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Shteyngart spent the first seven years of his childhood living in a square dominated by a huge statue of Vladimir Lenin in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia; the city was then known as Leningrad. He comes from a Jewish family and describes his family as typically Soviet. His father worked as an engineer in a LOMO camera factory; his mother was a pianist. Shteyngart emigrated to the United States in 1979 and was brought up with no television in the apartment in which he lived, and no spoken English. He did not shed his thick Russian accent until the age of 14.
Having been forbidden to return to Russia, Shteyngart took a trip to Prague. This experience helped spawn his first novel, set in the fictitious European city of Prava. He is a graduate of Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Oberlin College in Ohio, where he earned a degree in politics, and Hunter College of the City University of New York, where he earned an MFA in Creative Writing. During the early 90's, he worked for some time at NYANA, a refugee resettlement agency in New York City. His co-workers there included Alexander Gelman, Alex Halberstadt, Todd Solondz, and Roman Turovsky.
Shteyngart now lives in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He has taught writing at Hunter College, and currently teaches writing at Columbia University and Princeton University.
Gary Shteyngart was a Citigroup Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, Germany, for Fall 2007.