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A week in the life of Svitlana: what a Ukrainian woman can tell you about a Russian soul

By Ksenia Kondratieva.

Photo by Alex Zarubi on Unsplash

A work of fiction set in modern Russia written by someone who is neither a foreign correspondent based in Moscow, nor a Russian settled in a part of the world where criticizing Russian government is not just safe, but profitable, is a rarity these days. This in itself makes A Week in the Life of Svitlana, a novel by Indian author Ajay Kamalakaran, an intriguing read. The 100-odd page book published in 2019 is a story of a single woman of Ukrainian origin in her mid-thirties, struggling with her national identity, her ‘fading beauty’, her need to make enough money to live on and the desire to have a man, a permanent and reliable partner, in her life.

The story is set in Moscow, in 2015, a time when the conflict between Russia and Ukraine—which started in November 2013 and culminated in March 2014 when Russia seized the control over the Crimean peninsula—was still boiling.

Svitlana is Ukrainian by birth, but has been living in Moscow for over half of her life: she moved here in the 1990s to get a degree at the prestigious Moscow University. By spelling her name as Svitlana, and not Svetlana which is far more common, the author emphasizes her Ukrainian heritage. Being Ukrainian in the Moscow of 2015 means constantly reminding yourself who you are, even though others do not care (and most probably do not even identify you as Ukrainian in the first place). We are aware of this challenge of self-hood from the very first page of the book, which opens with a description of Svitlana’s Monday, as busy and full of surprises as one might expect for anyone having a Monday to Friday work schedule.

But here is the spoiler: Kamalakaran’s book is not a reflection on the seven-year old Russia-Ukrainian conflict that has left many people dead, thousands homeless, and many more left to question their own identities because there is a bit of Ukrainian blood in every second Russian and vice versa. Instead, the novel attempts to highlight the inner struggles and obsessions of Russians, women in particular. As it turns out, those obsessions are not just—or rather not at all —Mr Putin and the corrupt, inefficient bureaucracy, but trivial things like relationships, money matters and dreams of a better future.

The author guides us through the daily routine of his heroine, who is busy running between her job as a salesperson in a watch boutique and the private day care her four-year-old daughter Nelle attends. We follow Svitlana as she makes her way through the week, against all odds, with her child’s tantrums at day care causing her have to ask for leave from work, again and again, her ongoing battle for better pay and, of course, her dreams of not just financial but the mental stability which comes with… yes, the right man.

Svitlana has, it turns out, been married and divorced twice: her first husband was an educated, progressive but dominant Chechen, 20 years her elder, while her second husband, the father of her daughter, was a half-ethnic-Tatar, half-Russian, who did odd jobs for a living. So, here she is, now thirty-five, flirting with the Italian business partner of her boss, dreaming of “marrying a gentle, charismatic and financially stable Italian man and living an upper middle class life in Milan”.

Her reality, however, is a never ending exercise of fitting all things important and not very important into twenty-four hours. This includes not just attending to her daughter’s needs and trying to get salary raise at the office, but also managing the affairs of her widowed mother who has moved back to Ukraine and helping out her second ex-husband Danil, who has a talent for getting into troubles. Besides that, Svitlana manages to go on dates with promising suitors and also to have a drink or two, often measured in number of bottles, with her best friend Veronika and other random acquaintances struggling with marriage and relationships issues.

Ajay Kamalakaran, A Week in the Life of Svitlana, (Independently published, 2019)

Kamalakaran who spent his childhood in Mumbai, the city of Indian billionaires, Bollywood and slums but completed most of his schooling in New York where his father, a banker, was posted, describes his sudden interest towards Russia as sort of a challenge. Raised among Americans, he used to have a certain bias against the ex-communist country. But having discovered the beauty of the Russian language which he speaks quite fluently today, he developed a strong desire to learn more about the country and its people. As he says:

The characters in the book are the kind of people that an average Muscovite is likely to run into at one point or another. Being an insider in contemporary Moscow has given me the opportunity to meet people of all social and economic backgrounds as well as those who have different and sometimes controversial political views. Muscovites would easily be able to recognize both themselves and some of the characters in the book.

To be sure, Kamalakaran did live in Russia from 2003 to 2007, but at a distance of eight hour’s flying time from Moscow—in Sakhalin island in Russia’s Far East region, where he took a course in Russian language and edited an English-language newspaper for expats, The Sakhalin Times. He has also worked as a correspondent for Reuters in India and as an Asian consulting editor for the Russian state-owned publication Russia Beyond the Headlines which allowed him to travel to Moscow on and off, stay in rented apartments, discover Moscow and Moscovites, and find his way through the massive subway system, often as complicated as the minds and hearts of some of the acquaintances he made in the city.

As a result, his books set in Russia (Svitlana is the second one, the first was a collection of short stories titled Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island), are stripped of any otherwise anticipated criticism of Russian government, unnecessary agendas or that common ‘outsider’s touch’. The narration suggests that the author has spent many hours sitting with his heroes and heroines over a bottle of a drink, in crumpled flats of Soviet-era mass construction series buildings, listening to their drunken confessions and bearing the burden of responsibility for the life joys and sorrows which he has no relation to.

Svitlana’s relationship with men is one of the main threads in the novel, consciously displayed by the author. It is important because it bursts a few stereotypes about Russian women as ‘easily approached’, or even worse, ‘looking for romantic adventures’. As a Russian woman who has lived in South Asia for many years, I have often often faced similar expectations.

The truth is, in Russia, people get married as easily as they get divorced, thanks to the idea of marriage having changed drastically over the eighty years of the communist government and the two decades of economic and social mess triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, many end up in a permanent state of looking for partners while others prefer to commit to having relationships without ever marrying again.

One may feel Svitlana’s focus on finding a man who can provide her and her daughter with a better life, or the way the author repeatedly reminds us of Svitlana concerns of her fading beauty fails feminism completely. To give Kamalakaran credit: feminism is actually the last thing bothering an average thirty-five-year old single mother in Russia today, while an obsessiveness with beauty, or rather with looking polished and well-groomed, has long been a priority for many generations of Russian women. There is even a good old joke about it: “Russian girls wear make-up even to go out to dump trash”.

Things might have changed for some in this country, particularly for Millennials and the next generation—largely in the big cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg or Novosibirsk—but that’s not the case (still) for the majority of Russian women.

At the same time, the book doesn’t do adequate justice to Svitlana’s character, causing one to feel at times that the author is not completely frank with his readers. For instance, we know very little about the heroine’s background, details of her birth, who her parents were and what connects them to Moscow. Or how she managed to get a law degree in the top university in the country. Her story seems incomplete. Like many other places, family backgrounds matter a lot in Russia, although everyone would rather deny it. Other characters in the book, starting with Svitlana’s Chechen husband Ahmed to her drinking buddy, a Shri Lankan expat, seem a bit clichéd.

Yet Ajay Kamalakaran’s novel is an interesting attempt to showcase modern Russia through the story of an ordinary person—the type totally missed by the media reports, movies and documentaries on Russia appearing today. Unless you are familiar with classics of Russian literature, from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pasternak to Ulitskaya and Pelevin, Svitlana could be a window into what the ‘Russian soul’ is made of. The novel also gives the reader a fair idea of Russia’s complexity and diversity, of the inner struggles of the society that are never on the surface, visible to those visiting as tourists or trying to understand the country by reading the western press. The divide between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, those with connections and those without, or issues related to labour migration to Russia from ex-Soviet republics, something Russians have yet to learn to handle gracefully—all of these issues carve their way into the book.

Ksenia Kondratieva is an independent journalist based in Moscow. She has previously spent 8 years in Mumbai, reporting for Russian, Indian and international publications.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 27th, 2020.