­ary of 1977Cour­tesy of the author

It wasn’t until 2017 that my agent said to me, You know, Rus­sia is real­ly hot right now!”

You don’t say …

The sto­ry I first devel­oped at the 1988 Olympics even­tu­al­ly became Part I of The Nest­ing Dolls. I decid­ed to move it for­ward a decade, from the deku­lak­iza­tion of 1929 – 1933 to Stalin’s Great Ter­ror, which began in 1936. Dur­ing this time, even the act of speak­ing Yid­dish was dan­ger­ous; some­one might mis­take it for Ger­man and turn you in as an ene­my of the peo­ple. The accu­sa­tion was enough to sen­tence over a mil­lion men, women, and chil­dren to a frozen wasteland.

The rea­son I ulti­mate­ly shift­ed the time­frame was that I want­ed to make the char­ac­ters slight­ly younger. Their tale would be only one piece of the entire narrative.

While I grew up hear­ing fam­i­ly sto­ries of oppres­sion and star­va­tion dur­ing the Stal­in and World War II era, they weren’t my sto­ries. Mine were more mod­ern. They were of immi­gra­tion and the immi­grant experience.

While I grew up hear­ing fam­i­ly sto­ries of oppres­sion and star­va­tion dur­ing the Stal­in and World War II era, they weren’t my sto­ries. Mine were more mod­ern. They were of immi­gra­tion and the immi­grant expe­ri­ence. They were about start­ing Jew­ish day school in the mid­dle of sec­ond grade speak­ing nei­ther Eng­lish nor Hebrew. They were about learn­ing how to be a real Amer­i­can” by watch­ing tele­vi­sion. (Tip: Real Amer­i­cans live in hous­es — not apart­ments — all of which have a ban­nis­ter to slide down.) They were about walk­ing the fine line between respect­ing your par­ents’ well-earned fears, and build­ing an inde­pen­dent life beyond them.

I would write my sto­ry, too. In Part III of The Nest­ing Dolls.

But I need­ed to con­nect the 1930s to the 2000s. Enter the 1970s.

I lived in the USSR dur­ing the 1970s, but I was a child. My par­ents were the ones who tru­ly expe­ri­enced Brezhnev’s Great Stag­na­tion, the Cold War, and the Jew­ish refusenik move­ment. And it was my par­ents’ and oth­er rel­a­tives’ mem­o­ries of the decade that became the basis for Part II of The Nest­ing Dolls.

A May Day cel­e­bra­tion from 1954. The author’s moth­er is the girl in the check­ered skirt, her father wears a mil­i­tary uni­form behind her. Cour­tesy of the author

Rus­sia might have sud­den­ly become hot.” But I wasn’t inter­est­ed in telling a tra­di­tion­al Russ­ian sto­ry. I’d nev­er felt a con­nec­tion either with the Anna Karen­i­na set, with their fur muffs and their mid­night troi­ka rides, or with the gal­lant rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who over­threw the tsar in order to bring social­ism to the hud­dled mass­es. I knew both par­ties would have killed me eventually.

My Rus­sia, my USSR, is one where Jews suf­fered under the tsars, then suf­fered under the Com­mu­nists — even if my great-grand­fa­ther did once writer a let­ter to Stal­in (in Yid­dish, no less) thank­ing him for grant­i­ng his son the oppor­tu­ni­ty to get an edu­ca­tion, some­thing he couldn’t imag­ine a poor Jew­ish boy from a no-name vil­lage receiv­ing in the tsarist empire. My Rus­sia is one that Jews left to make their way to Amer­i­ca, unsure of what they’d find there, but con­vinced that even if they failed to make a bet­ter life for them­selves, their chil­dren would succeed.

That was the sto­ry I knew. That was the sto­ry I wrote. That’s the sto­ry of The Nest­ing Dolls.

Ali­na Adams is the NYT best-sell­ing author of soap opera tie-ins, fig­ure skat­ing mys­ter­ies, and romance nov­els. Her lat­est his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, My Mother’s Secret: A Nov­el of the Jew­ish Autonomous Region chron­i­cles a lit­tle known aspect of Sovi­et and Jew­ish his­to­ry. Ali­na was born in Odessa, USSR and immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States with her fam­i­ly in 1977. Vis­it her web­site at: www​.Ali​naAdams​.com.