The Past that Brings Us Forward in “The Orchard” – Chicago Review of Books


Growing up, historically, has never been easy. Childhood today is punctuated by a number of general threats not limited to climate change, world hunger, lack of access to clean water, refugee crises, police brutality, housing shortages, and a global pandemic. Children have also witnessed devastating events such as multiple mass shootings and bombings, Hong Kong protests, the Syrian civil war, occupied Palestine territories, Brexit, and in late February this year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As a second month of the Russia-Ukraine war approaches, Western countries continue to pull away from Russia, leaving the country further isolated under an authoritarian rule not unlike that of the Soviet Union prior to its collapse in the 1990s. Perhaps, to imagine a way forward, one might need to look back. In Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry’s debut, The Orchard, it is the children of the Perestroika generation who offer lived stories of growth and survival despite a destabilized world. 

Loosely based on Anton Chehkov’s classic play, The Cherry Orchard, The Orchard recasts its main characters to capture an experience of coming of age in the last days of the USSR. Best friends Anya and Milka must navigate together the constant political transitions and impoverished conditions of their secluded world, as well as teenage boys and smaller, adolescent rebellions. They dream of traveling to Paris or Rome, obsess over an American who visits their country, and listen to a tape of Queen’s “We are the Champions” on repeat. Their intimate friendship guides the novel from dream-like early childhood memories of days spent in the apple orchard at Anya’s family dacha outside of Moscow, to forming quick bonds with two boys in their class, and later, a sudden tragedy that alters the trajectories of their futures. 

The Orchard is a novel that engages with the paradoxical way in which youth opens one up to the world and that same quality is lost within it. Gorcheva-Newberry’s teenage characters are less concerned with the particulars of Russia’s historical past than imaginations of freedom and choice. This story does not offer an in-depth history lesson for its readers, nor does it parse political moves marked with terms such as perestroika and glasnost. Any wisdom offered is in retrospect. Mostly, the teenagers seek out ways to be “free from having to grow up, to lie or worry or make fate-altering decisions, from any responsibility other than being teenagers in love with life and all it had to offer at the moment: music, liquor, food, cigarettes, sex, and friendship…” Their struggle is to shape and preserve memories in their adolescence despite a rapidly changing world. 

Yet Anya and her friends are not ignorant of their situation. In Chekhov, they identify a “deep understanding of Russian culture, as well as humanity, all its vanity and paradoxes, and those small petty moments, which filled out existence from birth to death.” Although they cannot “compare the fragile buckram world of Chekhov to the hit-and-run” of their own, the teenage characters are reminded over and over of their cultural heritage through family or neighbors who lived through Leningrad, Stalin and the Great Purge, and World War II. In school, Anya realizes her “country’s past demanded drastic revisions if not complete rewrites.” Outside of school, the friends are likewise fascinated and revolted by the American empire—one full of “choice” yet riddled with racism and prejudice and lacking proper education or free medicine. The teenagers can identify, too, commonalities between that “capitalist hell” and their own “socialist fate.” News from one of Russia’s enemy countries allows the characters to briefly look behind the iron curtain and consider their own “imperfections.” In part, their obsession with Western figures or cultural markers like Queen’s “We are the Champions” serve to juxtapose the limits of freedom that traditionally characterize Russian culture, as explored in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Anya and her friends not only consider tragic Russian authors their own cultural markers, but recognize in literary records an ongoing relevance to Russia’s future. Indeed, one of the friends laments, “we owe our lives to the dead, and yet we haven’t come to terms with our past, we don’t know it. All we do is talk and get drunk. But to own our present, we must own our past.” Another friend accuses him of being “highfalutin.” Yet Anya pauses to consider how immediacy “was how most Russians existed—tomorrow could be a life away; today, on the other hand, was all one owned.” Of course, the trajectory of the future often feels ambiguous when growing up, but our shared tomorrow becomes most volatile during periods of turmoil. In the novel as in life, perhaps our only foreshadowing can come from those who can recall personal and collective uncertainties in the recent past. 

Largely skeptical of the government, Anya’s mother struggles to idly witness her country’s demise, prompting frequent arguments with her husband, who is a staunch supporter of his motherland despite its shortcomings. While Anya’s father picks fights with his wife, however, he cannot challenge the truth of his mother-in-law’s lived experience. Anya’s grandmother describes the horrors of severe cold, hunger, and near-death. She attributes her survival to God’s design and the motivation “to live, if only to tell our stories…” Anya’s father considers living through cataclysm a result of “sheer, dumb, wonderful luck,” while her mother suggests a desire to survive can also alter one’s destiny. “Love the moment because it never repeats,” she cautions Anya and Milka as graduation looms and Gorbachev steps into office. Yet, when further prompted, she offers no answer to Milka’s retort, “What if I hate it? What if I don’t want it to repeat?” Each of these characters come to understand, in some way, that their youth is tied to both ignorance and freedom. Likewise, Milka’s questions acknowledge a widely-repeated adage that “history repeats itself.” Of course, Anya’s mother can anticipate tomorrow no better than her mother or daughter. Instead, each of the adult characters offer ideas of hope, luck, fate, and action that encourage their young successors to contemplate their roles in shaping the present and future by learning about the past. In the novel as well as reality, linear time can only be rewound by storytelling. 

The choice to refer to this history through a maternal ancestry is not insignificant on Gorcheva-Newberry’s part. Birth and motherhood are undercurrent themes throughout the novel, particularly when the girls begin to mature into womanhood. During one evening at the dacha, Anya and Milka encounter a woman in a caravan giving birth and are momentarily entranced before running away. Before they are adults, many young girls are forced to consider whether they are capable and willing to bring more children into their worlds. At the same time, mothers have long been omitted from historical genealogy. Like the lone mother in the caravan, their stories disappear. So, because so much of history is descended from the male line, it’s interesting to follow a thread of three generations of women in The Orchard. Anya’s grandmother, who has suffered from acts of evil, continues to have faith in her motherland and the generations that will follow her. Anya’s mother further advocates that even life with tragedy is worth living because “We have no other choice but to live it.” Much later, after the iron curtain has fallen, Anya considers Russia in context with the rest of the world and disowns a sense of nationalism. “We’re all people—we have no other purpose but to fucking survive,” she reasons. 

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The importance of female relationships and stories is also supported by the reality that inspired the events in The Orchard. Gorcheva-Newberry’s author note reveals a true story that mirrors the fate of her characters. Readers will learn about a story of a childhood friend who the author once knew, whose story couldn’t be told in first person, and whose life was lost to history, like many other women. In recovering the past through fiction, Gorcheva-Newberry reimagines personal tragedy as both a catalyst for sober remembrance and a way to “deal not so much with events, but with the consequences of those events.” This outlook is also a reminder that during events of collective loss and grief personal tragedies often require a more intimate and more immediate reckoning. The people and places we love are not only casualties of bad luck or a collective history as we know it, but are also part of the individual stories that are perhaps not told wide-scale, yet survive in the generations that follow. 

From a Western perspective, it might be easy to look away from the suffering of those who live across the world or outside of our bubbles of society, strangers whose lives don’t seem to directly impact our own. It can be difficult to sort through news channels and determine the “truth.” However, a personal connection should not be the first invocation of empathy or altruism. In light of recent events, Ukrainian writer and translator Artem Chapeye pleads: “I beg you to listen to the local voices here on the ground, not some sages sitting at the center of global power. Please start your analysis with the suffering of millions of people, rather than geopolitical chess moves. Start with the columns of refugees, people with their kids, their elders and their pets…” We cannot rely on figureheads to shape the moment. 

There are hundreds of stories, lived and shared and re-lived through generations of survivors like the Perestroika generation represented by The Orchard and its author. Of course, the children who will outlive certain changes and events will have their own stories to tell too. For Anya, the past becomes “an open book. ‘Can’t close it or put it down, can you?’” Moreover, the refrain of Anya and her friends’ favorite song, “We are the Champions,” is as somber as it is celebratory because it reminds us that written records are only a partial representation of reality. History is more than what endures—even that which doesn’t survive is a part of what continues to live.

The Orchard
By Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry 
Ballatine Books
Published on March 15, 2022


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