The question I dislike the most is, “Where are you from?” My Eastern-European accent usually gives away the fact that I am not, should I say, local. Now that I live on the East Coast, I am often tempted to say that I am from Iowa, since that is where I previously lived. How do I convey to someone who expects a short answer, usually the name of a country, that I am from the collapsed Empire, a country that no longer exists, that I am from the newly independent Central Asian country of Uzbekistan, yet not ethnically Uzbek?
It is complicated. To say that I am Russian would mean to my American friends that I am from the country of Russia. I tried that and inevitably got questions about Russian politics or comments about a certain American TV show centered around a Russian sleeper cell. I am always at a loss as to how to respond to such comments. On the other hand, I didn’t want to mislead people by simply saying that I was from Uzbekistan because people usually assumed that I belonged to its ethnic people — Uzbeks, which I did not. I don’t look like one; I don’t speak the Uzbek language and, for the most part, share no religious and cultural identity. So, you see, my answer is not that straightforward.
When I first moved to the United States, I tried to give a thorough response which included a mix of the recent history of Eurasia and global geography. Most people did not seem to have interest in history and geography lessons when asking about my origins. Now, after living in the U.S. for some time, if someone asks me, I usually respond that I am ethnically Russian or that I was “born and raised” in one of the only two double landlocked countries in the world.
It has since occurred to me that those asking simply want to satisfy their curiosity and place me on a mental map of the globe. Perhaps, asking about my origins is their way of showing interest, courtesy, even hospitality. For me, it is an almost existential question that I need to answer truthfully first to myself and then to those who ask me. To be ethnically Russian in Uzbekistan means to belong to the remnants of the failed Empire. It is a precarious place to be because, while I may have had a sense of belonging to a group of people whose history, politics, arts, and sciences have dominated and continue to dominate vast post-Soviet territories, that history has always been contentious at best. Growing up, I was surrounded by the culture that produced Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov. This same culture is now associated with a massive social experiment of the past century that destroyed tens of millions of lives; a place where any change seems to be only for the worse, and where, to this day, martyrdom is almost certain for those who imagine things otherwise.
When there is no possibility of significant change for society as a whole, one can at least seek a better fortune for themselves. For emigrants like me, the West, and especially the United States, has always been a place individuals could turn to in pursuit of freedom to make positive changes to their lives and escape from political corruption, instability, weak and irresponsible governments, and paralyzing passivity.
Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, an émigré himself, wrote an essay on the paradox of freedom and society in the journal Noviy Grad (The New City), published in Paris by the Russian diaspora in the 1930s. He noted that Russians who were forced to move to Western Europe in the early 1900s after the Communist Revolution had to settle for lesser freedom — the material freedom of individual choices. Indeed, individual freedom was the best that the West had to offer. In Europe, young Russian immigrants were not free to change the world and create a new social order that would affect the change for everyone (while Soviets seemed to have an abundance of that freedom in Russia). Instead, Russian immigrants were only free to make choices that concerned their individual lives — what to think, say, eat, and pursue professionally. This is why, Berdyaev concluded, after some time, these immigrants complained that they no longer felt free in their new homeland.
It is hard to argue with Berdyaev on this point. I will admit that my move to the United States was primarily motivated by the pursuit of individual freedom. Nevertheless, individual freedom, however inferior, is no small thing, even if it means decision fatigue or adoption of a different way of life instead of changing the world. The process of adoption, however, is precisely that — a process of leaving behind what is known (the history, the language, the food, the people) and embracing the new and the unknown.
According to the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau, there were 40 million first-generation immigrants (born outside of the U.S.) and 36 million second-generation immigrants living in the United States. Combined, they constitute almost a quarter of the total U.S. population. Most of these first-generation immigrants came to the U.S because they wanted to be Americans. Yet, the process of adapting to American life looks different for different people. America symbolizes freedom for those outside its borders because it carries a certain sense of openness to possibilities; a chance to break away from the futility devoid of meaningful change. There are those, usually younger immigrants, who fully embrace this openness, trying to reinvent themselves or fulfill all that they thought they could be in the magical land of America. Others struggle to adapt and adopt the American way of life due to their appearance, poor language proficiency, or prior cultural and religious commitments, whose ties proved stronger than they had previously thought.
I, for one, seemed to belong to the first group, not least because I emigrated from a country where those ties were already very loose. Everything was new: country, city, daily routine. Every American flag on the house or a building caught my eye because it reminded me that I was in the United States of America. I so desperately wanted to not be a Russian from Uzbekistan, to the point that I stopped cooking Russian and Uzbek food once we moved to the U.S. All the borscht and plov I have had growing up should be enough to last a lifetime. I have opened myself to the new possibilities of being someone else. I embraced the narrative of personal achievement, trying to avoid the dreaded state of being a perpetual loser. After all, is it not why I came here in the first place ― to make something of myself, to use my talents and abilities to change the course of my life?
After a while, the sense of newness wore off, and I settled in the intermediate state of everyday grind punctuated by realization that not everything is “better” in America, that making something of oneself is hard work that requires sustained effort, sometimes edging dangerously close to physical and emotional exhaustion. But perhaps the most striking element of this stage was coming to terms with the fact that I remained very much an outsider lacking the history that could bind me to this land and its people.
For my immigrant self, America was a place of a new beginning. I disconnected myself from the culture and the land of my birth to start anew, only to realize that this new land has a history of its own, which it has been living out long before I arrived on its shores. It is a history of which I had no formal or intuitive knowledge, and more importantly, no sense of ownership. Knowing that, in theory, 40 million first-generation Americans could be in the same boat with me gave me a temporary sense of comfort. However, the fact that almost a quarter of the American population (including first and second-generation immigrants) has no direct link to such important events in American history as the Civil War, Abolition of Slavery, the Great Depression, etc., has enormous ramifications not only for policymaking but also for the way people form their national identity and collective self-understanding of what it means to be American.
Ever since my husband and I stepped on American soil, the local church was the primary social context where we felt a natural affinity to other people. We often moved from state to state due to my husband’s medical training. Everywhere we moved, we could count on finding a faith community that would accept us as their own, based on shared beliefs and core values. There were many faithful brothers and sisters who welcomed us into their homes, shared their things, and took care of us when we lacked support from our families. Yet, even in these churches, I felt anxious about not quite fitting in because whether I liked it or not, my experience of living and practicing my Christian faith outside of the U.S. made it obvious that so much that passed as genuine Christian beliefs, biblical standards, and Christian practices in the US would make little to no sense outside of an American cultural context. This sense of dissonance only grew stronger the longer I attended churches in the U.S. We were always someone’s “favorite Russians” or “Uzbekistanis,” whatever that meant. I found myself gravitating towards other immigrants who shared our experiences. It was almost impossible to create lasting friendships, especially with those born in the U.S. After some time, I gave up trying entirely.
Of course, I was no longer Russian or Uzbek. I had an Uzbek nationality and Russian ethnicity that connected me to Russian culture via language, history, literature, and shared experiences. But I had no strong affinity to either of these countries, their lands, or their ethos. At the same time, I did not feel thoroughly American either, even after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, because living through the fall of the Soviet Union, learning to live in a newly independent state, and then coming to America forced me to look at my various experiences in the U.S. as if from the outside peering inside. There was no way around the fact that it was hard for me to be one thing, a Russian, an Uzbek, or an American. I will always be somewhere in the middle and several things at once, especially in view of my commitment to the Christian faith. No amount of outer conformity to American life could mask a certain stubborn interiority that refused to conform to the singular version of the exterior life.
This state of being is best dramatized in the final scene of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, a movie about Andrei Gorchakov, a fictional Russian writer visiting Italy to research the life of an 18th-century Russian composer who lived in Italy a few years and committed suicide upon returning to Russia. In this film, we follow Andrei Gorchakov’s experience of extreme alienation from everything and everyone around him, despite the apparent beauty of the Italian scenery and his female companion. Yet, at the end of the movie, he finds himself transformed by this experience and, in the same state as the subject of his research — no longer able to fit in and live in either Russia or Italy. The movie ends with Andrei Gorchakov sitting outdoors in front of his childhood home with Russian folk songs heard in the background. Then, as the camera slowly retreats and the entire scene comes into view, we realize that Andrei and the house are surrounded by the enormous Gothic walls of the Abbey of Saint Galgano, a centuries-old monastery in Tuscany. I rewatched this movie recently for the first time since we moved to the States. The ending scene left me sobbing, much to the surprise of my teenage son, who rarely saw me cry and could not quite understand why this scene caused such emotional distress.
Starting a family changes a person’s life in a variety of ways. One of the most unexpected outcomes of having children born and raised in the U.S. was the effect it has had on adapting to life in America. It was no longer just about me. While I may always think of myself as somewhat of a cosmopolitan, my children helped me complete the process of binding myself to the American land. America is all my children know and can only conceive of themselves as Americans. At the same time, the seemingly mundane, yet so characteristically American daily tasks of driving on highways to work, taking children to daycare and playdates, grocery shopping, scheduling doctor’s appointments and getting braces, planning for college, comprised so much of my life in the past fifteen years, that this American quotidian has become the soil in which I finally grew my roots. In the end, what made me feel part of this country was not only its idea of individual freedom but ordinary living that over time helped me accrue a personal history with this place and appreciate the life I came to live here.
As I reflected on my experience, I came to realize that I have had the chance to live in two Empires with two opposing social orders and visions of the good life. As far as I can tell, both the Soviet Union and the United States experienced different levels of success and failure in implementing and exporting these visions. Living in America, at least, gave me a chance to build a life and experience some form of freedom, however limited.
Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.
Edward Trevelyan, Christine Gambino, Thomas Gryn, Luke Larsen, Yesenia Acosta, Elizabeth Grieco, Darryl Harris, and Nathan Walters, Characteristics of the U.S. Population by Generational Status: 2013, Current Population Report Issued November 2016 P23-214, p. 3.