Echo

Story posted on March 12, 2009 at 4:00 AM

I do not have an emigre story. I wish I did. I’m sure, if I did, it would be really interesting...or maybe it would simply be really cliche. Well, it would be really something. It’d be a hell of a thing in fact. At some point I would mention how I walked into a store and was overwhelmed with the choices stacked before me. Like that scene in Moscow on the Hudson. But that story doesn’t exist. The simple fact is that I am not an emigre. I was born right here in the good old U.S. of A. On 30th and 1st, at NYU. I’m part of the melting pot they used to sing about on Schoolhouse Rock on Saturday mornings. You know, the filler material that aired before Bugs Bunny came on. Many of my friends were born in the former Soviet Union, before it was the former anything. They all have the stories. The stories of what it was like to code switch to a new language. The stories of what their first impressions were like when they got to the States. Through the haze of childhood, even the most mundane pieces of realia become branded in one’s mind. Take for example, the case of my best friend Dmitri. As a very young child in Tbilisi, he had watched a boot-leg copy of The Terminator. It made such an impression on him that he became convinced that Arnold Schwarzenegger was a mythic, Paul Bunion-esque figure that played a real, tangible role in the day to day life of America’s citizens. So much so in fact, that when he started school in New Jersey at age seven, he was convinced that his principal was Arnold. To be fair, the principal did have Arnold’s hair. That, and Dmitri was seven. He wasn’t alone. All of my emigre friends seemed to have had some very odd ideas about America when they were kids.

I had the opposite. As a young child, I grew up with odd ideas about Russia. You see, although I, as I have already established, am not an emigre, my parents are. My father, after demobilizing from the Soviet army, came to the west from Moscow in 1974. My mother came with her parents from Leningrad in 1976. You may be wondering why I call it Leningrad and not St. Petersburg. Because my grandfather was in the Blockade of Leningrad, not the Blockade of Petersburg. Leningrad rolls off the tongue with greater ease. It sounds grander...at least it does to me. Even when I spent a semester at St. Petersburg State University during my junior year of college, I would insist on calling it Leningrad State. It’s a generally unpopular approach to geography, as I’ve been told by quite a few people. Anyway, the point that I’m trying to get to here is that by the time I came around to any kind of conscious existence, we were already out of Queens and living in the suburbs. I consider myself very fortunate in that I never experienced the abysmal first apartment or was forced to watch my parents come home from menial jobs. I’ve heard those stories from friends as well. The bleakness they experienced watching their father, a former surgeon, teacher, or engineer, come home from a hard day of cleaning toilets. Thankfully I was spared that. I had a vastly different experience. A solidly American suburban experience. It was a suburban experience, however, in which the specter of Russia always loomed in the background. I was the kid with the weird lunch at school, but I’m glad it worked out that way. I hate PB&J.

The ghost of Russia cast a shadow on the way in which I viewed the world to such an extent that I sometimes think I grew up in my own personal Russia. The irony is that my parents were vehemently anti-Soviet. It’s why they left. Yet, it still caused me to have a definitively Soviet view of the last century’s major events. Perhaps it caused me to have a Russian view of all of history. I, of course, knew that Russia won the war. Our boys took Berlin and D-Day paled in comparison. One bloody day does not equal four bloody years, and half a million dead is not the same as twenty-seven million. Whenever World War II was discussed in my elementary school social studies class, the teacher was always quick to mention the hardships endured by the American civilian population, such as meat rationing. At those moments, my mind would wander to my grandfather’s stories about eating wallpaper glue during the dark days of the blockade. At age 8 I had no grasp on the concept of the Cold War and, needless to say, bragging about my grandfather’s service as an officer in the North Fleet won me no fans among my peers in my northern New Jersey schoolyard. Glance further back in time. Russia beat Napoleon, though Audrey Hepburn, however comely, made for a lackluster Natasha Rostova. Russia even saved Europe from the Mongol onslaught. Let’s ignore the fact that I’m 3/4s Jewish. With such a tenuous historical connection to medieval Rus, odds are that my ancestors were, in all likelihood, not fighting the Tatars alongside Dmitri Donskoi. Regardless, I had little notion at the time of nationality in the Russian sense of the word and these heroic stories made a huge impression on me as a child. Russia, it seemed, excelled at everything; was some sort of land of wonders.

Just as my emigre friends had all these weird ideas about America, the younger version of myself had a slew of misconceptions about Russia. Probably the biggest one of these misconceptions occurred because, for the longest time, I only knew half the picture. No one wants to tell a child about all the bad that could occur in life. About nighttime knocks on the door and soft anti-Semitism. About why they left a nation their fathers had shed blood to defend only some thirty years earlier. So, when talking to me about the country that they grew up in, my parents focused on what was good about the place. As I grew older, old enough to understand the complexities of life, I gained from them, a much clearer, more lucid picture of what it was they had really left.

Now I am not writing this to discuss some conflicted feelings of identity or historical memory, or really to argue anything to be quite honest. There is no agenda or point to be proven here. Just a series of musings on childhood impressions. It merely seems that all of this can be more complicated than the melting pot song on Schoolhouse Rock. That growing up in the echo of the Third Wave of emigration creates a narrative which is more complex than that of other groups. As a New Yorker of Russian-Jewish background, I am firmly entrenched in my Americaness and the identity that comes with it. A semester in Russia confirmed that. However, I still feel like I have an emigre story, despite the fact that I wasn’t an emigre. Maybe it’s better to call it a story that occurs in the echo of emigration. It is a story that is no less complex than that of someone who experienced the emigration firsthand.