No country for a Russian-American

This article at Salon.com hit home with so many points, my breath hitched several times while reading it. While I had a somewhat different Russian-American experience than the author (for one, I identify much more strongly as an American, but also I am way more defensive of Russia, including on a number of its geopolitical stances), there are some universal truths about being a Russian-born in the US and returning to Russia after considerable time in the States. Highlighted below are a few passages that struck a particularly strong chord [is that workable English?], but really, the whole piece is a must-read for anyone living abroad, struggling with cultural identity issues, or even simply curious about this kind of experience, or Russia, period:

No country for a Russian-American like me

Being bi-cultural is often baffling to people and identifying as such incurs a string of interrogations, including my least favorite question of all time, “Yes, but do you feel more American or more Russian?” (A question which really boils down to “Whose side are you really on?”) 

My frail great-grandmother in Russia never fails to muster up the strength to lift herself from her chair, point a finger and tell me I’ve “betrayed the motherland”; my American friends call me a “Soviet spy” in that “I’m kidding, but not really” way. I am always in an unwitting confrontation, either arguing for America to Russians, or Russia to Americans. I am always a “they” and never a “we,” a constant stranger in a familiar land, an eternal outsider…Being Russian-American is, as I’ve often said, like being the child of bitterly divorced parents, one who’s constantly caught in the crossfire of their “irreconcilable differences.” You try to mitigate their hatred of one another by explaining their motives, but neither wants to hear it, because the truth is that they’re comfortable in their hatred. 

Living in New York as a Russian-American has become especially difficult in lieu of recent events, because there’s a bandwagoning effect that occurs when the media latches onto something, and hating Russia (not the government, or the foreign policies, but Russia as a whole) is now in vogue. I wake up every day to headlines like “Russia is a bigger threat than terrorism.” … Friends, who have without exception never been to Russia and know little about its culture, write Facebook statuses saying “I would jump off a bridge before living in Russia.” Colleagues I run into at parties, who barely know me, far less my political allegiances, greet me with sarcastic cries of, “Hey, congratulations on Crimea!” Everyone asks me, with squinted eyes of suspicion, what you-know-who is going to invade next, as though just because we’re both Russian, Putin and I have some sort of cosmic bond similar to Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. And it’s become absolutely impossible to mention anything remotely nice about Russia…  [Anna: emphasis above mine, and the reason I have had to block certain former friends on email and in social media]

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like most Americans are interested in Russian politics, but don’t really care about Russian people. Many still extol “winning the Cold War” and “bringing freedom to Russia” in 1991 without ever lamenting the fact that this “victory” plunged thousands of people into extreme poverty and starvation (abstract ideals are, after all, a luxury of the well-fed). 

This surprising lack of empathy was especially evident in, of all things, the recent Muppet movie, part of which is set in a comedic version of a “Soviet gulag.” Twenty two million passed through this wantonly cruel system…I’m an advocate of laughing at past tragedies in order to show we have overcome them, but still, one couldn’t make “12 Years a Muppet” or “Kermit’s List” without an international uproar, so it feels like this cultural insensitivity is largely localized to Russia. In an age when people are working so tirelessly at dismantling stereotypes and prejudice, cultural stereotypes about Russia and the dehumanization of its people appear to be thriving and sanctioned by all.

I have to mention from my own experience that in “polite circles” in the United States never, under any circumstances, would it be acceptable to talk about “those rice-eating Chinks and Japs.” Using the terms like “towel head” and “desert monkey” was relegated to the most bigoted of groups behind closed doors. Yet going on about the “pinko-commie vodka-chugging Russkies” has always been totally okay in broad daylight, any time, anywhere. Before Ukraine, before Sochi, before Georgia, before Yugoslavia even — all this time, non-stop, no pause, no break.

One of my favorite American sayings is that dissent is patriotic. Maybe that’s why, so secure in my Americanism despite what my passport says, I am so happy to dissent and defend Russia. It’s my patriotic duty to both countries.

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63 thoughts on “No country for a Russian-American

  1. Really interesting read – thanks for sharing. A Latvian girl I know (Lasma) got attacked by a pair of pensioners in London the other day for what ‘she had done to Ukraine’ – she was like, uh, Latvia isn’t Russia, but it made us think about what the actual Russians are going through at the moment, suffering this bigotry and ignorance. Stay strong! 🙂

    • The extra serving of irony here comes from the fact that the Baltics are currently paranoid that “they are next.” (FYI – never gonna happen. that’s my official and unofficial comment)

      • I must say there’s plenty of this so called paranoia in the air in Lithuania, and while i share your point of view of ‘never happening’, to some extent I think it’s a good thing that our sense of security was somewhat shattered. For once, our army with one plane and like two tanks will probably get some more much needed funding for a couple of more planes or whatever, and thus it’s not just NATO guarding the state, but some of our own forces. On the other hand, it kind of became a very good filtering system for some of local ‘rotten’ politicians to show their true colors – I don’t care who they are, but as long as they’re citizens of Lithuania, they should act as such. Though, I admit, much bad things come out of this whole situation, e.g. antagonizing of Lithuanians and Russian minorities. Hopefully, this would settle down.
        Don’t really want to go deep into this whole nasty situation with Ukraine and Crimea, but, just in your personal opinion, whether Russian minorities do really need being ‘saved’ by the great motherland be it Ukraine/Alaska or wherever else?

        • nope they dont need any defence. russians are in danger BECAUSE of Putin more than anything else. all was peacefull in crimea untill putin decided to take it. my ukrainian friends tell me they always were very positive about Russia untill the recent events. thx to Putin two brotherly nations now hate each other. there was a little bit of racism against russians in the western part of ukraine but no more than somewehre in lithuania, even less. crimea of course has always been russian speaking and absolutely safe for russians untill putin came over. there was no need to save anyone there.
          I would however love to hear anna`s view on this situation. she promised to write me an email but she never did. of course Im a nobody to her but in the light of recent events it would be nice to know whats cooking in kremlin`s kitchen and what else we should expect. and I do feel sorry for the normal russians who got caught in the whole busslhit situation. hatred creates wars. and hatred is the manipulation weapon of all goverments.

          • Emmi – I’m sorry I hadn’t responded. Yet. It is on my mind. My mitigating factors are such: 1-as head of communications for RT, whatever you think of my network, it hasn’t been the quietest of times for me. For the last 3 months I have been working 6-day weeks, often 8 am to 2 am, sometimes later (earlier). Most of my blog posts, as you have probably noticed, have been picture heavy, or re-print heavy, bc I have barely had the time to put together new materials. Some of the original stuff was written over a short break, and I am spacing out the posting. 2-as part of my job, about 90% of material I have been engaged with in the last 3 months has been Ukraine related, and very tense, contentious, highly politicized. Even when not talking/writing about it for work, it’s all around me, on the news, on the streets, at home. Getting into a conversation on this topic in my downtime is pretty much the last thing I want to do. I havent written to you about this – as I know I promised – because it is very hard for me to muster up the emotional energy to engage on the subject, not because you’re a nobody to me or because I have forgotten about this. 3-as I had mentioned before, because of the nature of my job but also because of the nature of this blog, which was conceived, if not realized, before I even moved to Russia, I wont delve into politically specific subjects here, be they US healthcare reform or what’s cooking in Kremlin’s kitchen (though I am guessing it’s fish).

        • Tricky, tricky, tricky.
          I think anyone who has even a superficial understanding of Russia and geopolitics in general would dismiss those ‘Baltics are next!’ paranoid mongerings. It’s one thing to “annex” a small region that has historically been Russian for the last 300 years and remained massively pro-Russian and almost exclusively Russian-speaking for the 6 decades when it was not technically part of Russia bc someone decided to make a grand gesture which was an equivalent of reassigning some assets on the balance sheet (I am talking about Khruschev “gifting” the peninsula to the Ukrainian republic). Lets not forget that the region voted to join Russia with a 96% yay out of an 85% turnout. Why are referendums ok for Scotland or Kosovo or South Sudan but not Russia? Anyway…

          It’s a whole different ballgame to try and annex? invade? actual NATO/EU member states. It is a political and most importantly military suicide, and Putin is pragmatic, not suicidal. Not to mention that there is absolutely no desire to see the Baltics return to Russia on the part of… well, anyone. They were always foreign. Russia spent centuries fighting the Lithuanians!

          So yes, that whole paranoia is absurd on a gazillion levels. I could go into more details but I havent the energy.

          Re: the rights of minorities in the Baltics. This is a more complex situation – not just for me to discuss, but as something Russia and the Baltics have been dealing with for two decades. Millions of Russians relocated to these regions when they were all part of one country, lived there for generations and worked and raised families there, only to become personas non gratas in those countries virtually overnight. Russia has and will continue to lobby on their behalf and to exert whatever economic influence it can (which isnt insignificant), to protect their rights. But unless the natives of Baltics suddenly decide to launch violent pogroms against the Russian population, I don’t see any kind of scenario for escalation.

          • I personally think it would be wiser for Russians to make their country an attractive place for living so that all the russian speakers from the baltics would move back. Russia needs more peope not territory. Germans were also persons non grata in the baltics after WWII and they all moved back to germany. as for crimea, well, it was exchanged for the Cuban region. imagine ukrainians trying to take Cuban it back? besides crimea is going to become an occupied territory where nobody wants to spend his holiday anyway so it will do Russia more harm than good. Russians are smart, funny resourcefull and beautufull people. instead of stressing their scientific research and selling technologies overseas while improving living conditions at home, they do nothing but grap foreign lands who used to be pro Russian but will eventually become very anti russian in the near future. besides it is not worthy to get a piece of land while forever destroying the historical bond between Russia and Ukraine, two nations that basically helped create each other and would not exist without each other. I absolutely see it as the most tragic moment in Russian history.

          • As someone who just spent a whole lot of cash for my upcoming Crimean vacation bc the whole place is overbooks (tickets and hotels) with Russian 3 months ahead, I would like to contest the claim of how nobody wants to spend the holidays there. The region always got most if its cash from Russian tourism.

            Russians in the Baltics are free to move back and many did, but many stayed because in 5 decades they have laid roots there. It’s their home. And if they choose to stay, they should not be treated as second-class citizens because of decisions made by the country/ government that no longer exists!

          • no problem Anna for not responding I just hope you will try to do whats best for your country at your job… it would be incredibly sad to see such a beautiful place torn into pieces and the greatenss of the Russian nation collapse just because a freak Vova putin couldnt keep his nasty little ambitions to himself. all the best to you…

          • Yeah I can totally see how calling my president (and boss) “a freak Vova putin [who] couldnt keep his nasty little ambitions to himself” is conducive to a reasoned exchange of opinions…

          • ah well.. nothing prevented Russians from enjoying vacations there without occuping the peninsula. as for hatred against Russians, well the US will always spread that. as much as I detest Putin and some of the close minded Russian “patriots”, none of them has ever been quite so racist againts USA the way they ve been during the 2014 olympics. it seems to me as if the US are not headed in the right direction….
            but I really do feel sorry for the smart and inquisitive Russians who do have more to offer to the world than just land-grabbing and political scandals. a friend of mine who s been selling IT programs recently wrote me that his goods are being boycotted in Ukraine and the baltics. giving your own country a bad name is the worst Putin could have done. by isolating itself from the rest of the civilized world, Russians will have zero chance at developing themselves and fullfilling their intellectual potential. the world will find replacement for your oil and gas. whayou t will do then? and Im not being sarcastic. Im extremely sad that two of my favourite eastern european countries hate each other and one of them is being hated by the whole world right now.

          • Playing nice and trying to make US and UK happy hasn’t quite worked out well for us either in the past. We’ll take our calculated risks.

          • but I could also insult Obama the same way. they re all jerks but Putin is the worst of them. he s already limiting freedoms in Russia, before you know it things will turn nasty. and im not at all gleeful or happy about it..

          • why? what for? forget about UK and USA. they will never get it. US is heading towards its own demise. let them hate. forget about them, stop trying to prove anything to them, focus on your own internal problems and improve the realtionship with your neighbours. clean you own backyard forget about the west! sorry if I sound offensive. but its true. ok, doesnt matter anyway. I wouldnt want you to get into trouble because of expressing your opinion. best wishes and good luck

          • I wouldn’t get into trouble. I just get emotionally overwrought over this. I almost quit my job this winter/spring – not bc of expressing my opinions, but bc of all the anti-Russian crap I had to deal with on the daily basis.

            Russia will focus on what it chooses. Crimea always has been its backyard. We’ll keep picking our battles and taking calculated risks – as we see fit.

            PS – USA isnt anywhere close to a demise, and if it did crash and burn, it will suck for everyone, including Russia.

  2. This is very interesting, though sadly not surprising. Do you think it would have been different somewhere other than the US? They are an insular nation on the whole so would a more cosmopolitan nation be different? Or is it just such a strong human I stinger to attack what we don’t understand? It’s a kind of gang mentality. Hope you get the visa sorted. If you get to the UK we must go riding together!

    • I do think that the US tends to get more jingoistic and ‘othering’ than other countries vis a vis Russia (tho other places too). Ditto UK and Russia. I think it might be partly bc these two have never been in a direct hot conflict in Russia. It always positively surprises me how much easily Russians get on with the Germans and the French – despite fighting three biggest conflicts on the Russian soil in 200 years with those two!

    • PS – I am so nowhere near your riding league, lady! I am just about to resume my lessons after the January incident/unsuccessful recovery/hiatus.

  3. The one part that does make me sad is where people generalise too much, e.g. that all Russians are for all political decisions made there. It is interesting how you highlight the American negative attitudes towards the Russians but what about the other way around? What do Russians say about Americans? I mean, it is not like all Europeans really think that highly of Americans nor their politics, so what about the comments you get about America in Russia, are there those?

    • There are some world-wide stereotypes about ‘fat dumb americans’ but really the antagonism is very strongly directed at policy and actually more so than the US at NATO and the UK.

      Actually where there’s more misunderstanding is in the idea, as you said, that just bc Russia does X, doesnt mean the Average Ivan supports it. The thing is… often the Average Ivan does support it (Crimea, anti-gay-rights legislation), but that’s an uncomfortable truth, which leads to demonizing/ othering the Russians and their interests, instead of trying to understand them. And without understanding there can be no engagement, and without engagement – no compromise, no resolution, and no progress.

      • It is quite interesting how people end up focusing more on some things in different countries, you mentioned e.g. NATO, which we are hardly even aware of… (sure, there are those who have stronger feelings, both pros and cons but the average Finn is not hugely interested… But also interesting to read you say that many things that are claimed about Russia, are actually even supported in Russia. And I do find it intriguing overall how people end up thinking what ever they think (but I won’t hold you accountable for the thoughts of a whole country, a rather big country too with, I’m sure, also a lot of variety 😉 ), i guess that is why I like working with people. BUT I have to clarify that even though I admittedly don’t know enough about Russia to understand “Russian thinking” I was actually thinking more about a couple of examples from here: I think it is sad when a couple of highly educated and skilled Russian women with language skills won’t get a job in their field but only inappropriate suggestions only due to their nationality. Sure, there is also an explanation to “our” thinking there, history, some cultural differences and some fb images that should not have been spread but still, it is sad if we can’t see pass our prejudices.

          • Do you know which two groups of Russians were the first ones to cross the board when it became possible? The criminals and the bus loads with women prostituting themselves here over a weekend and then returning to their homes. This + women’s clothes (in contrast to how we dress and wear make up) + pretty young women = rather less fair anticipation of what is on the offer.
            I met them as they came for advice how to succeed in recruitment processes and what their rights as employees are, and ended up hiring one of them (had to have a talk about how to get dressed for a business meeting though…) and was very pleased with her brains and work. .

        • I’d say that NATO is Russia’s biggest geopolitical pet-peeve. Like, a lot of anti-US, anti-UK sentiment is at least 50% rooted in NATO expansion.

    • And ALSO to clarify: I am absolutely for gay rights, equal rights. And I never really cared much about Crimea one way or the other. But when the entire external discourse about, for instance, Russia’s gay-propaganda law revolves around ‘Putin’s homophobic policies’, it ignores the basic reality that they are supported by nearly 90% of the population. No administration will succumb to external pressure if it would eradicate the support within the country, at least not a relatively self-sufficient country like Russia. And sure, you can then say the population is bigoted and backwards, but calling essentially a whole country bigoted and backwards isnt going to open up hearts and minds, isnt going to make them more open-minded and accepting, and will produce just about zero benefit for the groups you’re ostensibly trying to help. If anything, it will put that 90% on the defensive, make them more hardline, more uncompromising. Just like it happened in America, positive change starts with engagement, and engagement starts with understanding. And I really wish that more people tried to really understand Russia and Russianess.

      • Maybe one part of not understanding is also not having that much information to go with? Or maybe I’m just too blind to see the information 😉

        We actually had a lunch conversation at work today touching this: people said they are a bit afraid of e.g travelling to Russia because they don’t know that much about it, AND there is the language barrier. The same language barrier exists e.g. in France but there we at least assume we kind of know what rights we have and how to deal with things.Does this ake sense to you?

        I have to say I agree 100% with you on most people becoming very defensive if they are attacked without anyone even trying to understand them. And there are better ways, if one would like to make a change.

        • Oh yes, that makes total sense. For one, the language difference is on another level, bc with most European countries you at least have the same alphabet, so you can deduce the most basic things – directions and such. And still, I felt SO lost in Munich bc those German words were SO SCARY LOOKING! I must say, Moscow, at least, has implemented a lot of ‘foreign-friendly’ initiatives. Almost every Metro car has a map where names of stops and other basic info is duplicated in Latin alphabet. Ditto a lot of major streets and signs. But law enforcement still requires a lot of reform, a lot of work. Again, new initiatives are constantly being developed and implemented to that end, but the progress is slow. I had even written on here about my brush with unsavory law enforcement in Moscow: https://gohomeandaway.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/a-fine-tactic/ I prefer to focus on the progress but I can totally understand how someone might have reservations about coming to Russia.

          I think the whole issue with understanding is kind of a catch-22 in certain situations. For example, how do you speak out against anti-gay policies without calling a whole nation bigoted? You attribute it to the leadership. But that in turn misrepresents the reality as well… Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

          • I’ve had my lovely encounter at the customs when I was crossing the border with one of the fellows of your “other country”; he didn’t realise that sometimes you shouldn’t try to be funny, which ended up with about 4-5 hours of search and even our underwear lined up at the border. But eventually they let us in and we had fun in St Petersburg 🙂

            Out of curiosity, what are the main reasons for supporting anti-gay policies over there then? Here the ones who have problems with that often refer to the protestant state church but I didn’t think Russia would be that religious of so many years of banning all churches.

            *the naive flower girl who thinks everyone should be allowed to be happy as long as they don’t hurt others (and no, seeing does not hurt)*

          • OOOOOOH boy. It’s not a loaded question, but it IS a complex one (I had written about it in parts at Jezebel). The reason for policies is 3-fold (and I can elaborate later on when it’s not 11 pm and I’m in the office):
            1-yes the church. The Russian Orthodox Church is regaining influence, and sometimes it manifests in reactionary policies (something similar to the Evangelical influence in US policy, of the Moral Majority bend).
            2-demographics. Russia lost proportionally more people in the first decade of its independence than USSR under Stalin. So focus on ‘traditional values’ is supposed to encourage breeding and the like.
            3-things like openly gay culture have strong association with the West (and esp the US – ironically, bc there are far more progressive countries in that regard), and the West/US and their influece havent been viewed in a positive light (yes, I am generalizing like mad here) since the 1999 Yugoslavia conflict, 1998 default, and renewed NATO expansion.

          • Your short answer already gave me heaps of new information, thanks! If you ever elaborate, I’m quite curious to read more now when you’ve gotten me hooked. Especially the #2 is sooo interesting on many levels…!

          • the problem is the west is pushing gay rights way to aggressively both in russia and eastern europe. instead of slowly teaching and educating people on gay rights, they demand everything at once. gay pride events take place in Poland and in the batics. the LGBT activists have to be guarded by the police and the crowd scream and spits on them. same in Russia. in Russia they introduced the stupid anti gay law and everyone cheered on it simply because they didnt want gay pride events like in scandinavian countries. what Russians didnt realize is that Milonov, the man who introduced the stupid anti gay Bill, also proposed to send Russian women to the army if they do not give birth before they turn 23. he also offered to allow men throw stones at women who are dressed inappropriatly and to almost “lynch” women who protest against Putin, supporting his statememnts with quotes from the bible. Im not making this up this is all in the press just google it. unsuprizingly judging by the comments a lot of Russian men support this statement. Under Putins rule the country is going back to middle ages. people will wake up sooner or later. no wonder Ukrainians want nothing to do with this country.

  4. we hate russians and all europe does
    u stupid people who bashed the world
    and ugly whore birches who use men
    we have to vomit from you all
    so no country for you at all just stay the fuck in your pighole shitty ugly faces u even stink 😀
    fucking users and your language? is the most ugly ever irritates so bad i cannot listen to it or my ears will start to hurt yuck bitch!

  5. As you have turned the discussion largely political, I’ll bow gracefully out on the rest of it. I think it’s clear that, no matter whether you feel more inclined to defend Russia because of your time in America or simply because you were born there, our politics are on very different ends of the spectrum. And not worth butting heads over as neither of us seems likely to change our minds.

    I will say that this was an interesting article, although a bit overwrought on the whole “but what do you feel more like?” question, which I think is totally valid and not at all meant in the way the author interprets it.

    • Well, I believe I was prompted into a more political discussion by some comments/ questions – until those I never brought up Putin, Ukraine or anything else 🙂 But either way, I have no problem with disengaging, or skipping the whole thing whatsoever. I’ll just say that ‘let’s hate on Russia and Putin’ popular discourse has started way before Ukraine, and before Sochi and before Syria – while I was still in the US, in fact, and before Russia had a chance to do something to anyone besides its own people. And that made it hard to be a Russian-hyphenate anywhere. Which is what the point of this re-blog is.

      I have been asked the ‘feel’ question easily hundreds of time. To me it’s never been sinister or suspicious, and I had always felt comfortable answering it (“American” say I, in both countries). BUT – those ‘haha you’re a spy’ comments, on the receiving end of which I had ALSO been hundreds of times, never sounded benign. And all those ‘bears, snow, vodka and commies’ jokes and stereotypes? I had to listen to all of them, in the “best of circles” in high school, college and professional environments. Literally the very first thing I got asked by a student I just met 5 minutes into my new (mostly white, liberal and middle class) school in Rhode Island was “are you a commie?”

      They were supposed to be funny, and maybe they really werent meant as offensive, but my Arab peers weren’t on the receiving end of desert and camel remarks, nor were my Asian peers hearing rice jokes, and so forth. Not right there, in the open, over and over and over. Not without the dirty looks and uncomfortable gasps. It really gets to you, or at least it got to me – and I am not that sensitive a person.

      • PS – to clarify, I am not saying that racism against Asian, Arab or African-based ethnicities exists, because it certainly does. and it’s horrible, yet at least in progressive circles it is viewed as such – offensive, racist, etc. But with Russian (and a lot of eastern European and former USSR cultures overall) it’s generally considered ok to make fun and stereotype, ‘in good humor.’

      • I’ve obviously gotten the spy thing as well and it just never crossed my mind to be offended by it. And I’m a little uncmfortable equating “are you a spy” to incredibly offensive racial slurs as she does in the article. There’s a huge gap between calling someone Chinese a “ch*nk” and a Russian a commie – I think perhaps her misunderstanding of that difference stems from the same cultural differences that make Russians think it’s OK to continue to use the n-word, even after being repeatedly told its offensive origins.

        Anyway, just my two cents. (And that girl, whether I agree with her or not, is interesting as she gets everyone talking. So I’ll give her that.)

        • Did you read her article about dating Russian guys? I was TERRIFIED. It seemed what she was attracted to, even if just carnally, was straight-up emotional and borderline physical abuse. That one definitely did not resonate… and yet I saw a lot of it in my sister and her 9-month marriage.

  6. You’re entitled to defend, dissent, support, whatever you want, to whichever country you want, for whatever reason. I know that it was rough for you a while back, but at least things are starting to turn themselves around.

  7. I am significantly more American than Russian, and yet, when I lived in New York, I had multiple people accuse me of being a double agent. How quickly Americans forget (or never knew) what it was like being in Europe during Bush, when everyone asked how I could have elected him, as if I personally, single-handedly put him in office.

    • Yup, I studied abroad in 03-04, incl when Abu Ghraib photos were revealed. Everyone was asking us (the students) how we could live with such a government.

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