First Language(s): Russian
Second Language(s): English
Galina Chernaya was born in Moscow and raised among the Soviet intelligentsia in the Cold-War and Brezhnev eras. The daughter of an eminent scientist, she had completed her PhD in biomechanics and launched a promising research career when she fell afoul of Soviet authorities, culminating in a failed lawsuit against the State for violating the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under threat of imprisonment, she, her husband, and two young children emigrated and were admitted as refugees to the U. S. in 1991. The family settled in Princeton, N. J., where Galina and her husband worked as pharmaceutical scientists. Now living in Vermont, Galina enjoys writing the memoir of her family’s struggle and survival. Her first publication, “The Court of the People,” appeared serially in The Evening Street Review and “Unburying the Past: My Family, the Gulag and Stalin’s Secret Police in Ukraine” was recently published in Cagibi.
What was your favorite book as a child?
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas holds a special place in my heart because I grew up in a close-knit community of childhood friends. The Musketeers’ motto, "All for one and one for all," continues to resonate deeply with me. It was really powerful when we were kids and it still is today. Now in our sixties, we still maintain our strong connection, despite geographical distances, political tensions, and the effects of aging.
As I transitioned into adulthood, my passion for reading grew, and I became absorbed in Russian classics. I find myself repeatedly drawn to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, and every time I read it, I uncover new layers of insight into human experience.
What was the original reason or motivation why you started writing creatively?
Creative writing was not part of my life until a few years ago. After retiring from a long pharmaceutical career, I found myself with free time on my hands. I’ve always wanted to tell the story of my battle with the Soviet system, which eventually led to my family’s emigration and admittance to the United States as refugees in 1991. However, when I discussed my plans with friends, they encouraged me to expand and consider writing a memoir. This turned out to be a more ambitious undertaking than I initially realized. The story now covers three generations of my family and extends over the entire lifespan of the Soviet state — a very complex and grim period of Russian history. So far, three chapters have been individually published as personal essays. I’ve completed a rough draft, and hope to publish the entirety one day.
What was the most adventurous or thrilling thing you ever did/experienced?
A scientist by training and choice of career, I continue to be fascinated by scientific breakthroughs. Every year when the Nobel Prizes are announced, I anxiously await to see what scientific discoveries will be honored.
For me personally, the “aha!” moment occurred during postdoctoral training when I first saw stained chromosomes from the salivary gland of the common fruit fly — a widely used model organism to study genetics. Because of their large size, these chromosomes can be viewed under low magnification using a bench-top microscope. There they were — intertwined ribbon-like threads made of DNA and protein molecules. Adding to my excitement was the fact that, in Stalin’s time, the very existence of genes, chromosomes and the role of DNA in human inheritance was denied. Genetics was considered a pseudo-science and researchers were condemned and even imprisoned for describing what I was now seeing with my own eyes. I couldn’t stop thinking about the tragic fate of Nikolai Vavilov, the Soviet founder of genetics, who died in prison 1943. His dedication to scientific inquiry serves as a reminder of the enduring power of the human spirit's fearless quest for knowledge.
Do you listen to music while reading or writing?
Never. I have great respect for music as an art form. Whenever I listen to music — be it opera, classical compositions, jazz, or rock — I give it my full and undivided attention.
Hard Labor: Childbirth Soviet Style
Issue Fall '23