In my nearly 20 years experience as a Russian living in the West, I have found that almost all my fellows can be reduced to five basic types: 1) The White Russian; 2) The Sovok Jew; 3) The Egghead Emigre; 4) Natasha Gold-Digger; 5) Putin’s Expat.
My background and qualifications to write on this topic? My dad is an academic who moved to the UK with his family in 1994, i.e. an Egghead Emigre. Later on, I moved to California. Much of the Russian community in the Bay Area (though not Sacramento!) are in fact Russian Jews, who are culturally distinct from Russians, albeit the boundaries are blurred and there’s lots of intermingling though Russian cultural events. Topping off the cake, I have some White Russian ancestors, and am familiar with many of them as well as more recent expats via my hobby of Russia punditry.
I hope this guide will entertain American and Russian (and Jewish) readers interested in what happens when their cultures interact and fuse, as well as those very Russian Americans who will doubtless see traces of themselves in at least one of the five main archetypes.
Arrived in: 1917-1920’s, 1945
Social origins: Clerks, Tsarist officials, aristocrats, White Army officers, philosophers.
Culturally related to: Earlier Orthodox Slavic migrants from the Russian Empire who came from 1880-1914, though White Russians proper are more sophisticated than them as they tended to be high class whereas former were peasants.
Political sympathies (US): Moderate conservatism
Political sympathies (Russia): Putin, Prokhorov
No, I’m not talking about Jeff Lebowski’s favorite cocktail. The White Russians (or “White emigres”) are the officers, officials, and intellectuals who fled their country after the Russian Revolution. Prominent examples included Zworykin (TV), Sikorsky (helicopters), and Nabokov (writer). They did not necessarily come to the US straight away: Many came via the great European cities, like Berlin, or Paris, where in the 1920’s, old White Army officers sat around dinghy bars, drowning their sorrows in drink and spending what remained of their money on cockroach racing. Some took more roundabout ways. One girl I know originated from Russian exiles in Harbin, Manchuria (mother’s side) and Brazil (father’s side) who met up and stayed in the US.
White Russians tend to be well-assimilated into US society, and many of the younger generations no longer speak Russian. However, many of them retain a positive affinity with traditional Russian culture – even if it tends to the gauzy and superficial, an attitude that transitions into “kvas patriotism” when taken to an extreme (kind of like Plastic Paddies). The quintessential White Russian comes from an upper-middle class family, holds moderately conservative views, and goes to the occasional Orthodox service and Russian cultural event featuring zakuski, vodka, and traditional singing and dancing.
To the extent they have detailed opinions on Russian politics, they tend to respect Putin, seeing him as a conservative restorer. Needless to say, they never support the Communists – though the antipathy does not extent to Red Army victories or space race triumphs, of which they are proud. Solzhenitsyn is their spiritual figurehead. Many however are partial to liberal forces such as Yabloko and Prokhorov; especially those who are no longer Russophones, and have to rely on Western coverage of Russia. A few kvas patriots go well beyond the call of duty to their Motherland, “telling it like it is on Trans-Dniester” and exposing “court appointed Russia friendlys.”
Arrived in: 1970’s-early 1990’s
Culturally related to: The early wave of Jewish emigration from Tsarist Russia, which included Ayn Rand.
Social origins: Normal Jewish families, with smattering of colorful dissidents and black marketeers/organized crime; also many pretend Jews.
Political sympathies (US): Republicans, neocons, libertarianism
Political sympathies (Russia): Prokhorov, Russian liberals
The Sovok Jew is a very complex figure. At home with American capitalism, he nonetheless continues to strongly identify with Soviet mannerisms (but don’t tell that to his face).
The modern Russian diaspora began in the 1970′s, when many Soviet Jews began to leave for Israel and the US. It accelerated in the late 1980′s, when the Soviet government eased emigration controls (prior to that the US had sanctioned the USSR for limiting Jewish emigration with the Jackson-Vanik amendment; bizarrely, it remains in effect to this day).
Leveraging their intelligence and entrepreneurial talent, many became very rich in the IT (California) and finance (East Coast) sectors. The ultimate example is, of course, Google founder Sergey Brin, who once opined that Russia is “Nigeria with snow.” He is the rule, not the exception. Most Sovok Jews have very poor impressions of Russia, and like to tell funny anecdotes about ethnic Russians’ stupidity and incompetence:
Ivan: What if we have to fight China? They have more than a billion people!
Pyotr: We’ll win with quality over quantity, just like the Jews with the Arabs.
Ivan: But do we have enough Jews?
The above joke courtesy of a Silicon Valley bigwig. He must have assumed I’m Jewish, given my surname. (Reality: I’m not a Jew culturally, though I’ve calculated I’m about 10% Ashkenazi Jewish at the genetic level).
Two further important points must be made. First, while they’re very successful on average, far from all Soviet Jews made the American dream: While many are millionaires, the vast majority still consists of shop assistants, office plankton, and the driving instructor I hired for a refresher lesson prior to my California driving exam. The less successful they are in America, the fonder their recollections of Soviet life. Their biggest enclave, Brighton Beach (“Little Odessa”), used to be a dump; and was the original spawning ground of the so-called “Russian Mafia” abroad, as popularized by Yuri Orlov, the gunrunner antihero from Lord of War.
Second, despite that many famous Soviet dissidents were Jewish (e.g. Brodsky, Dovlatov, – and satirized by the fictional e-persona Lev Sharansky), not to mention their appreciation for capitalism, most Russian Jews regard the USSR in a far more positive light than Russia itself. (Of course, there are exceptions, e.g. Lozansky, and I believe the DR commentator Lazy Glossophiliac). This might sound surprising at first, but one needs to bear in mind that Jews did very well in the early USSR: As Jewish Russian-American author Yuri Slezkine argues in The Jewish Century, the three major homelands of the Jews in the 20th century were the US, Israel, and the USSR, while the traditional Russia of icons and cockroaches was not a homeland, but a pogrom-land.
Furthermore, the USSR’s early philo-Semitism reversed from later Stalinism on, with rhetoric about “rootless cosmopolitanism” and “anti-Zionism” even as the US became highly pro-Israel. In a neat ideological reversal, Soviet Jews in America whose parents had sung Communism’s praises turned to libertarianism and neoconservatism, and in the 2000’s, most became hardcore anti-Putinists.
A controversial assertion, perhaps… But one need only drop a few names: Anne Applebaum (Putin stole my wallet), Miriam Elder (Putin stole my drycleaning ticket), Julia Ioffe (I hate objectivity), Masha Gessen (Putin has no face), Anna Nemtsova (Russian dudes suck)*… Or recall the blood-curdling and frankly threatening responses I got from one Irina Worthey (“Ira Birman”) when trolling a pro-Khodorkovsky Facebook group with inconvenient questions about his actual democratic credentials. Or consider that Prokhorov got 90% of the votes at Palo Alto.
Yet while they harbor little love for Russia, Jewish Russian-Americans continue to speak Russian among themselves, play durak and eat borscht, and recite Radio Yerevan jokes. They remain stuck in the Soviet attitudes and tastes that they brought with them to American shores; arguably, far more so than ethnic Russians (who have co-evolved with post-Soviet Russia). But as the USSR is dead, this Soviet identity has no future; the children of Sovok Jews tend to undergo complete Americanization.
Arrived in: 1990’s
Social origins: Academia.
Political sympathies (US): No real pattern.
Political sympathies (Russia): Communists, liberals; but increasingly, some have learned to stop worrying and love Putin.
The third major group are the Egghead Emigres – those Russians, who left during the 1990’s “brain drain”, when the Russian state lost its ability to even pay salaries regularly. There are Jews among them (e.g. Andre Geim, recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics), as well as other nationalities, but most of them are ethnic Russians. They cluster around university towns; if there’s a campus, chances are there are a few Russians around. As an in-joke among them goes: “What’s an American university?”, “It’s a place where Russian physicists lecture to Chinese students.”
Though one would think that these Russian academics are entrepreneurial go-getters – after all, they were willing to gamble on a new life abroad, right? – most are actually risk-averse and ultimately limited in their horizons. They are highly intelligent, but their ineptness at office politics limits their chances for promotion – as in companies, so within universities – where far less accomplished but socially savvier native bosses leech off their work. While they are now almost uniformly well-off, the Egghead Emigre lacks the Sovok Jew’s entrepreneurial drive, and as such there are very few truly rich among them. But on second thought this ain’t that surprising. Academia is a very safe environment (in terms of employment) and guarantees a reliable cash flow and career progression but it won’t make you a millionaire. The truly entrepreneurial Soviet academics have long since abandoned academia and made big bucks in the business world.
Many Egghead Emigres seem to be stuck in the 1990’s when it comes to their perceptions of Russia, with which they have very bad associations; after all, they ended up leaving the country back then. They feel genuinely betrayed by the Russian state – which for a time didn’t even pay them their salaries – and at the same time, many also became big fans of their adopted countries. I suspect this is in large part born of their need to justify their own emigration to themselves. After all, many of them still have Sovok mindsets, in which emigration and betrayal are near synonyms; but is it still betrayal to betray a country that betrayed you?
Consequently, some even view any “defense” of Russia, no matter how justified, as a personal attack on themselves and respond ferociously. Furthermore, and logically, the more successful they are in the West, the more anti-Russian they tend to be; whereas many of the least successful Egghead Emigres have already gone back to Russia.
Their views on the Soviet Union are mixed: While most admire it for its educational system, they also criticize it for its politicized idiocies and censorship. Nonetheless, their overall impression of the USSR is far higher than that of Russia; at least in the former, they were paid salaries and socially respected.
There’s also a generational aspect. Whereas the migrant “fathers” tended to indulge in Russia-bashing (out of a genuine sense of betrayal; overcompensating need to justify their emigration; etc), and embraced all aspects of Westernization with the fanaticism of the new convert, the effect of emigration was sometimes quite different on their “sons”. A few followed in the footsteps of the “fathers”; some (perhaps most) are largely indifferent to Russia, and have blended into the socio-cultural mainstream of Anglo-Saxon society; and others appreciate Russia to an extent that the “fathers” find puzzling, annoying, or even intolerable.
As you may have deduced, the Egghead Emigre shares many similarities with the Sovok Jew. Nonetheless, many of them still retain a few patriotic vestiges; and politically, they are considerably to the left, with social democratic, socialist, and even Communist leanings being common (whereas Sovok Jews are right-leaning, ironically, unlike purely American Jews who tend to be more leftist). Though not many are still much interested in Russian politics, those who are typically vote for Prokhorov/Yabloko or the Communist Party. That said, it should be noted that in recent years, opinion about the old homeland has improved, especially as Russia recovered under Putin, and once again started paying researchers decent salaries and courting the Egghead Emigres with generous packages on condition they return. But thus far very few of them have taken up those offers.
Arrived in: From early 1990’s
Social origins: Ordinary families
Political sympathies (US): Year 0: Adventurous, naive, wants marriage to nice American guy; Year 2: Wants American betaboy’s nice money
Political sympathies (Russia): ?
Natasha Gold-Digger is the most (in)famous type of Russian American, her image having thoroughly permeated pop culture (e.g. films such as The Russian Bride, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukraine). In practice however, Natasha isn’t only the rarest of the five major types of Russian American; frequently, she is not actually Russian, but Ukrainian or Moldovan.
A common delusion that feeds the “mail order brides” industry is that Russian women are less feminist than their over-entitled Western counterparts, eternally thankful for the opportunity to escape poor, barbaric Russia with its alcoholic Beastmen, and hotter to boot. Sounds like a good deal, no?
But while traditional gender roles are indeed far more prevalent in Russia than in the US or Britain, this does not extend into family relations – Russia’s divorce rate is over 50%, which is only slightly lower than in the US. Furthermore, the type of American man who actually orders a bride online is typically someone who does not have the social skills to compete for America’s admittedly much narrower pool of non-obese women. These Russian brides – strong and adventurous almost by definition, as per their choice to emigrate – don’t respect, let alone supplicate, to these Yankee betaboys.
The customer doesn’t get what he thought he signed up for, as his Russian wife gets her residency papers, empties his bank account, wins alimony for any children they had together, and dumps him to ride the alpha cock carousel. The embittered husbands then go on to vent their resentments to anyone who would listen and many who would not. But they have only their own loser selves to blame.
Arrived in: 2000’s
Social origins: Students, businesspeople, rich elites, yuppies
Culturally related to: The expats of all political persuasions who whirled about Europe in the time of Tsarism
Political sympathies (US): Democrat, anti-war, Ron Paul
Political sympathies (Russia): All over – Putin, Prokhorov, Communists
They might not support Putin – though many do. Take the student at Stanford University, son of a senior manager at a Russian tech company; or the Russian financier working working in New York – more likely than not, both would vote for Prokhorov, and maybe even participate in a picket of the Russian Embassy as part of a protest for free elections or the freeing of Pussy Riot. But in a sense they are all Putin’s children, as is the Russian middle class from whence it comes; a middle class that only began to develop beyond a narrow circle of oligarchs during the 2000’s.
In this sense, Russia has become a “normal country”, as this class of global expats – typically consisting of young, upwardly mobile and ambitious people – is common to all developed countries; and just as in Russia, they too tend to have specific political preferences (the US – Democrats; France – Sarkozy/UMP). And unlike previous waves of emigration, which encompassed all the four types of Russian American that I already covered, most of “Putin’s expats” will eventually go back once they finish their course of study or gain work experience in a Western country.
Paradoxically, spending a lot of time in the West does not make these expats significantly more liberal or anti-Putin; even the reverse, if anything. On closer analysis this is not surprising. Even when in Russia, they already have access to what Western “free journalists” write about their country – if not in the English-language original, then translation websites like Inosmi. When spending time in the West, many realize their own country isn’t that bad in comparison; and that typical American perceptions of Russia tend to be irredeemably skewed (“Is it always cold in Russia?”, “Do you drink vodka everyday?”, “What do you think about your dictator Putin?”). Consequently, even someone who may be relatively liberal in Russia not infrequently ends up defending many aspects of Russian politics and society that he otherwise hates when in the West.
In the future, Sovok Jews will almost all Americanize, as will a majority of Egghead Emigres and their progeny. Those Russian-Americans who survive as distinct social communities will be primarily the White Russians (largely through the Orthodox Church), as well as increasing numbers of Putin’s Expats who will continue traipsing across America and the globe even after their namesake retreats into history. And if Russia becomes a developed country, it is easy to imagine that more Russian Americans will become Putin’s Expats… or even, just Russians.
* One thing that really stands out is that it is female Jews who dislike Russia more than anything, at least among Western journalists. As this post has already pushed well beyond all respectable limits of political correctness, I might as well go the full nine yards and outline my theory of why that is the case. In my view, the reasons are ultimately psycho-sexual. Male Jews nowadays have it good in Russia, with many Slavic girls attracted to their wealth, intelligence and impeccable charm (if not their looks). But the position of Jewesses is the inverse. They find it hard to compete with those same Slavic chicks who tend to be both hotter and much more feminine than them; nor, like Jewish guys, can they compensate with intelligence, since it is considered far less important for women. This state of affairs leads to sexual frustration and permanent singledom (pump and dump affairs don’t count of course), which in turn gives rise to the angry radical feminism and lesbianism that oozes out of this piece by Anna Nemtsova bemoaning Russia’s “useless bachelors”. Such attitudes further increase male aversion to them, thus reinforcing their vicious cycle of singledom. And the resulting frustration indelibly seeps into their work…