Otherland | Maria Tumarkin #UnderstandingUkraine

It is on the train from Russia to Ukraine that the moment I have been waiting for finally comes, and Billie refuses to use the toilet, point-blank.

Maria Tumarkin is an Australian writer of memoirs and cultural histories. Her books and essays tend to include oodles of fascinating things about the nature of memory, change and trauma. Her Jewish heritage informs the perspective or lens through which she views historic and social events.

When Tumarkin was a teenager, her family left USSR to emigrate to Australia. Not long after, the Societ Union fell apart.

Returning to the country of your birth and childhood with your own child almost twenty years later is bound to stir up memories in ways expected and unexpected. Family history is often fraught with ghosts at the best of times, but when the country you left behind was the USSR and the country you are returning to is now Ukraine, these family memories became caught up in a myriad of political, social and cultural constructs that blur and confuse what really happened and why.

Those who stayed and lived through the catastrophic early 1990’s had to count the cost every day of the collapse of the Soviet Union – unpaid wages, poverty, lost jobs, lawlessness and fear.

For Tumarkin this journey was ‘a literary bridge‘ to be crossed, an inevitable ‘archetypal narrative‘. She described her families immigration experience as not only ‘a cultural and linguistic readjustment‘ but a much deeper and more complex process of ‘rewiring‘. Her father decided that when he left the USSR it was for good. He would never return ‘resolved to live wholeheartedly in Australia, to turn it from this to my country‘. Her mother also chose not to return, but for her it was more a sense of guilt. She was worried that her friends, who had lived through the upheaval and chaos of the 1990’s, would think she was showing off or acting superior, if she returned. For her, the gap in lived experiences was too great to negotiate.

Travelling with an almost teenage daughter comes with it’s own perils.

The usual, expected tensions between a mother and daughter at this age were evident. Complications arose when her daughter did not respond or react in the ways that Tumarkin was hoping for. Parental expectations were confounded, and sometimes disappointed, but she was more often astonished by the moments that did capture her daugther’s imagination. They obviously shared a very close, intense bond. I am always a fascinated observor (part wonder, part envy, part aversion) of such powerful & intimate mother/daughter relationships. I would love to know how both of them feel about this time they had together now, a decade later.

Woven thoughtout the family stories and memories, were insights into life in the former USSR as well as into Ukraine in 2010.

The role of women during the Soviet era,

Women were essentially the slaves of the slaves, with little leisure to contemplate the difficulties of their two-teir subjugation. It was not a question of wanting it all, but rather of doing it all – work, children, housework, community work and sex.

On the spectre of WWII,

As I was growing up, the city of Leningrad and its agonisingly long seige by German trrops were inseperable in my mind….I was born into a world drenched in refernces to the Great Patriotic War….It was omnipresent and had certainly long since eclipsed the symbolic power of the 1917 Revolution.

On memory,

Historians…know all to well how flawed human memory is – fragmented, unreliable and blinkered. Sometimes people unconsciously replace their own experiences with newspaper headlines….Human memory is not only selective, it is incredibly responsive to environment.

On propaganda,

The way the Soviet society publicly remembered the war diminished the value of private memories, especially those of women…

Tumarkin spent quite a bit of time recapping some of the more recent Ukrainian history that her family had lived through – the Holdomor famine of the 1930’s, the occupation by Germany during WWII & those Ukranians who collaborated with the German invaders (she also acknlowledged those who didn’t), how the Jewish population was rounded up, her family’s escape to Uzbekistan, the legacy of Babi Yar to the ‘Ukrainisation of every aspect of life in the past two decades.’

One of the things I have picked up from the several Russian and Ukranian books I have read this year, is the importance of “‘heroism, self-sacrifice, national mission, the quest for redemption’ and the persistent idea of Russia’s special destiny in the world”. It is a weird combination of ‘inferiority complex and megalomania’, with an extra special abilty to embrace personal suffering for the ‘greater good’. They do not necessarily revere or respect the West, but they do envy it (Andrey Dmitriev).

Tumarkin’s memoir was a fascinating blend of personal, historic and cultural stories. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys mother/daughter stories or would simply like to gain a little more insight into life in modern day Ukraine and the former Soviet Union.


  • Shortlisted for the 2011 Douglas Stewart prize for non fiction 
  • Winner 2020 Windham Campbell Prize for non-fiction

Favourite Quote:

I needed her to come with me, for better or for worse, not simply because I wanted her to know where her mother came from, but because I wanted her to feel, alongside me, the pull of our family history, to size up for herself the true measurements of our past, or perhaps of any past – its depth, its reach and its towering presence in the present.

Further Reading:

Tumarkin mentions and quotes so many authors, journalists and historians throughout Otherland, I decided to keep a track of some of them here (I’ve only included the writers and journalists whose works have been translated into English. At this late stage, I doubt I will ever learn to read Russian!)

She also mentions some interesting websites.

  • Dubravka Ugrešić was born on 27 March 1949 in Kutina, Yugoslavia (now Croatia). She left Croatia in 1993 for political reasons and no longer indentifies as a Croation writer (wikipedia). Tumarkin describes her as ‘one of the most interesting chroniclers of poet-Communism’.
  • Osip Mandelstam was born on 14 January 1891 in Warsaw, Russian Poland. He was part of the Russian Guild of Poets (Acmeism). After deliberately insulting Stalin, Osip was exiled in the 1930’s before dying of typhoid in a transit camp on 27 December 1938. Tumarkin says he is one of her ‘literary idols’.
  • Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (1828 – 1889) was born in Saratov, Russian Empire described by wikipedia as a ‘literary and social critic, journalist, novelist, democrat, and socialist philosopher’. Cited by lenin as one of his ‘defining influences’.
  • Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1855 – 1888) was born Dnipro in what is now Ukraine. He was a writer of short stories. He experienced bouts of depression and died after attempting suicide.
  • Václav Havel (5 October 1936 – 18 December 2011) was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia and died in the Czech Republic. He was a statesman, author, poet, playwright and the first President of the Czeck Republic from 1993 – 2003.
  • Eva Hoffman was born Ewa Wydra on 1 July 1945 in Poland. Her family survived the Holocaust by hiding out in the forest and thanks to help of a few Polish and Ukrainian neighbours.
  • Herta Müller (17 August 1953) is a Romanian-born German novelist, poet, essayist and recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her book, The Land of Green Plums, is quoted by Tumarkin and is on my TBR pile.
  • Nadezhda Mandelstam (Oct 1899 – 29 December 1980) wife of Osip Mandelstam (above). She wrote two memoirs about their lives together under Stalin: Hope Against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1974).
  • Tatyana Nikitichna Tolstaya (3rd May 1951) is a Russian writer, TV host, publicist, novelist, and essayist.
  • Vladimir Sorokin (7 August 1955) Farewell to the Queue plus other results on Words Withour Borders.
  • Susan Richards founding editor of Open Democracy & author of Lost and Found in Russia (2009) and Epics of Everyday Life, Encounters in a Changing Russia (1991).
  • Communal Living in Russia – a website ‘designed as a virtual ethnographic musuem’. Truly fascinating.
  • Yuly Isayevich Aykhenvald (24 January 1872 – 17 December 1928) Don Quixote on Russian Soil
  • Venedikt Erofeev (24 October 1938 – 11 May 1990) Moscow to the End of the Line
  • Joseph Brodsky (24 May 1940 – 28 January 1996) poet and essayist from Leningrad. Encouraged to emigrate to the USA in 1971. Brodsky was awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature. Tumarkin says he is one of her ‘literary idols’.
  • Anna Akhmatova (June 1889 – 5 March 1966) was a poet. Tumarkin says she is one of her ‘literary idols’.
  • Svetlana Alexievich (31 May 1948 Ukrainian SSR)
  • Mikhail Jvanetsky ‘Under dictatorship you can be knocked out from the top, under democracy – from the bottom…| Back to the Future’
Title: Otherland: A Journey With My Daughter
Author: Maria Tumarkin
ISBN: 9781741666793
Imprint: Vintage Australia
Published: 1 April 2010
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 314
Dates Read: 24 July 2022 - 21 August 2022
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

11 thoughts on “Otherland | Maria Tumarkin #UnderstandingUkraine

  1. My daughter took her children – Ms 13, Mr 6 and Ms 5 to the UK and Europe for six weeks in 2017. We joined them for around two weeks. Ms 13 didn’t play up, or even act particularly sulky, but she didn’t want to be there and even now regrets going. We (grownups) all thought it was a good age and maybe a last chance for mother and daughter to share such an experience. None of us is sure why it wasn’t.


  2. Pingback: 2022 | The Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s