An ongoing photo series sharing the stories and examining the challenges of Russian-Soviet immigrants in the United States
Natalia. Owner of a Russian store in Rhode Island.
Soviet boys and girls grew up with a mentality of “Ya - poslednyaya bukva v alfavite” (Letter I, also meaning "oneself", is the last letter in the alphabet). In America, it’s the opposite.
American mothers at a playground exclaim enthusiastically at a crumbly pile of sand “good job!!!” They encourage their kids from a very young age. A Russian mother would say “no this is wrong, do this again, that's not the way we do it”. Everyone had to be like everyone else. They even made left-handed children hold a pen in their right hand. Do you see? All this is taking away the freedom from a person to be themselves. Its little things, but combined together create a bigger feeling of being discouraged starting from a very young age, from being free. People develop very low self-esteem.
When a person closed off like that comes here to States, the effect of it is that of a cultural shock. It was a very difficult time for me when I came here at first. I couldn't speak. I didn’t know who I was. I was taken away from what I knew all my life. It took me thirty years to finally become comfortable with other Russian-Americans, Americans and myself.
My home is here! In Cranston. This is my family. This is my country. All my friends are here. I don’t miss anything, not even the slightest bit.
I was just thrown into the mix. Everybody already knew everything and everyone, but I was the odd-man out. I was in 5th grade when we moved to States from Uzbekistan. I count say a word in English. People immediately concluded I was anti-social. But I just couldn’t fucking understand them, I am not anti-social. As as a kid, you know… That trauma was so absorbed into me. It doesn’t affect me now though.
When you are an immigrant you need the time to adjust. But in this system, you don’t have time to adjust. You have to jump into work, raise kids, get money. It becomes hard to get up the ladder because there are so many other responsibilities. That’s why a lot of the pressure is thrown onto first generation kids. I could say that I don’t have the same opportunities as a person who’s parents grew up here. My parents don’t know the system, so I have to go the extra mile to figure it out by myself.
I can’t really say I have a home. To me a home is somewhere I feel safe and it's permanent. Right now I don’t have that physical space, but my relationship makes me feel safe and at home.
Natalia. Employee of a Russian Store
I feel safe here. We couldn’t stay in Estonia no more. My daughter has Williams syndrome. She couldn’t leave my side. All facilities for people with special needs closed up. There were no opportunities. No jobs. All the factories closed. In ex-soviet republics these disabled kids, you know, they have no future. And so when I was 42 years old, we moved with my family to America. Here my daughter went to school, now she has a job. Teachers nurtured her and brought her up.
My house is here. I feel at home and at peace. When I come back to Estonia, I feel like a visitor. But here it’s wonderful. I have a family, a wonderful backyard. I have a job, I have a pension. It's not much, but I earned it. You know, here its calmer. It's safer. Actually, today is a special day for me. My granddaughter was born! I am a babushka.
Raisa. Employee of a clothing store
There is an expression in Russian “Хорошо там,где нас нет” ( The grass is greener on the other side). But you know, I have to say. I have no bad feelings. I love Russia. There is no hatred within me. But of course, it is easier to admire things at a distance. I moved around a lot and even lived in Syria for a little bit. But I miss Russia, I truly do. I miss my school uniform with shining white bows. I miss throwing on a pair of sweatpants and running out into the boundless golden fields. But none of that remained. It’s just a faded memory.