Soviet Bloc Immigrants Rethink Their Identity Amid Russia-Ukraine War

Soviet Bloc Immigrants Rethink Their Identity Amid Russia-Ukraine War

LOS ANGELES — Outside Babushka Grandma’s deli in the heart of Hollywood, immigrants from Russia, Ukraine and other countries that were part of the former Soviet Union sipped coffee and nibbled on piroshkis during a recent warm, sun-drenched afternoon.

“We have never asked each other where we are from,” said Mark Goren, 75, sitting at a patio table with friends from Uzbekistan and Moldova. “The Russian language unites us,” said Mr. Goren, who arrived in the United States from Kyiv, Ukraine, more than four decades ago.

From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles to Seattle, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, members of the diaspora from the former Soviet Union have long bonded over Russian language and history, a testament to a shared background as immigrants from more than a dozen nations that once constituted the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that dissolved in 1991. Americans, too, have lumped them together as Russians.

“Today I brought my car to mechanic, they heard my accent, and the first question was, ‘Are you Russian?’” said Eugene Levin, publisher of two Russian-language weeklies in California, who immigrated from Ukraine more than three decades ago. He responded that he was American and spoke Russian but was from Ukraine.

“I am really concerned that there could be animosity toward members of the Russian-speaking community,” said Mr. Levin, who is still haunted by the hostility he faced as a Jew in the former Soviet Union. Jewish families represent a substantial portion of immigrants from the former Soviet bloc, where they were deprived of rights and where discrimination limited their economic and educational advancement.

Since Ukraine was attacked, governments, sports organizations and businesses around the globe have implemented bans or sanctions against Russia. Apple has halted sales of its phones and computers there. A Vermont bartender poured vodka down the drain.

About 1.2 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union called the United States home in 2019, according to tabulations of census data by the Migration Policy Institute. The two largest groups, Russians and Ukrainians, number 392,000 and 355,000. They include Sergey Brin, born in Moscow, who co-founded Google, and Jan Koum, originally from Kyiv, who created the WhatsApp messaging app.

The label, “Russian,” has been applied to multilayered religious and cultural identities, and to people with a variety of motives and circumstances that led them to the United States from across the region — Belarus, Armenia, Moldova and other former Soviet republics. Among them are dissidents who fled the totalitarian government in the 1970s and ’80s. Jews and evangelical Christians came seeking religious freedom in the ’90s.

Other immigrants came in pursuit of prosperity as economic chaos gripped the region after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Among arrivals in recent years are students, wealthy entrepreneurs and people who crossed illegally into the United States from Mexico.

Two-thirds are not from Russia. But the former Soviet Union made Russian the de facto official language. As a result, the vast majority of immigrants and their families speak Russian, even if they also communicate in the languages of their native countries. And they nurture an affinity with Russian culture.

They watch Russian TV online and follow Russian rock bands, like Mashina Vremeni, and the Bolshoi Ballet. They shop at grocery stores that sell Russian foods and prepare a traditional salad, “Olivier,” known in the United States as Russian Salad, for New Year’s Eve and other celebrations.

“It’s easier to tell American neighbors and colleagues that you are from Russia than to go into detailed explanations of intricate geopolitical events,” said Jeanne Batalova, 47, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, an independent research organization.

But this dynamic is changing in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Self-identity is not fixed, she said.

“The old self-identity crumbles under the weight of the unthinkable and unimaginable. A new self-identity as Ukrainians, Moldovans and Georgians emerges,” said Ms. Batalova, who grew up in Moldova, the daughter of a Russian father and Jewish Ukrainian mother.

Even though some immigrants are now taking pains to set themselves apart from Russia to people outside their communities, they are not pointing fingers at one another.

“The Russian-speaking community is feeling for the people in the places they grew up and supporting each other, regardless of whether they came from Russia, Ukraine or another former Soviet republic,” said Mr. Levin, the newspaper publisher.

All told, the Soviet diaspora in the United States, including immigrants, their U.S.-born children and grandchildren, numbers more than four million.

As they see Russia’s relentless advance on Ukraine, they find themselves glued to the news in disbelief and horror, like much of the world. Many have relatives and friends in their countries of origin. But the rift with Russia is reverberating in more subtle ways through the 600,000-strong community of Russian speakers in Southern California, one of the country’s largest.

“I have always loved Russian culture, music, dance. But I don’t want to be called Russian anymore,” said Victoria Corbett, 46, whose family immigrated to the United States from Ukraine when she was 3 and who grew up speaking Russian.

Ms. Corbett said she was disgusted by Russia’s assault on her home country and worried about being associated with the aggressor.

“People are going to start hating Russians,” she said from behind the counter of her boutique in West Hollywood, along a stretch lined with grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses bearing Cyrillic signs.

Down the street at Spaulding Pharmacy, Alexander Konopov, the owner from Ukraine, and Ina Siretsky, a clerk from Moldova, prepared prescriptions for a clientele that Mr. Konopov described as 80 percent Russian, even though they hail from many countries.

“We have never paid attention to where exactly people came from in former Soviet Union,” said Mr. Konopov, who arrived in 1989. “Most people were running from the regime.

“Americans consider us all Russian: Jewish, Georgian, Ukrainian,” he said.

Leaving the former Soviet Union was almost an impossibility until the ’70s, when relations between the two superpowers began to thaw, and Soviet authorities started issuing some exit visas to Jews, dissidents and writers. Soviet scientists and artists, including dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, defected while visiting the United States to participate in events. Before it collapsed, the Soviet Union threw open its gates, enabling hundreds of thousands of people to emigrate in ensuing years. A law passed by Congress brought tens of thousands of mostly Jews and other religious minorities to the United States as refugees.

West Hollywood became something of a port of entry for Soviet émigrés, who quickly transformed the east end of the liberal, gay area. Soon, babushkas, the Russian word for grannies, were trudging down the streets, their bags stuffed with spicy sausages and cans of caviar from ethnic groceries that opened. New restaurants served borscht and other Russian staples.

Scientists and professionals took jobs as cabdrivers, electricians and plumbers to make ends meet. As they and their children prospered, many moved to the San Fernando Valley, where they bought their first homes. Newly minted oligarchs, who reaped the rewards of Soviet privatizations, came later and snapped up mansions in Beverly Hills.

On a recent afternoon, Russian-speaking immigrants, many of them retirees, played dominoes and rummy at picnic tables in West Hollywood’s Plummer Park, nicknamed Gorky Park after Moscow’s famous green space. Young parents who immigrated from the former Soviet Union as children discussed the war while their sons and daughters climbed on a jungle gym or took tennis lessons.

Oleg Sivacov, 72, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Moscow after receiving a visa through a lottery a few years ago, said that he felt compelled to apologize for Mr. Putin’s unprovoked aggression on Ukraine. “I feel very bad. Putin is a dictator. I have a lot of friends in Ukraine,” he said.

A woman named Marina, who is originally from Belarus and is married to a Russian, said that she feared that anti-Russian sentiment would spread in the United States.

“I’ve always said I am Russian, but it’s a dangerous time to be Russian,” said Marina, who arrived in Los Angeles when she was 13, and had brought her 5-year-old daughter to the park for a tennis lesson.

“I’m 100 percent afraid of a backlash,” said Marina, who asked that her last name be withheld out of concern for her family’s safety. “Remember when Covid started, people were beating up Asians. It’s scary,” she said.

A couple doors from Babushka deli, at a bakery called Le Balcon, a young Russian couple who came to the United States nine months ago said they had felt no ill feelings from their Ukrainian co-worker, whose relatives are stranded in her home country. But they had been trying to keep a low profile.

“We’re for peace,” said Max Sinitsyn, 34, standing next to his wife, Elena Esipova, 22, her fingers smeared with dough from kneading bread and preparing Bird’s Milk cake, a favorite in Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states.

Their co-worker, Yayouna, 28, who immigrated from Ukraine four years ago and who asked that her last name be withheld, said that she felt no animosity toward them. “It’s Putin who destroys Ukraine, not the people of Russia.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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