For as long as the field of psychology has existed, one central debate continues to rage: Is human behavior a product of genetics or environment, nature or nurture? In her debut novel, The Orchard, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry comes down squarely on the middle of the fence. Set during Russia’s volatile period of perestroika, the restructuring of the USSR in the 1980s, this coming-of-age tale tracks the emotional, political, intellectual and social growth of Anya Raneva and her small circle of friends.
Most of us who grew up in the United States during the Cold War had little insight into the lives of our Soviet peers, and it’s here that Gorcheva-Newberry does the reader a great service, offering a peek behind the Iron Curtain and its veil of propaganda. In a postscript to the novel, the author outlines the unsettling cavalcade of events to which her contemporaries were subject. “In a single decade, my generation lived under Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin,” she writes. “We witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire, the August Coup of 1991 and the October Coup of 1993. . . . We saw tanks rumble down the Moskva River quay and surround the [Russian] White House.”
If there is such a thing as clear-eyed sentimentality, The Orchard evokes it, with its warts-and-all recollections of youthful passions, when the road ahead seems like one endless string of possibilities. At one juncture, Anya and her best friend, Milka Putova, compose a letter to President Ronald Reagan, hoping to wrangle a state-sponsored invitation to the U.S. similar to the one Russian leader Yuri Andropov had recently extended to an American girl. Anya and Milka’s request is a long shot, but in their “Soviet universe, a life without an occasional miracle could be a bottomless pit. So we thought we could nudge our socialist fate a little and take a chance.”
But miracles, by definition, don’t happen all that often. And in the meantime, life goes on, and adolescence yields to adulthood—or, as we discover on a tragic occasion or two, doesn’t.
No one in Anya’s circle ultimately winds up where they thought or dreamed they’d be, which is a quintessentially Russian literary endgame. And as Anya reflects on her youth, she recognizes that both nature and nurture had their roles to play. “Russian people are fatalists; we believe that our future is preordained, irreversible,” she says. “But then, we also believe in miracles, one grand sweep of imagination. Perhaps it’s what allows us to survive and to endure. And maybe it isn’t that at all, maybe it’s our enormous pride, the aggrandized vanity, which we carry to the grave, and the rest is just weather, wind and rain, spurts of blinding snow.”