I left the USSR for America. Now I feel like I shouldn’t have bothered

I believed in American freedoms — but now I see the country I immigrated to turning into an undemocratic, corrupt land of inequality

Margarita Gokun Silver
Friday 14 May 2021 20:13

The other day my daughter sent me a screenshot of an Instagram post. Taken from one of the accounts that satirize growing up in Soviet diaspora families, it featured a cropped image of a protestor with a sign that read: “My babushka did NOT flee the Soviet Union for this!” I could relate.

I came to the United States in May 1990, approximately two and a half years after I first raised the topic of emigration with my parents in our tiny Moscow kitchen. My father’s immediate response was a “no” and I spent the following year convincing him and my mother that leaving the Soviet Union wasn’t only imperative — it was urgent. With glasnost in its third year, antisemitism had crawled out of its government-sanctioned crevices and into broad daylight. Suddenly endowed with freedom of speech, antisemites of all denominations spewed their bigotry freely, unhindered either by editorial oversight or by the good-old-Soviet-censor decorum. On a few occasions, rumors of impending pogroms spread through Moscow and we spent several evenings sitting silently in a darkened apartment, hoping our neighbors wouldn’t point to our door should those pogroms reach our neighborhood.

For my parents — both engineers with careers firmly entrenched in the Soviet economy — a move into the unknown was particularly scary. They had very real fears about whether they would be able to build a new life in a foreign country, with foreign culture and using a foreign language. Yet for me, emigration held a promise. As a student with barely a year of university in my transcript, I didn’t — couldn’t — see a future in a country where institutionalized antisemitism had defined Jewish lives for generations.

My grandparents agreed with me. My grandmother, a physician during the infamous Doctor’s Plot of 1953, couldn’t wait to pack her suitcase; my grandfather, scarred by a not-so-distant job search during which doors shut in his face because of Jewish quotas, joined me in lobbying my parents. Both they and I wanted to live in a country where being a Jew didn’t come with fear and impossibly low ceilings.

In those days we thought of the United States as strana vozmozhnostei, the country of opportunity. Sure, some of our reasons to emigrate were economic — who wouldn’t want to never again see another line for butter or toilet paper? — but mostly we hungered for potential. We’d thought that if we worked hard, if we gave it everything we had, we could get somewhere. There was safety in the idea of this kind of equality, this kind of meritocracy — you didn’t need to be affiliated with the Politburo to have a decent life. By immigrating to Amerika we wanted not only to escape the virulence of Russian antisemitism, but to also have a shot at the American Dream.

We started like most Soviet Jews — on food stamps, on Medicaid, and at the mercy of the American job market that looked with suspicion on people with heavy accents who’d just arrived from what used to be Public Enemy Number One. But things improved and — aided in some cases by luck, in others by the warming intercontinental relationship following the disintegration of the USSR and, most likely, because of our white skin — we succeeded. My parents found professional jobs and I was able to finish the Bachelor’s degree I had started in Moscow and go on to complete a Master’s. It seemed as though the security, safety, and equality we sought when we had decided to immigrate to the US was a reality.

Then a year after graduation, work took me abroad. For the next two decades, I lived away from the US, mostly in countries with strong social safety nets. Speaking with American friends over the years I’d hear of medical bankruptcies, of soaring tuition costs, of their post-Columbine fear to send their kids to school. My parents would ask me when I planned to return to the US — the country I’d convinced them to immigrate to — and I’d answer that, as much as I wanted my daughter to grow up close to her grandparents, I would rather send her to a school where she didn’t have to experience regular active shooter drills.

And there was another thing that really bothered me: Corruption à la russe seemed to be taking root in the US. Aided by lobbyists and their crowning achievement, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United, big money was influencing election results, and Russian-style kleptocracy — born in the 1990s and strengthened by Putinism — was becoming just as common in Washington as the Russian magnates’ laundered investments in Miami beachside condos and Reno shell companies. Politicians propped by dark money passed tax laws to benefit their donors while refusing to raise minimum wage and the military-industrial-prison complex funneled government funds into the pockets of those who turned around and donated it to the compliant members of Congress. Thanks to tax loopholes that benefited the rich, income and economic inequality in the US grew far beyond its G7 counterparts to approximate that of oligarchical Russia.

If this greedy drive for power and wealth didn’t sound Putinesque enough, Trumpism amped up an onslaught on democracy by openly going after political opponents, cozying up to autocrats, and propagating lies about the 2020 election with a mastery that would make both the Politburo’s and today’s Kremlin propaganda machines proud. Persistent fact distortion — for a long time the domain of both Soviet and then Russian governments — seemed to have become modus operandi for many a US politician. And now, in an echo of Putin’s efforts to stay in power indefinitely, Republican Trumpists in many states have begun to escalate efforts to restrict voting.

Back on Instagram, the post collected its usual array of conspiracy theorists in the comments, people for whom the term “social safety net” equals socialism equals Stalin’s gulags. Clearly, babushkas elicited strong opinions on both sides of the political divide but, for me, one thing was clear: the US no longer appeared to be that strana vozmozhnostei I had idolized as a wannabe immigrant. And it wasn’t just the years spent away from the American shores in countries with social safety nets and stringent gun control laws that made me realize this — it was also the death of that secure future I had been dreaming about. No longer did America feel like somewhere stable enough to plant roots.

Today’s Amerika seems to be marching in the direction of offering the security, safety, and equality we sought only to the privileged few. These days, it’s looking more and more like the successor of the country that those babushkas — and my family — fled from.

Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer and freelance journalist. Her essay collectionI Named My Dog Pushkin (And Other Immigrant Tales) is forthcoming from Thread/HachetteUK in July 2021

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