Memories of Magadan: Kseniya Melnik's Inspiration for "Snow in May"

Kevin Nguyen on May 14, 2014


In her new short story collection Snow in May (a Best Books of May pick in Literature & Fiction), Kseniya Melnik explores a breadth of characters--from the past to the near present--and how their lives lead back to the small Russian town of Magadan. It's a diverse but cohesive set of stories, and Melnik, who hails from Magadan, was nice enough to share some photos from her childhood there.

Several of the stories in my debut collection, Snow in May, are set in Magadan, my hometown in the northeast of Russia. Although the older generation associates Magadan with its dark Stalinist history, it is also a place of incredible northern beauty and of tenacious human spirit. I have very happy childhood memories of Magadan; so does my father, who also grew up in Magadan, and my grandfather who has spent many years there. Here are several photos from the family archive of Magadan throughout the years.


Here is my grandfather and my father watching a volleyball match at the Park of Culture and Leisure circa 1958. This park was not planned as an artificial addition to the city; rather, a chunk of the original forest was left intact. While not strictly a part of tundra or taiga, the trees in the forests surrounding Magadan are quite low due to the cold winds blowing between the two bays. While the city itself was still a collection of small tenements, the park was the gem of Magadan. Throughout the years it featured walking trails, tennis and volleyball courts, children's playgrounds, amusement parks, and even a small zoo. My father remembers seeing a Santa Claus sitting in a sleigh with live reindeer in the park as part of the New Year's celebration. After Stalin's death and the end of the Gulag era, people really strove to create a beautiful life, a brighter future for their children.


My father, grandfather, grandmother, and aunt stand in front of the Palace of ProfUnions on May 1, 1966, after the parade in honor of the International Workers Day. My father remembers a permanent "Winter Garden" on the second floor of the palace that featured tropical plants, tanks with exotic fish, and comfortable chairs for contemplation of life in the warmer climes. The palace hosted various art exhibitions, film nights, popular concerts, dance ensembles, and choirs. I attended a ballroom studio at the Palace of ProfUnions in the '90s, and went to a couple of discotheques there, too. We lived just a block away.


My father picks potatoes with a friend circa 1975. In the fall, employees of various organizations were required to help gather the harvest at the local kolkhozes during several weekends. This is a bit of an absurd phenomenon of the socialist economy: on the one hand, kolkhoz farmers thought that people with office jobs were "shuffling papers" and didn't contribute to the true development of the country; on the other hand, students in the upper classes at school, university and highly qualified specialists—pilots, engineers, geologists, accountants—as well as employees of cultural organizations and hospitals were made to gather potatoes and other vegetables, cut grass, and bail hay for cows for the winter. For most young people, however, these were welcome outings, a chance to enjoy fresh air, competition, and all the delicious food people would bring to cook on the open fire and share with their friends.


My mother poses by the ski slopes in 1982. These ski runs were created solely on the enthusiasm of amateur skiers in the early 1970s. The original founder had worked in a factory that maintained and repaired steamships, and he used building materials designated for "cultural and sports activities" to build the first small chalets out of sheet metal and the rudimentary metal cable-based lift. Because there were no snow grooming machines, the skiers, including my father, would take the lift up the mountain and tramp down the fresh powder with their skis for smoother runs. In the summer, the ski enthusiasts landscaped the slope. I learned to ski on this slope, and I remember being very scared of the hissing, wobbling metal cable which I had to hold on to with special construction gloves. I also remember attending races and spring festivals when people would dress up in various costumes and ski down to the cheering spectators.


My mother and I say hello to the sun while picking mushrooms and lingonberries circa 1987. My mother is pregnant with my sister. I usually spent the cool Magadan summers visiting my grandparents "on the continent" (i.e. central Russia and Ukraine), but I loved the beautiful autumn in Magadan. I loved discovering a big field of the red berries and picking a nice harvest for the lingonberry pies and mors (a drink made of lingonberries) my mother would make later. Somehow, until I moved to Alaska in my teens, I was never afraid of bears, the true masters of Magadan forests.


I am skating at the rink in front of the Palace of Sport circa late 1980s. I still remember the smell of the rubber floor in the building where we would go to warm up and attempt to dry our mittens on the radiators. After skating, my sister and I would rush home to watch cartoons while our feet thawed painfully in a basin of hot water.


I stand by the sea port at Nagaevo Bay in my cool American clothes circa 1991. This port is where the steamships with the Gulag prisoners arrived between 1932-1950s. When they were boys, my father and his buddies braved the icy water for a quick swim and then warmed up by the fire on the beach. I climbed into the water once, too, but mostly I remember walking along the shore and breathing in the strong salty smell of the sea, picking at the long ribbons of seaweed, and looking for tiny sea creatures left in the puddles after the retreating surf.


In the early 1990s, Magadan went crazy for the South American dance, Lambada, after the music video of the group Kaoma became popular on television. Here is my mother performing Lambada in front of the Musical and Dramatic Theater as part of the spring festivities. Note that the enthusiastic audience is bundled up against our still-wintry spring. This photo illustrates yet again the desire of the Magadanians for a brighter, bigger, more exotic life than what might be readily available within the confines of the snow and Magadan's dark roots. --Kseniya Melnik

Snow in May is out now.

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