'I don't want to be called Russian anymore': Anxious Soviet diaspora rethinks identity

Mr Mark Goren (right), originally from Ukraine, and Vladimir Ravkin, originally from Belarus in Los Angeles on March 3, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES (NYTIMES) - 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 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.

But as President Vladimir Putin unleashes Russia's military might on Ukraine - killing civilians, causing a refugee crisis, and drawing worldwide repudiation, boycotts and sanctions - generations of immigrants here are reexamining how they define their identities. Some, fearing how they will be perceived by the public at large, are shifting from accepting being broadly painted as Russians to explicitly identifying with their countries of origin.

"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 towards 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 organisations 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.

Remote video URL

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, such as 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 neighbours 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 organisation.

Newspapers and magazines at Babushka Grandma's deli in Los Angeles. PHOTO: NYTIMES

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.

All told, the Soviet diaspora in the United States, including immigrants, their US-born children and grandchildren, numbers more than 4 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.

Flames and smoke billows from a residential building damaged by recent shelling in Chernihiv, Ukraine, on March 3, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

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.

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 favourite 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 she felt no animosity toward them. "It's Putin who destroys Ukraine, not the people of Russia."

Follow The Straits Times' live coverage on the Ukraine crisis here.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.