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Unity of the Dissimilar?

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Unity of the Dissimilar?


The Russian world abroad is often referred to as “Russia outside of Russia.” At the same time, most researchers and the journalists who follow them, assuming it is possible to talk about a Russian diaspora, apply the term only to the first and second waves or generations of emigrants. Although it might seem otherwise at first glance, in this case there is no contradiction. A diaspora is not only a certain ethnic and demographic community, but above all it is a model of worldly behavior and a unified system of values. “A diaspora is distinctive cultural community built on the basis of a common understanding of the motherland, as well as collective communication and group solidarity shown to the homeland that is built on this basis. If there are no similar characteristics, then there can be no diaspora,” writes Valery Tishkov.

During the 20th and early 21st centuries, our country experienced four waves of emigration. They had little in common with one another, and their representatives mixed infrequently. In this regard, to speak of collective ties, group solidarity, and a common relationship to the motherland is rather difficult. Different generations of emigrants have a mutual dislike and for one another, which occasionally borders on open hostility. Some experts believe that this is linked with different attitudes to Russia. Some left alone and with bitterness, whereas others left voluntarily and even with joy. The last feeling applies only to part of the fourth wave of emigrants, although all the waves experience tension.

The only thing that unites every generation of Russian emigrants is the model of social and cultural adaptation that they have chosen, which in fact has meant separation or an aspiration to maintain their own Russianness and culture while at the same time repudiating the culture (at least popular culture) of their adopted countries. First wave emigrants and, to a lesser extent, those from the second wave placed their relation to Russia, the preservation of their own cultural values and, in general, “everything Russian” above all else. Thus, our emigrants in Paris during the 1920s-1930s could live without having virtually any contact with the French. Assimilation of our emigrants, as many researchers like Mark Raev have noted, occurred only under extreme necessity. For example, many young men could not find a spouse among the Russian community and instead got married to Frenchwomen.

The quest for a separate existence was peculiar to many members of the third wave of emigrants, particularly Russian-speaking Jews. Life in Brighton Beach showed that emigrants from the Soviet Union were not only reluctant to join American society but also had a weak interest in American life in general. “No, I don’t know what’s happening in America, we hardly ever go there.” As the saying goes, every joke has a share of jokes. Soviet emigrants in Israel are set apart by the same sort of recalcitrance. In fact, they are very active in disseminating their own culture, which is essentially Russian. Soviet songs like “Don’t cry, girl!” that have been translated into Hebrew are quite popular in the Israeli army. In divisions of the German army where many Soviet (Russian) Germans serve, quite a few officers found it necessary to learn Russian. The same has applied to the German police officers who have worked in areas that emigrants from Russia and the CIS have settled.

Even the post-Soviet emigrants, particularly those who settled in the United States and who initially tried to pass themselves as more Catholic than the Pope and become “more American than Americans” eventually began to change their behavior. First, they all realized the futility of their intentions. They realized that it was impossible to become one hundred percent American. Second, they could become convinced that the individualistic American (and the entire Western) culture valued their uniqueness and diversity. Once this was the case, then voluntarily deriving oneself of original ethnic differences seemed impractical at the very least. Many now, in contrast, strongly emphasize their “Russianness.” One of the few exceptions is found in those who leave the country due to marriage. They often try to assimilate as quickly as possible, especially for the sake of their children.

The same desire for separation, for isolation of sorts, exists not only with respect to the indigenous population but also with respect to each of the different waves of Russian emigrants. Usually contradictions between emigrants of different generations can be reduced to “hostility” toward the fourth wave of emigrants, as well as toward everyone else.

Such a view is not completely irrational, as the difference between post-Soviet emigration and all the previous waves are striking. During the Soviet era, emigration was forced and irreversible; often leaving the country was the only alternative to imprisonment or death. By emigrating, a person de facto dropped all ties with the motherland. The fourth wave was characterized by voluntary emigration and for many of our countrymen, especially in the black 1990s, emigration was even desirable.

Finally, something entirely different began to motivate emigrants. Whereas years ago the rejection of one form or another of the prevailing socio-political order was grounds for leaving the country, after the collapse of the Soviet Union people left mainly for economic reasons.

Incidentally, economic motives have become the main cause of ill will toward post-Soviet emigrants on the part of those who decided to remain in Russia. According to various social surveys, many of those remaining in Russia wanted to emigrate themselves, or at least consider the possibility. At the same time, however, they condemned those who already left.

As for the emigrants of the first, second and, in part, third waves, as well as their descendants, they were just as shocked as the indigenous inhabitants of Europe, the United States and Canada at the newest arrivals.

Anna Polyanskaya, a journalist from the Paris-based Russkaya mysl, is quite unflattering, to say the least, in her characterization of the “new emigrants” from Russia and the CIS:

“Europe has united and the Iron Curtain has fallen. Settling permanently in Paris, the city of the eternal Russian dream, are no longer passengers of the Philosophy Steamer, members of the White Guard, writers, artists, dissidents, human rights activists or even the notorious Russian mafia. What we have today are Moldovan farmers, carpenters and drivers from Kazakhstan, petty criminals from Moscow, unskilled workers from Voronezh, auto mechanics from Bryansk, hair stylists from Kazan, Georgian cooks, prostitutes from the villages of Ukraine and cattle herders from Belarus. The list is endless. Most of them come from towns and villages, sometimes ones that are so small that they don’t even make the map. Doctors or engineers among them are extremely rare.

“The French are in shock. The hard drinking and criminalized lower classes and the marginalized, so easily identifiable in the CIS by their characteristic faces, manners, expressions and gestures, the abundance of gold jewelry, the permanent state of semi-drunkenness, the unrestrained profanity – these are what demonstrate the mysterious Russian soul to the French today…

“The main feature of the fourth wave is a sincere belief that everyone owes them something, whether it be France, the church, or any compatriot bystander. They do not request but demand: money, residence permits, apartments, social insurance benefits, free ham and everything else under the sun. Add to this their reluctance and inability to learn French (or any other language).”

Of course, the fourth wave is not only made up of low class and assorted criminal elements, but also of academics, professionals and entrepreneurs. The article quoted above obviously cannot be taken as an objective study of post-Soviet emigration, but it is quite possible to judge the author’s attitude to the massive influx of people, as well as the attitude of many older emigrants.

Another reason why the older emigrants dislike the newer ones has to do with the reluctance of the latter (not all, of course, but many) to maintain close relations with their compatriots, including those who left earlier. “Whereas the first, second and third waves of Russian emigrants would at least meet in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Rue Daru, the fourth wave doesn’t even go to church. They only go places where they are given something,” says Polyanskaya. According to social surveys, the desire to preserve interethnic communication prevails among the first two waves of emigrants, although it shows a pronounced tendency to weaken with the later groups.

In turn, emigrants of the post-Soviet era often refer to their predecessors as freaks who are nostalgic for an irrevocably bygone era and loyal to long-outdated ideals. There is mutual dislike (and always has been), and it does not only affect the last and the previous three waves of emigrants.

The first serious contradictions within the emigrant camp already began to emerge in the 1940s. During the war, many emigrants spoke in support of the Soviet Union. For them the Great Patriotic War was primarily a continuation of a centuries-old struggle against a dark Teutonic force rather than a clash of two totalitarian regimes. Accordingly, refugees from Soviet rule, who formed the basis of the second wave of emigration, were viewed as Nazi collaborators.

In addition, during the first post-war years, many emigrants from the first wave had a peculiar and even squeamishness or dismissive attitude toward those who had recently moved to the West. According to Archpriest Dmitry Konstantinov, the second wave were treated “as something very little, Soviet, inexplicable, ignorant, and possibly even partly wild. What kind of culture or science do they have!?” In short, the first emigrants brought with them everything of intellectual, scientific and creative significance. Although these kinds of myths did not exist for long, they nevertheless spoiled relations between the two groups.

Post-war emigrants did not hesitate to accuse the previous generation of snobbery (quite reasonably, as we have seen) in their efforts to “live for yesterday” and in their inability and unwillingness to fight a common enemy. This accusation was not groundless either. Pro-Soviet sentiment in many countries (for example, in France and Argentina) was primarily held by the first wave of emigrants. These were people who, as Konstantinov writes, were not familiar with the realities of Soviet life, and felt that “in the Soviet Union, while perhaps not paradise on earth, a system of just working relations had been established.”

As for the third wave of emigrants, especially the dissidents, the “old emigrants” on the one hand treated them with sympathy as victims of the regime. At the same time, they were often perceived as alien and incomprehensible carriers of Soviet traditions and culture. And, most importantly, for the first and second waves of emigrants, the meaning of life centered on creating and maintaining “Russia outside of Russia,” whereas for the politically active part of the third generation the main task was to overthrow the Soviet regime, to fight against the “Evil Empire.”

Obviously, all these contradictions within the different waves of Russian emigration over time have lost their urgency. Gradually “pure” emigration began to cease, and it has simply not provided heirs. The descendants of those who evacuated from the Crimea in 1920 or who risked their life to flee to West Germany from the zone of Soviet occupation in 1945 became normal and upstanding citizens of Western countries. The breakup of the Soviet Union allowed dissidents to return home, and many of them took advantage of that right. At that time a real opportunity to establish stable links between Russia and other countries appeared. Most of the old political and ideological differences between individual waves of emigrants lost their relevance, and emigration ceased to be primarily political in nature. Now, a growing number of Russians living abroad see their future not as much in association with like-minded people in a political and ideological sense but rather in establishing and maintaining links with the motherland.


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