Leaving Katya

Leaving Katya is the title of a book by Paul Greenberg.

 Many days of my week are spent traveling in the immediate region and rather than waste the couple of hours between destinations I often read. Some reading is professional but some is for personal enjoyment too and after allowing Leaving Katya to sit on a bookshelf for years, last week I threw it in a briefcase and have managed to consume it in small chunks, a chapter or two at a time.

Leaving Katya is Greenberg’s own sad story: the story of an American man (who in the book is called Daniel) a young American who goes to St Petersburg to study in the closing days of the Soviet Union. The girl, a Russian university student named Ekaterina, falls in love with the American student but quickly identifies, and tells him in blunt terms, that he possesses a very weak character.

But she loves him anyway. For those unfamiliar with Slavic names, Ekaterina is a formal Russian name, a “saint name” as commonly assigned the vast majority of Russian babies, on the basis of her day of birth which cooresponds to the Orthodox saint who died (their “heavenly birthday”) on that same day or the day closest to it. Ekaterina is in English terms, “Katherine” and often shortened to “Kate” or “Katya” (but never “Kathy” as we would do in the West).

Katya was not religious, nor was her family. Daniel was Jewish but neither he or his family was religious so those types of considerations never entered into the courtship phase their relationship.

The book is a good read for those who would like to understand some of the challenges of life when married to a woman from the former Soviet Union. Given the changes from Soviet governance to baby steps in democracy, Daniel decides to return home to New York and takes various jobs in finance before finding more steady employment in TV media production. Not longer thereafter Katya arrives in New York and soon they become married.

The problems which they faced while simply living together mounted rapidly after a simple civil wedding ceremony. For starters, Daniel agreed to marry Katya on a spur of the moment decision (remember the weak character) and after paying for the filing fees had to borrow money from his brother for her wedding ring and wedding documents.

Their marriage is a recipe for disaster from the start. Soon separated, Katya decides to leave (unannounced) to go west to Utah and join the Mormons. The passive-aggressive Daniel at first slides into depression, then on a whim takes a job back in Russia, buying financially strapped ex-Soviet television stations for American media investors.

Daniel reunites with his in-laws who attempt to lovingly include him in their family. Katya’s parents know their daughter very well and counseled Daniel that she still loves him (she did) and that she would someday return. But both Papa and Mama also understood his weak and indecisive character and warned Daniel that he needed to mature in order to handle her strong character.

They were right. Katya returned and the two enjoyed a brief reunion in New York. She loved him very much and confided that she had loved him pretty much after their very first meetings on the University campus back in St Petersburg. The weak character in Daniel found that to be a profound revelation. But not quite profound enough to save him from himself.

Understanding more of his own character, he undertook a short but unsuccessful attempt to reform and mature. The story ends with Daniel handing Katya a return ticket to Russia after asking her to sign papers for an uncontested divorce.

She loved him and wished him no harm, so she signed.

Perhaps the saddest moment in the book comes in the next to last chapter. At this point readers undoubtedly are shouting at him to “grow up man! You have a beautiful and loving wife and you don’t deserve her! She wants to stay and has given you every opportunity to keep her, even at the airport, so “man up!”

With airline attendants urging her to heed the final boarding call for the Aeroflot flight from New York, Katya lingers until the very last moment, hoping that Daniel would have a change of heart. Her final words before turning to quietly slip down the jetway were “Well, some people aren’t supposed to have families.”

I found myself so angry at Daniel that I had to put the book down and glanced around the plane to see if my state of agitation had been noticed by other passengers. Greenberg is a master at telling his story.

It is at times enjoyable, often situationally funny, but conclusively a sad story. This is the kind of book that forces one to think and evaluate your own character.

The Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Leaving-Katya-Paul-Greenberg/dp/0399148353