Public opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement is shifting, with studies showing dramatically increasing support among Americans. However, attitudes about the movement continue to vary considerably between groups based on categories such as political affiliation, race, and gender. One group that is grappling with conflicting views on racism in America is the immigrant community of Russian Americans, including ex-Soviets and Russian Jews.
In a recent article on perceptions of the Black Lives Matter movement in Russian Jewish communities across America, Alex Zeldin describes a growing tension between younger Russian Americans committed to social justice and the older generation who emphatically deny the existence of structural racism. Perhaps this rift is the inevitable death rattle of the old guard and resolve will come with time. Or maybe this is simply a political disagreement familiar to dinner tables across America and the solution is to accept division and eat your salad Olivye in silence. However, the history shared among ex-Soviet immigrants – Jews in particular – resonates with the present context and could serve as a springboard for collective growth, unity and action.
The challenge faced by older Russian-Americans is clear. Grasping the reality of structural racism and systemic inequity in the United States requires accepting that concepts such as state-sanctioned violence, second class citizenship and historical oppression that they left behind in Soviet communism are alive and well in American capitalism. Admitting that the American experience is deeply flawed and access to American ideals is limited and carefully curated by institutions, is difficult for many Russian-Americans as it begs the question: was it worth it? Was it worth supplanting one oppressive regime for another?
To sidestep this uncomfortable question, many Russian immigrants embrace a willful ignorance of the persistent and overt racism in America, often pointing to the country’s sole Black president as definitive evidence that the America which gave them shelter “doesn’t see color”. These ex-Soviets reject data demonstrating that people of color are disproportionately likely to be shot and killed by police and desperately seek non-systemic explanations for the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Brown people. When presented with evidence-based accounts of voter suppression or racial and ethnic inequality in education, they respond with a maxim popularized in the USSR, “не читал, но осуждаю”, meaning, “didn’t read, but disapprove (or disagree)”, wholly failing to see the irony.
Indeed, recognizing, let alone combatting systemic injustice seems to trigger Russian American Jews, evoking what Tablet contributor and émigré from the Soviet Union Izabella Tabarovsky describes as “scars”, left by forced collectivism under the USSR regime. Russian American Jews like Tabarovsky equate the practice of holding public figures accountable for anti-Black rhetoric with Soviet-era state censorship.
I understand their fear and their confusion. My family fled the Soviet Union, escaping religious and political persecution, and arrived as refugees in the US in the fall of 1991. For my parents, the decision to immigrate to Madison, WI was unbearably difficult. Immigrating meant saying goodbye to their aging parents, relatives, and lifelong family friends, some of who they never saw again. Immigrating meant leaving behind their beloved city of Moscow and knowing they might never again walk through their favorite parks, visit their favorite museums or see another play in the theatre where they first met. It meant indefinitely disrupting my father’s burgeoning medical career. It meant taking with them only what fit into four large suitcases and nothing more. In short, it meant parting with their rodina.
However, immigrating also meant breaking free of a violently repressive state. A state which did not suffer dissent gladly, tenfold so if the dissenter was Jewish. The only life known to my parents was one situated in historical and structural anti-Semitism. This systemic inequity surfaced in all layers of society. Jewish students had to work twice as hard to get as far as their non-Jewish peers, employers were careful not to hire too many Jews, Jews were largely restricted from holding leadership positions (with a few exceptions), and Jews did not have political representation.
In addition to pervasive anti-Semitism, the Soviet Union was plagued by a corrupt and dictatorial enactment of communist and socialist ideas. While notions around social equality were touted by party leaders, and propaganda slogans proclaiming “Freedom! Equality! And Brotherhood!” were plastered across the Soviet Socialist Republics, the lived experiences of the people or narod suggested a starkly different reality. The so-called freedom of speech in the USSR was confined to kitchen table conversations, and only among trusted friends. The media and press were largely controlled by the government. Even books deemed unfavorable to the communist cause were outlawed by party officials. Such literature was only available through an intricate underground book exchange system known as samizdat, in which censored texts like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were reproduced and surreptitiously passed around from reader to reader.
My parents were active samizdat participants until one evening when, during his commute home from the hospital, my father was approached by several armed men in uniform who offered to accompany him “on a walk”. My father was detained, questioned, and offered to prove his loyalty to the party by becoming an informant for the global fight against capitalist foes. My father rejected this great honor and was eventually released. Instead of a citation, summons or any record of his detainment, my father was sent away with the clear message that his activity, which was implied but unnamed, would have consequences. That night my father and my pregnant mother pried open the bedroom floorboards of their communal apartment and gave the contraband literature to their most trusted, non-child-bearing friends.
The suppressive mechanism of the Soviet Union knew no accountability. The justice system was known simply as the entry point to the extensive network of prison labor camps. The prolific red banners shouting “Equality!” were nothing more than cruel reminders of the systemic chasm between the few with power and the many without. Soviet Jews lived this reality and understood that emigrating from their homeland was the only way to better their lives and the lives of their children.
One of my first memories in Madison, WI was walking into a grocery store with my younger sister and mother and seeing a giant stack of bananas. Moscow stores hadn’t seen a banana since Khrushchev explained that bananas are the only crop unable to grow in Soviet soil. When we looked up at my mother with disbelief, she replied, “this is why we came here”. Likewise, at the risk of reifying a stereotype, when my father and uncle first walked into an American liquor store, they smiled at each other and jokingly said, “well, it was worth it”.
What followed was a typical Russian Jewish immigrant experience: learning a new language and culture; working multiple jobs and struggling to make ends meet; raising children in a foreign land; and missing home. Yet, when my parents were particularly downtrodden, they reminded one another that their chosen homeland valued and protected freedom for all. My parents, like all Soviet Jewish immigrants, justified the difficult choices they made with the belief that no matter what you looked like or where you came from – even if you had a Jewish sounding last name – so long as you worked hard you could make it in America. Surviving the nightmare of immigration was made possible by the unwavering trust in the American dream.
But what happens when we learn that the American dream is available to some while remaining deferred for others? What happens when we recognize that the America we idealized, for which we uprooted our lives, lied to us?
Russian-born American journalist Cathy Young attempts to reconcile this issue by misinterpreting the concept of social justice as a monolithic mission hellbent on building a “utopia of absolute equality”. Young explains that the Black Lives Matter slogan reminds Russian Jews of Soviet propaganda and “feels fake”. In reality, the work toward social justice is real, multifaceted and the goals fall short of a creating an otherworldly utopia or enacting a national communist takeover. A reasonable starting point might be for the state to honor the three-word request of black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC): “stop killing us”.
However, ongoing responses by the state might trigger déjà vu among older Russian Americans and Jews. The nation’s capital saw heavily-armed men in drab military-style uniforms with no insignia or name badges patrolling the streets and confronting peaceful protestors. Major cities increasingly report armed men in camouflage and unmarked vehicles grabbing people off the street for questioning and intimidation, offering neither probable cause nor any official record of detainment. And the state continues to terrorize its citizens with disproportionate violence, most recently seen with the murder of Walter Wallace Jr..
As the struggle continues, it will become ever more enticing to “other” BIPOC, adopt the narrative of those with power, and ignore the familiar trends of oppression. But Russian immigrants in America have a secret weapon: each other. In pockets of Russian communities across the country, difficult conversations are taking place around kitchen tables and computer screens. Younger Russian Americans are helping their elders learn the country’s sordid history and confront their biases. Older Russian Americans with a grasp on the civil rights demonstrations are holding their less informed peers in community and engaging in educative dialogues.
For example, the public Facebook group “RUmadison”, home to the Russian community of the Midwest, underwent transformative change and is hosting productive cross-generational discussions on race for the first time in over a decade. Other online communities, such as the nationwide group, “Russian-Americans for black lives”, have emerged out of a pressing desire for unity and action. Masha Gessen, a writer for the New Yorker and fellow ex-Soviet, explains that the developing new political consensus is calling for moral clarity and is a necessary response to the false assumptions of the withered old consensus.
In One Day In The Life, Solzhenitsyn’s protagonist asks, “how can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s freezing?”. Our elders understood the bitter cold of systemic oppression and immigrated in search of American freedom. I can think of no better way to show our gratitude for the warmth we now enjoy than by honoring their experience and continuing their unrelenting quest for a more just, equitable, and free society.
Boris Krichevsky, Ph.D., College of Education, University of Washington. @BorisKrichevsky