Peirene No. 25

Soviet Milk

Nora Ikstena


Out of Stock

  • Description

    The literary bestseller that took the Baltics by storm now published for the first time in English.

    This novel considers the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual. The central character in the story tries to follow her calling as a doctor. But then the state steps in. She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter. Banished to a village in the Latvian countryside, her sense of isolation increases. Will she and her daughter be able to return to Riga when political change begins to stir?



    Why Peirene chose to publish this book:

    At first glance this novel depicts a troubled mother-daughter relationship set in the the Soviet-ruled Baltics between 1969 and 1989. Yet just beneath the surface lies something far more positive: the story of three generations of women, and the importance of a grandmother giving her granddaughter what her daughter is unable to provide – love, and the desire for life.

    Written by Nora Ikstena.
    Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis.

    Home in Exile series
    192pp, paperback with flaps, £12
    ISBN 978-1-908670-42-7
    eISBN 978-1-908670-43-4



  • Author

    Nora Ikstena was born in 1969 in Riga, Latvia. She studied at the University of Latvia before moving to New York. On her return to the Baltics she helped establish the Latvian Literature Centre. She published her first novel, Celebration of Life, in 1998 and has written over twenty books since. She has won numerous awards, such as the Order of the Three Stars for Services to Literature and the Baltic Assembly Prize. Soviet Milk, her most recent novel, won the 2015 Annual Latvian Literature Award (LALIGABA) for Best Prose.

  • Translator

    Margita Gailitis has translated some of Latvia’s finest poetry and prose into English, including Sandra Kalmiete’s With Dance Shoes in Sibirian Snows and Māra Zālīte’s Five Fingers. Soviet Milk is her first translation for Peirene Press.

  • Press

    ‘A blistering Latvian bestseller… Soviet Milk powerfully evokes Latvia’s bitter history.’ Claire Armitstead, The Guardian

    ‘An invaluable memoir of Latvia’s recent past…it is also one of the most devastating novels I’ve ever read about women’s lives in any society.’ EBRD Prize Jury 

    Soviet Milk paints a refreshingly nuanced picture of Latvia under Communist rule … reserved, devoid of over-dramatisation, and all the more powerful for it.’ Anna Aslanyan, The TLS

    ‘This could almost be Latvia itself talking, a small, fiercely proud nation now making a literary noise outside its borders that’s long overdue.’ Charlie Connelly, The New European

    ‘Every so often, you come across a book so beautiful that you ration the pages to extend it. Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk is most certainly one of these.’ Catherine Venner, World Literature Today

    ‘Nora Ikstena’s fiction opens up new paths not only for Latvian literature in English translation but for English literature itself.’ Jeremy Davis, Dalkey Archive Press

    ‘Latvia is a country we have heard almost nothing about since its separation from the Soviet Union. Nora Ikstena is proving that Latvia is speaking in a bold and original voice.’ Rosie Goldsmith, broadcaster and reviewer

  • Reading Sample

    I don’t remember 15 October 1969. There are people
    who swear they remember their birth. I don’t. It’s likely
    that I was well positioned in my mother’s womb, because
    the birth was normal. Not particularly long, or particularly
    short, with the last contractions coming every
    five minutes. My mother was twenty-five, young and
    healthy. Her mental state, though, was not so healthy,
    as I learned later.

    I do remember, or at least I can picture, the golden,
    tender calm of October, alternating with forebodings
    of a long period of darkness. It’s a kind of boundary
    month, at least in the climate of this latitude, where
    seasons change slowly and autumn only gradually gives
    way to winter.

    Probably leaves were falling, and our bad-tempered
    concierge raked them up in the courtyard. She had come
    from Kyrgyzstan with her family and been allocated a flat
    in our building at 20 Miçurina Street. Her slant-eyed little
    girl sat on the windowsill, slurping borscht and cheerfully
    inviting everyone into their home. The pre-war grandeur
    of the flat had been modified to reflect the Kyrgyz woman’s
    idea of beauty. The previous inhabitants, a Jewish family,
    had abandoned the flat in 1941, when deportation to
    Siberia saved them from having to wear yellow stars on
    their backs a few months later, in Nazi-occupied Riga.

    Now heavy rugs covered the parquet, the porcelain dishes
    were filled with sunflower seeds and spittoons stood on
    the piano lid. Times and religions had commingled. And
    that’s how it was in the entire building, when I was carried
    up to the thirteenth flat, carefully swaddled like a
    chrysalis, as was the custom in those times.

    Now and then I have a dream from which I awake feeling
    sick. I’m clinging to my mother’s breast and trying
    to suck on it. The breast is large, full of milk, but I can’t
    get any out. I don’t see my mother, she doesn’t help me,
    and I’m left to struggle with her breast on my own. Then
    suddenly I succeed and a bitter, repulsive liquid spurts
    into my mouth. I gag and wake with a start.

    My mother was a young doctor. Perhaps she knew
    that her milk would have caused more harm than good
    to her child. How else to explain her disappearance from
    home immediately after giving birth? She was missing
    for five days. She returned with aching breasts. Her milk
    had stopped flowing.

    In despair, my grandmother fed me camomile tea for
    two days. Then she went to the infant clinic. The suspicious
    doctor berated her in Russian and insulted my
    mother for abandoning me. But eventually he wrote out
    a note authorizing her to receive infant formula for me.
    During the twenty years I lived with my mother, I
    wasn’t able to ask her why she had deprived me of her
    breast. I wasn’t able to because I didn’t yet know that
    she had. And it would have been an inappropriate question
    because, as it turned out, the role of mother was to
    become mine.


    I don’t remember 22 October 1944, but I can reconstruct
    it. Riga has been liberated from the Nazis. Bombs have
    shattered the maternity ward’s windows. It is damp and
    cold, and the women who have just given birth helplessly
    wrap themselves in their bloodied sheets. Exhausted nurses
    and doctors are bundling up dead newborns and drinking
    as they work. An epidemic that everyone is calling nasal
    typhoid fever is raging through the hospital. Sounds of
    wailing, bombs whistling in the air and, through the
    windows, the smell of burning. My mother has sneaked
    me out of the ward, bound to her chest, and is squirting
    her milk into my nose. Pus, milk and blood together drip
    from my tiny nose. I gag and breathe, gag and breathe.

    Then there is silence. A horse pulls a wagon on a sunny
    autumnal road from Riga to Babīte in the outskirts. My
    father stops several times to allow my mother to feed
    me. I no longer gag but breathe calmly and greedily suck
    my mother’s milk. In the Babīte Forest district we have a
    lovely house, barely furnished and without a cradle, but
    my mother makes up a bed for me in a suitcase.
    Each morning my father inspects his young spruce
    trees. That’s what happens until Christmas, when a heavy
    lorry full of soldiers roars in. They shout in a language my
    parents don’t understand, then jump out and begin to fell
    the young spruce trees. My father locks my mother and
    me in the back room, where she hides me in the suitcase
    with holes pierced in it so I can breathe. My father runs
    out of the house, yelling, ‘Bastards, scoundrels!’ and trying
    to save his spruce trees. The soldiers beat him until he
    bleeds and throw him into the lorry with the hewn trees.
    Then they search the house, banging at all the doors.
    Holding her breath, my mother crouches in a wardrobe
    in the locked room, holding the suitcase with me inside
    it on her knees. The soldiers are ransacking the house,
    the noise is horrendous. Finally, all grows quiet and we
    listen to the sound of the engine as they drive away.Towards morning my mother climbs out of the wardrobe.
    She feeds me, ties me to herself, dresses warmly and
    heads back to Riga on foot. It is late evening when we
    arrive at our flat on Tomsona Street, soon to be renamed
    Miçurina Street. My mother is exhausted but she still has
    to tape over the windows shattered by bombs during an
    air raid. Otherwise we would both freeze.*I don’t know how my mother and grandmother dealt with
    my mother’s disappearance at the time, but it was never
    mentioned. Throughout my childhood the smell of medicine
    and disinfectant replaced the fragrance of mother’s
    milk. These chemicals would hang like a cloud around my
    mother: there when she returned from exhausting night
    duty at the maternity hospital; still there when, after long
    hours of wakefulness, she caught up on sleep at home.
    Her handbag was full of pills, ampoules and various
    steel instruments. Later I recognized them as terrifying
    gynaecologists’ instruments. It was a macabre world. If
    my mother happened to be home at night, she would sit
    up smoking and drinking coffee, bent over mountains
    of lamplit medical books. Pinned above her desk were
    diagrams of wombs, ovaries, pelvises and vaginas from
    various angles and perspectives.My mother knew nothing of the world beyond. She
    would pointedly close her door when the programme
    Vremya – ‘Time’ – came on television, with lisping
    Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev. She didn’t read the Riga’s Voice
    newspaper, for which a long queue formed on the corner
    of Gorky Street every evening. The lunchtime queue at
    the meat and dairy shop was equally long. You could
    buy the popular so-called doctor’s sausage and butter
    there – but she had no idea of this domestic world. Yet
    beside the mountains of medical textbooks lay a half-read
    Moby-Dick. It spoke of her longing for a life of the mind
    that remained beyond her grasp.I don’t remember Mother ever hugging me much, but
    I remember her needle-pricked thigh, where she practiced
    injections. I remember her in bed with blue lips the first
    time she overdosed, possibly as part of some medical
    experiment. I remember the smell of her dressing gown,
    the odour of the bitter tincture given before she was
    driven to the hospital. And I remember the corridor of
    the maternity hospital where I was allowed to meet her
    after night shifts. We would then head for an Aloja Street
    café and eat solyanka soup and kupati sausages, and
    she would add caffeine from an ampoule to her coffee.
    I also remember how our street seemed frozen in time,
    like a picture clipped from a different era and glued into
    today. Only the elegant types frequenting the races at the
    nearby hippodrome were missing. In their place, going
    home or to work, heads bowed, other kinds of people
    were hurrying towards Communism, their net bags filled
    with humble supplies: long loaves, bottles of kefir milk
    with bright green screw tops, laundry parcels wrapped
    in grey paper and tied with string.
  • For Reading Groups

    Get your brain in gear with our reading group questions:

    1. At the beginning of the book the mother runs away right after her daughter is born. When she returns, she says she was afraid her milk would be poison to the baby. Why do you think this is?

    2. How does the grandmother differ from her daughter and granddaughter? What sort of influence does the book portray her as having on them?

    3. The hippodrome fire that takes place on page 25-26 is (for the most part) seen from the daughter’s perspective. It is unclear whether there are people in the building on not when it burns down. What does this scene say about the mother’s sanity, or is it a statement about conspiracy in the Soviet Union? If the latter, how so?

    4. In what ways does the novel’s two central characters portray the Soviet Union as a dystopian state?

    5. For the most part the book offers a sense of hopelessness on the part of the mother, in the face of the Soviet Union. However, at times she does attempt to subvert the system. How is this undertaken, and is it successful?

    6. How does the perception and heresy surrounding the debate of God’s existence affect the central characters’ interactions?

    7. What antagonism do the mother and daughter experience, and is it actual or perceived?

    8. Pick a single scene as viewed from both the mother and daughter’s perspective. What differs between their views?

    9. Discuss how the structure of the book enhances the reading quality of Soviet Milk.

    10. What comparisons might be drawn between the relationship of the story’s two central women, and their relationship with the Socialist society they lives in? Is the destruction inherent in one relationship relative to the other?