I suppose it should come as no surprise. Despite geographic proximity to us, their American neighbors, recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU)—those who lived in Eastern Europe or Asian republics in the years after glasnost, during Yeltsin and in the Putin years—have a vastly different view of the world that informs most everything. When I first read a draft of Danielle Tcholakian’s feature story in this week’s issue, my first thought was, “We were silly to think it would be anything but this.” That Danielle’s piece is as readable as it is is a credit to her talent, experience and sense of story. I compliment her because, I must share, the interviews and views she recorded left our heads spinning. Kudos also to Andrew Holt, Marjorie Lipsky and other friends for their editing.
This was not an easy piece to report on. Fast-moving current events clouded conversations and created preconceived notions that needed to be checked. We also needed to understand generational differences, and withstand no small amount of hostility.
I’m 44 years old, so my experience with Russian Jewry is very different. My paternal grandparents were far-left Lower East Side, then Brooklyn, immigrants typical of the time. My Russian classmates were Soviet Russians fleeing persecution. We learned about the Jewish visas traded for massive grain exports and the plight of refuseniks, and Jewish groups of the time were active in causes to help bring families to America.
The Berlin Wall fell while I was in high school, so college was spent learning about the hows and whys of the collapse of the Soviet Union while it happened. If you want to be bored to tears, I’m happy to talk about the role of the permanent administrative state in subverting glasnost—the topic of a senior-year thesis.
The Yeltsin years, as we know, saw the rise of privateering robber barons, and the humbling of a superpower. The Russian president, remember, attacked parliament with artillery while former Soviet republics spun out of control, still with massive weapons stockpiles. It was inevitable that a reconsolidation would happen. Things simply couldn’t continue as they were. Putin was the right strong leader at the right time, and then he defined the times, and still does.
Russian Jews from this glasnost-Yeltsin-Putin era have a very different relationship with the state, with authority, from Soviet immigrants of years earlier. Libraries are filled with the role and impact of the Soviet state on people’s lives and families. There was no official private life, so a black-market private space needed to be made. The state was everything, including the market.
In post-Soviet life, the market is everything, and the state has recaptured it from the privatization cronies. It is raw capitalism, favoring the connected and wealthy close to the state, at the expense of regular folks either still stunned by the past two decades or too young to have experienced anything but this.
They know the fix is in, but still respect the strongman talking tough about their place in the world, shared nationalist sensibilities and anger towards elites who condescend. They agree with the media machine built around delivering that message in ways both subtle and obvious. Sound familiar?
Contrast all of the above with the solidarity on display at this past Sunday’s Celebrate Israel Parade. This was an actual event—a crowd, floats, bullhorns, schools marching, music, spectacle in celebration—not false news, not defiantly held opinions opposite reality, not fake facts. There were disagreements on display at Sunday’s parade, but within the context of a shared understanding. There was a physicality to the day, nothing virtual.
Russia is again a powerful world actor. Putin, and by extension his admirers there and here, see themselves as realists. They thought Obama and Hillary Clinton were naive for supporting the Arab Spring, and—not without reason—blame the horrific slaughter in Syria on American do-goodism. What we see as strengths—diversity, argument, opposition, organizing, the overall messiness of democracy—modern Russia (and perhaps Russia always) sees as weakness. This worldview fits with Trump’s bluster, though of course Putin is a far more sophisticated thinker.
All in all, Danielle did a masterful job conveying all the above.