Immigrants From a Place That No Longer Exists

A conversation between post-Soviet millennial Jews on the left

Introduced by Julia Alekseyeva and Oksana Mironova
July 6, 2022

Chicago, 1993. Photo courtesy of Julia Alekseyeva

In discussing our relationships to post-Soviet Jewish identity, one of us described the experience of visiting a Russian grocery store in Brighton Beach and feeling both comforting familiarity and a gnawing anxiety about being exposed as a fraud. We agreed that we felt the same way whenever we entered a Jewish Community Center (JCC) or a shul. This sense of disconnection from both Eastern Europeans and non-Soviet Jews is a symptom of a broader estrangement, rooted in the trauma of immigration from a country that has ceased to exist. As members of a younger generation of Soviet Jews, who emigrated in childhood or were born in the US, we have struggled to fit vague or secondhand memories of Soviet culture into our American lives.

For younger Soviet Jews who are left-wing, this estrangement can also encompass political conflict with our conservative older relatives, many of whom voted for Trump in 2020. To discuss these experiences of generational, geographical, and ideological alienation, we convened a roundtable of first- and second-generation Soviet Jews who write about and organize around leftist issues in the US. The participants in this conversation reflect the breadth of Soviet Jewish experience. Together, we trace our lineages back to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. Some of our families left the Soviet Union as refugees, while others came to the US to pursue professional opportunities; some of our parents were anti-Communist dissidents, while others were ardent Communists, and still others attempted to remain apolitical. When we spoke, we considered the different shapes that Soviet Jewish identity takes in different contexts, the question of how we might communicate with our conservative elders, and the discomfort we feel when American leftists idealize the Soviet Union and its iconography. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Julia Alekseyeva [author-illustrator of Soviet Daughter, University of Pennsylvania professor]: What is Soviet Jewish identity? What are its qualities?

Oksana Miranova [housing researcher]: I don’t know if there is a cohesive Soviet Jewish identity. But to the extent that the label has meaning in the US, so much of it has to do with relationships to state and non-state institutions that took on the role of assimilating immigrants into American culture. NYANA [New York Association for New Americans] and the JCC in Bensonhurst played a big role in the first few years post-immigration for me and my family, who came as refugees in 1996 from Yessentuki, a resort town at the base of the Caucasus Mountains. I think Soviet Jewish identity, to the extent that it developed, developed in conversation with what JCC programs in ’90s Brooklyn or Chicago or Philly said American Jewish culture was, which often meant Ashkenazi cultural practices and a strong affinity for Israel.

Rafael Shimunov [co-founder of The Jewish Vote, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice board member]: Sometimes it seems like our identity is defined by others, who use it for different purposes: Conservatives use it to tell a fairy tale about how black and white the Cold War was; the Israeli state uses it to convey how dangerous it will always be for Jews outside of Israel. My family are Bukharian Jews—a Jewish minority in Soviet Uzbekistan, which is extremely diverse, very much like Queens, where most of us are today. For those like us, largely from Soviet Republics, a story was manufactured by Israeli hasbarists [propagandists] and accepted by many in the community, that we were under the thumb of violent, antisemitic Muslims, even though Russian Christians were in power.

A model 1970s Soviet-era living room in a museum in Tallinn, Estonia.

Hugh Mitton/Alamy

Rivka Yeker [co-founder of Hooligan Mag, Kolektiv Goluboy Vagon committee member]: I definitely think there are shared qualities among us. A couple of years ago, a few other people and I started Kolektiv Goluboy Vagon, a queer, post-Soviet Jewish collective. We’ve noticed there are interesting consistencies in the way we were raised. My parents came from Belarus and Tajikistan, respectively, and immigrated as young adults to Chicago, where I was born. I’ve noticed that because of the way the Soviet Union manipulated people, parents raised kids with a scarcity mindset, through manipulation. I’m superstitious, I don’t trust anybody, I’m always looking behind my back, spitting three times behind my left shoulder. Part of my work is unlearning this approach to relationships, to community, to organizing.

“Because of the way the Soviet Union manipulated people, parents raised kids with a scarcity mindset. I’m superstitious, I don’t trust anybody, I’m always looking behind my back, spitting three times behind my left shoulder.”


Classroom in Saint Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), 1986.

JTK 94131 via Flickr

Rivka Yeker [co-founder of Hooligan Mag, Kolektiv Goluboy Vagon committee member]: I definitely think there are shared qualities among us. A couple of years ago, a few other people and I started Kolektiv Goluboy Vagon, a queer, post-Soviet Jewish collective. We’ve noticed there are interesting consistencies in the way we were raised. My parents came from Belarus and Tajikistan, respectively, and immigrated as young adults to Chicago, where I was born. I’ve noticed that because of the way the Soviet Union manipulated people, parents raised kids with a scarcity mindset, through manipulation. I’m superstitious, I don’t trust anybody, I’m always looking behind my back, spitting three times behind my left shoulder. Part of my work is unlearning this approach to relationships, to community, to organizing.

Greg Afinogenov [Georgetown University professor, tenant organizer]: It’s hard for me to know what makes up Soviet Jewish identity, because I didn’t grow up with it. My grandparents identified as Jews, but they never learned Yiddish and weren’t religious. I got the feeling they had to give up their Jewishness in order to become accepted fully as members of the intelligentsia—a certain class of educated Jews who enthusiastically participated in the Soviet project despite the limitations it imposed on them. My parents were part of a generation of intelligentsia Jews in the ’80s who actually converted to Christianity under the influence of prominent proselytizer Alexander Men. I was born in Moscow and moved to Washington, DC, with my mom at age eight when she came to pursue a PhD. The last 10 to 20 years has been a process of rediscovering my Soviet Jewish identity: What actually defines Soviet Jewishness? For me, it’s not religion or language—it’s a particular kind of intelligentsia identity.

JA: That non-religiousness is its own marker of identity. I don’t remember a single Jewish event in my upbringing. I always felt a rift between American Jews and myself because I didn’t know that much about Jewish holidays. Now, I’ve found my own way of getting into things like Passover and Yom Kippur. But the Soviet Jewish families I grew up with held Jewish customs in quite a bit of contempt, as if they were somehow superior in their intellectual understanding of God.

RS: We are talking about a multiplication of identities, and being able to choose from them and also having them chosen for us, which really hits home for me. After 9/11, a cop would stop me thinking I was Muslim, and I knew I could signal my Jewishness somehow—especially in Queens—and immediately be safer. In junior high school, a kid once tried to rob me of like, my handball and said, “You won’t do anything about it because you are a kike.” And I said “no problem” in Russian with a stone face that I learned from American movies depicting Russians. And his friend was like, “Give it back to him, we don’t want Russians looking for us, Russians don’t give a fuck.” These identities were thrust upon us. And when we use them for our protection, we’re cast as chameleons, people who won’t settle on an identity.

JA: I once heard someone I respect a lot talk about people with our experiences as a bridge between different cultures. Thinking about it that way, instead of, “Oh, I am torn in so many directions, I don’t know what I am,” has changed my perspective on myself and where I fit into the world. There’s a shared collective trauma from the immigration experience, and from having lived in the USSR, that binds a broad community. I have found that sometimes I feel more cultural similarities with other immigrants than with other American Jews.

Moscow, 1989

Ania Aizman.
Julia Alekseyeva

“We are talking about a multiplication of identities, and being able to choose from them and also having them chosen for us.”

RY: I don’t know, I don’t really feel a solidarity with non-Jewish Russian immigrants. There’s a Ukrainian village in Chicago, and if I go there and ask for evreiskaya kielbasa [a Jewish-style deli meat] in Russian, I’m gonna get my ass handed to me. My dad got his teeth knocked out in Belarus because he looked like a Jew! He has memories of trying to hide his matzah on the way home because he knew the bullies would tell him there was blood in the matzah and call him a baby-killer.

GA: I’ve experienced some pretty shocking antisemitic incidents when I’ve gone back to Russia, so I feel like more of a Jew in Russia than in the US. But at the same time, if you look at Jews in the Soviet Union, they were overwhelmingly more likely [than non-Jews] to be educated and have white-collar jobs. There were cases where you couldn’t get into the right school, or you couldn’t be promoted, but compared to the vast majority of the Soviet population, Soviet Jews were actually pretty well off. There were a lot of victimization narratives that settled in the 1970s and ’80s. For me, the process of understanding my own social location has been about questioning those narratives and understanding that my family were beneficiaries of the Soviet Union as much as they were victims.

Ania Aizman [postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan]: Going back to Russia regularly, I’ve experienced sort of an antisemitism-“lite” there: people wanting me to meet other Jews really badly, making little forays into talking about money. At the same time, I encountered an anti-Russian, anti-immigrant sentiment growing up in Israel, where my parents emigrated from Moscow for work in the ’90s, when I was four. And then I had a few encounters with American antisemitism in California, after my family moved there from Israel for Silicon Valley jobs. Rivka, when you were talking about looking over your shoulder, feeling a little bit unsafe, this is an expression for us of trying to maintain whiteness: that feeling that at any moment, this safety net that we have created here, that we don’t feel our families had back in the Soviet Union, could fail—the veil could be lifted off of people’s eyes, and they’ll all know that we’re not really white, and then there will be quotas in the university and whatever else. Obviously, some of these fears are wildly inflated. And there are so many sinister aspects to the bargain of whiteness. It requires absorbing all the prejudice that we encounter among older Soviet generations against Black people and people of color in general. It’s hard for our generation to accept that.

Lana L. via Flickr

RY: I try to understand why my parents are so mad about, like, affirmative action. My dad, when he was 17 or 18, barely spoke English and was your classic full-mustache, Borat-like character. He got made fun of a lot. And he went to a minority job fair, probably intended for Black and brown folks in Chicago, and they said, “Sir, you’re not a minority.” And he said, “What do you mean? I’m poor, I’m Jewish, and I don’t speak English.” He got sent away. I think about that story when I consider why there’s such reactionary, scarcity-driven politics in the older generation, especially around race. Considering what the Soviet Union did to people with forced assimilation, forced identity, forced politics . . . Imagine what it meant for these people to come to America, where no one understands the context of who you are, and suddenly be racialized as white. They’re having a full-on identity crisis. I look at my dad now and think, “You’re a programmer, you’re fine.” But that must have felt awful. How do you empathize and say, “I see you, that must have sucked” without validating his politics or resentment?

RS: A lot of our elders and others have gravitated toward Trump, strongman politics, and fascism. But, during my upbringing, I got to hear these beautiful stories of real Jewish and Muslim solidarity against Soviet power: imams and rabbis figuring out how a Jewish kid can have a bar mitzvah without illegally starting a synagogue, for example, and using a mosque—which the Russians designated a “museum” for anti-religious reasons—instead. And how our Muslim neighbors might eat kosher food if they weren’t able to find Halal food. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any conflict between the two groups, but there was a lot of overlap. Then, after some time in the US, the stories changed: The very same people who used to tell stories of solidarity between Muslims and Jews are retelling those stories to be about fleeing Muslims. Even the people who were trying to sponsor Uzbeks and Tajiks and Tatars to come with us to the US are now saying that they were terrorists. One of the saddest aspects of my life is hearing these two stories from the same lips, to serve a changing political agenda, which now holds that Muslims and Jews can’t coexist, and that Jews must keep our own borders in order to be safe.

RY: When I talk to conservative post-Soviet, older generation folks, they don’t have conservative politics across the board. They are just so scared—everything is out of fear and scarcity. And when you’re coming from a place of scarcity, why would you—how could you—give to others?

I’m talking to my babushka [grandmother], who’s coming from this place of “socialism is shit.” I’m like, “Well, Babushka, is it possible that they didn’t practice socialism the right way?” And she’s like, “Of course, it’s possible, but from my experience, it was terrible.” It’s hard. What am I gonna do with that? Invalidate my babushka and
her experience?

I understand the older generation. The thing that stumps me more than anything is why there are people who are extremely conservative in the younger generation, and how to work with them. How do you organize people that could potentially see what I’m saying, but choose not to?

Busts of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin for sale in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Pierpaolo Mittica/Alamy

“I’m talking to my babushka, who’s coming from this place of ‘socialism is shit.’ I’m like, ‘Well, Babushka, is it possible that they didn’t practice socialism the right way?’ And she’s like, ‘Of course, it’s possible, but from my experience, it was terrible.’”

GA: For me, one of the biggest challenges is trying to figure out what to do with the Israeli part of my family, since most of my mom’s side eventually moved there. The experience of coming to America is an experience of confusion, trauma, identity crisis, and so forth. Whereas the experience of coming to Israel seems to just be rapid enrollment into this ethnonationalist project. The whole part of my family that went to Israel is now very pro-Trump, very identified with Zionism, very racist.
I’m struggling to find some way to mend some of those divides.

AA: Having been part of an activist environment where call-out culture was really the name of the game, I’ve come around to a different view on how organizing has to work. It is a very personal situation of connecting with your family and your immediate community. It’s very difficult to pull off, and you fail constantly, but I think you have to keep trying. It’s really exhausting.

JA: I live in Central Brooklyn and was a part of DSA for a while, and whenever it came to thinking about canvassing in Russian-speaking communities in Coney Island and Brighton Beach, they seemed to not even want to touch it. It was really hard to convince people that it’s not impossible to reach these people.

My family is deeply conservative now, but years ago, they actually believed in the Communist project, and were really disappointed when the whole thing fell apart. They were working-class folks, not in the intelligentsia, who emigrated from Kiev because they were worried about greater antisemitism after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Therefore, in my family, there’s a lot of discussion of how life was actually better in the Soviet Union. They couldn’t figure out a way to build community here and didn’t really access the American dream. My family just could not assimilate—it just didn’t take. There was constant talk about return. But, a return to what? In former Soviet territories now, the iconography, colors, clothing, and music that my family grew up with are treated with disdain. One of the things that I associate with a Soviet Jewish identity is “toska,” a feeling of melancholy about a country that no longer exists.

Rostov-on-Don, ca. late 1980s.

Oksana Mironova

The 1980 Olympic Mishka mascot, Mishka, Chernobyl.

Okla Michal/AP

“One of the things that I associate with a Soviet Jewish identity is ‘toska,’ a feeling of melancholy about a country that no longer exists.” 

RS: There are so many doors there that organizers could walk through. My family always tells me that they pity me for not having the experience that they had in their childhood in the Soviet Union, where they didn’t have to worry about certain things. Even the most right-wing people in my family might say, “How does it feel to grow up without health care, unlike when we were kids?” We could potentially help decode that; we have our feet on both sides and that’s really valuable. But leftist organizers have to find a common language with our communities; it’s going to be very different from how they talk to American liberals, for example.

I was once asked by a local DSA chapter that I really like and respect to translate some material into Russian. I couldn’t do it, but also, I wouldn’t do it: I wouldn’t translate all their materials into Russian so that they could give it to former Soviets, without any consideration of what language and messaging they’re using—like taking for granted that everyone reading believes capitalism is a failure, when some groups view it as having saved them—or even the use of the color red. I was like, “Are you trying to completely fail? The best thing for this material is if you don’t ever find a translator.”

AA: It’s interesting that about half of us in this conversation are tenant organizers. That was another guarantee—housing!—that people in the Soviet Union could count on.

OM: For me, my housing work is 100% connected to my immigration experience: to early housing insecurity, and ending up in public housing in New York, and being able to access public housing partially due to the support of Jewish institutions, because of the complicated nature of the applications . . .

JA: Absolutely. So many of us grew up in and around public and subsidized housing. I can’t help but have very tender feelings toward public housing, especially housing that looks like a Khrushchyovka [Khrushchev-era communal apartment building]. I’ve had friends in architecture say, “Oh my god, these buildings are horrible, they’re falling apart.” But I look at that and think, look at all the affordable or free housing that didn’t get kept up, that is now being razed in Moscow and Kiev and various places in the former USSR. It’s probably misplaced nostalgia, but I can’t help but find something really enlightening about that kind of utopian housing project.

GA: I think one of the things that draws me, maybe subconsciously, to tenant organizing is that housing was such a fundamental part of the Soviet experience—not just in the sense of it being guaranteed, but also in the sense that the home was a site for all kinds of friendships and relationships. You spent so much time at home, which afforded a sense of intimacy and privacy, but also a bottom-up collectivity that you often didn’t find in the outside world. It’s one of the clearest sites of disjuncture between the Soviet part of my experience and the American part.

Yessentuki, ca. 1970s.

Oksana Mironova.

“Housing was such a fundamental part of the Soviet experience—not just in the sense of it being guaranteed, but also in the sense that the home was a site for all kinds of friendships and relationships.”

AA: This relationship to housing is in very stark contrast to American life for people from the former Soviet Union. I think this is one of those bridges, where explaining, for example, how young people are really rent burdened or how easy it is to slip into homelessness in the United States can really resonate with these older generations who just don’t want that for us or our friends. And you can do it without applying labels in ways that make people uncomfortable, and certainly without using the flag of a totalitarian state.

OM: I’m always a little uncomfortable with the use of Soviet state iconography, like the hammer and sickle, by American leftists—not just because it’s kind of culturally appropriative, but because the Soviet Union was a carceral state. The reason why the book [by abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore] is called Golden Gulag, the reason the word gulag carries so much weight, is because the Soviet Union was a country that incarcerated one-fifth of its male population. At the same time, the fact that lots of people have been put in jail by a totalitarian regime doesn’t invalidate the anti-capitalist critique. Separating a repressive state apparatus from ideology is important.

@PortlandDSA via Twitter

“I’m always a little uncomfortable with the use of Soviet state iconography, like the hammer and sickle, by American leftists—not just because it’s kind of culturally appropriative, but because the Soviet Union was a carceral state.”

RY: I’ve been in spaces with anti-capitalist Jewish people where I can’t believe that they’re talking about the Soviet Union in this way, as if it was completely flawless. It’s funny because I’m like, “You sound like my dad when he was 17—that’s how he saw the Soviet Union, too, because he was manipulated into believing it!” But as Oksana said, it was a carceral state, rooted in white supremacy. It was, and is still, homophobic as fuck. We can take certain ideas from the Soviet Union without adopting everything wholesale.

GA: One of the things that’s really helped me has been connecting with some people in the Russian Socialist Movement back in Russia, a left-wing group that explicitly identifies itself as a democratic socialist party. They’re really engaged in figuring out what was good about the Soviet legacy, and what deserves to be preserved or recovered, and then rejecting what was bad about it. Take the way that some leftists talk about, for example, consumer goods shortages: They think of it as, “Oh, you’re not getting your Amazon boxes on time.” But, really, consumer goods shortages are a fundamental problem for society, especially if it’s medicine and other necessary things that people in the Soviet Union were constantly short of.

It’s very hard to get people here to stop clinging to the USSR as a vision of an ideal past. So I wish that the obsession with Soviet iconography in leftist spaces translated more often into a desire to learn about the Soviet Union, rather than the desire to use it as some kind of prop in American ideological debates. We’re not building the Soviet Union here. It’s pure fantasy.

AA: I think being part of an international movement is really crucial. It was game-changing for me to meet Israeli leftists and Russian leftists. I only discovered this Jewish socialist tradition a few years ago. Until then, I’d always thought that Jewish leftists just borrowed a random bunch of socialist and radical viewpoints. I didn’t know this leftist identity had a historical precedent. Even this accident by which radical politics skips a generation or two, and then you encounter it in your diasporic community—even that aspect of it is historical, part of this long process. It’s something to hold onto against this racist, authoritarian mindset prevalent in our immigrant communities. It’s been amazing for me to be able to claim that—to say, well, even if Jewish leftists are not the majority of Russian Jews, they’ve always been here. It’s a part of our heritage.

Julia Alekseyeva is an assistant professor of English and cinema and media studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the creator of the nonfiction graphic novel Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution (Microcosm Publishing, 2017).

Oksana Mironova is a writer and researcher who was born in the former Soviet Union and grew up in Brooklyn. She writes about cities, urban planning, housing, and public space.

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