Zinaida Serebriakova, Family Portrait
Editor’s note: This post was written by a mother and a daughter, to each other.
I was born and lived in the Soviet Union for the first thirty years of my life. Twenty-five years ago, I immigrated to the United States. I lived through socialism, perestroika, the starvation of the late 1980s, and the failed communist putsch in 1991. The Soviet Union was a bad country for its citizens – and for some other countries’ citizens as well – but it was the country where I learned to talk, went to school, made my first friends, and fell in love. It is the country of my childhood memories and my youth.
The older I get, the more I remember things from my past, people I met, places I traveled. I close my eyes and see my mom holding my hand. She is alive, beautiful, and much younger than I am now. We are walking along the creek near our хрущеба – our one-bedroom apartment (the result of mass housing construction initiated by Khrushchev.)
She is gathering wild flowers: St John’s Wort, chamomile, celandine. She is explaining to me that we will dry and press them, and use them in the winter time to remedy possible illnesses. Under socialism people had to be very resourceful and rely on themselves. Food, medicine, clothes, household items – everything was in high demand and there was not enough for everybody. So people were adapting, innovating, surviving.
These skills come in handy when one immigrates. But no matter how good a survivor you are, changing a country is no walk in the park. It did get much easier in the last hundred years, but each immigrant pays his own dues.
America hit me like a brick with colors, smells, smiles. I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. And I loved it from first sight. I tried very hard to become American. As I learned how to be American, I also learned a lot about my Jewish culture and history, of which I knew very little growing up. I studied English, I refreshed my professional skills, and I was rewarded.
Almost all my life in America, I’ve worked in the profession I studied in the Soviet Union. Most people I met here are kind, tolerant, welcoming and willing to help. And the ones who are not, I avoid. But there were very few of them. Do I feel different than an American-born person? Yes, I am different. I will speak accented, incorrect English for the rest of my life. When I say I am from Pennsylvania, people smile knowingly. I carry my Soviet past with me, sometimes subconsciously, like a second skin. But I feel American. I have no other country I can call my home. This is my home now. I feel relieved when, after a vacation, my plane lands and the custom officer says “Welcome to the USA.”
I am very grateful to this country. I am grateful for the opportunity, for the chance for a better life for me and my kid, for the experience of a lifetime. I am rooting for this country, I want it to succeed.
However, the rose-colored glasses I wore when I first came got a bit dimmer. It pains me to see people being shot in malls and movie theaters, lost youth becoming addicts, littered streets, outdated infrastructure. I hate seeing people scheming ways to trick the system in any way, and I particularly loathe when immigrants are doing it.
It breaks my heart to see this country so polarized. I suspect the answers lay somewhere in the middle, not on the right or the left side. But both sides are digging in. I hear some propaganda language that reminds me of Soviet movies about the Great October Revolution. I imagine a huge pendulum swinging from pivot: left, right, left, right.
I worry that motion will become too strong, and that the mechanism will defy the law of gravity. But then I look at history and see that it is not the first time, it had happened before. And this country pulled through and kept going. That gives me a lot of hope. I am an optimist. I can’t be anything else. For my own sake and for the sake of my American-born granddaughter.
My dear loved ones,
Even though you live only twenty minutes away and we see each other almost every day, I think about you a lot. Specifically, I think about you when I get Amazon packages. Sippy cups, diapers, women’s shoes, laundry detergent, emergency Nutella – it all comes to our house because, with a toddler, we just don’t have the energy to make the fifteen-minute trek in the comfort of our own car to the local Target.
I think about how privileged and lazy I am, when you stood for hours and hours in Soviet lines for food, in all kinds of weather conditions, to get potatoes, baby formula, bread. I think about how, even though grinding misery of everyday life in the Soviet Union was hell, you were still scared to give up everything you knew.
I am now the age you were when you left, and I still can’t imagine the enormity of what you went through. I become paralyzed with fear when I think about giving up everything – my American passport, English, my job, my house, and yes, my Amazon deliveries, and leaving for some far unknown.
It’s true: I grew up American, comfortable, soft, and I can only imagine what you did for me at a distance, like an amateur climber looking at someone scaling Everest.
But then, I think about the sharp edges you’ve had to develop to survive Russia.
You made it through because you knew that there was no human decency, that strangers couldn’t be trusted, that everyone had to cling to their wits, their ability to second-guess human nature. Смекалка, that quality, has no equivalent word in English. And, I think that we are so fortunate that we don’t need those skills here.
Because America is not sharp edges – at least, not yet. From the financial help from HIAS, to the clothes from Jewish charities, to the hundreds of small graces strangers have allowed us as we were gaining our footing, our family’s life in America has been built on reaching out rather than withdrawing.
By virtue of growing up in a household where the other (which included the government and anyone we didn’t know personally) was always viewed with suspicion because it made sense to do so in the Motherland, I’ve grown up cynical. I always assume the money I’m donating to charity is going to be somehow misappropriated, I assume most people in executive positions get their jobs because they know someone rather than have talent, and I don’t believe America is much less corrupt than the country we left – it just wears corruption differently.
But, as much as I’ve grown up Russian, I’ve also grown up American. I believe in openness as a defining value. I believe that when someone asks you for a favor, you should do it, regardless of what’s in it for you. I believe in an America where people help each other instead of elbowing aside and saying that people don’t belong, particularly if those people are of a different religion or ethnic background than us. I believe in an America where both sides can participate in political debate without calling each other names. I believe in what America stood for when we first came here, open-eyed and slack-jawed, breathless with wonder at the simple freedom of being able to pick from ten different cereals at the grocery store.
I cannot thank you enough for what you had to go through to get us here, what you have given up. But the skills that got us here were from a different, scary, country, and they won’t help us here in our America, and I’m hoping now, more than ever, that we all, as a community, realize that.