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Making the Russian Presence in America More Visible
The Russian diaspora in the USA has been shaped by several different currents — coming from Europe, China, and South America. What brings these people together? Why was there a pressing need to found the Congress of Russian Americans, which sees the fight against Russophobia as one of its main tasks? The President of the Congress of Russian Americans, Natalie Sabelnik, explains.
- We ended our previous interview by talking about how a large group of refugees from Tubabao moved to the US. Tell us how these people established themselves: What did they do and how did they find work?
- Of course, it was different for each of them, but most of them were prepared to take up any work available in order to survive. My dad was a nobleman and White officer — he worked as a security guard in Shanghai, then in the police. In those years it was very difficult to establish oneself in the US without knowing the language. It was even harder since papa was already 45 when he came to US. And like many, many others he went to work as a janitor. And he always told me: “Never be ashamed of any kind of work, always perform it honestly and conscientiously. And it’s better to work than to live on welfare.” Though there was no welfare back then. Today people get welfare and food stamps when they come here and can’t find work right away, but back then there was no such thing.
My dad didn’t miss a day of work, except when he was in the hospital for an operation; otherwise, he would always go to work, even when he was sick. And he told me over and over again: “Always take pride in the fact that you work.”
- Russian refugees had a hard time in Australia as well—many of them worked on plantations…
- Yes, our relatives who moved to Australia from Tubabao had to earn their right to emigrate there. The men worked in construction, doing the most difficult physical labor to pay back the money spent on their journey. And Australia would accept precisely those who were young and could work a lot.
—How did your parents find a place to live?
- They arrived in San Francisco. Since my mother was from a Cossack family, we were first taken in by the All Cossacks Union of San Francisco. We lived in a room they gave us for the first week. We found one of dad’s acquaintances: Leonid Petrovich Benkhin, who owned a jewelry store. At one time he and my dad had studied together at the Chita military academy. Leonid Petrovich found work for my father, as well as a room in a house where many Russians lived. My parents were very grateful to him—every year my mom would send him a bouquet of flowers on his Name Day.
— Did San Francisco already have a large Russian community?
— Yes, some Russians had moved straight to the States from China. And there were some who had moved there from Europe back in the ’20s. Russian refugees built a very large cathedral in San Francisco after collecting the money for it a penny at a time. It is interesting that they called it Joy of All Who Sorrow, just like the old cathedral. At first they wanted to close the old church, but many in the congregation were indignant at the idea of closing a place of worship. And so San Francisco has two Orthodox cathedrals with identical names: Joy of All Who Sorrow.
Holy Virgin Cathedral, or “Joy of All Who Sorrow,” in San Francisco
— How close-knit and friendly was the Russian community at that time?
— I would say that it really was very friendly. There were several factors. Hardly anyone had a television, which meant that everyone went to visit everyone else. A Russian Center appeared there as early as 1939. It was a German club initially, but then many Russian organizations pooled together and bought the building. They would constantly throw charity balls. For instance, they gave a lot of aid to World War I veterans.
There was a Russian library and some sweets shops. Then our compatriots started opening Russian restaurants. There was a lot that brought us together: emigration from Russia, life in China, several years in Tubabao…This was our common fate.
—What about the children of those who moved to America—how successful were they in integrating into American society?
—When I started at an American school I didn’t speak English. But it’s easier for children. I remember my first day at school: the teacher asked me what I would like, but I couldn’t respond and I drew an apple on a piece of paper. It was hard then, and I would come home from school in tears. Mom asked what was going on, and I would say that people judged me for being Russian, calling me a “Communist” and a “Red.” But I didn’t even understand what that meant. And mom told me to tell them that I wasn’t a Red but a White. Of course, that didn’t really help—they started calling me “pink” instead of “red.” This was when McCarthyism was rampant in the States, and they judged all Russians to be Communists without thinking. This was why the Congress of Russian Americans was founded—to fight this Russophobia. What’s more, the Congress of Russian Americans is not just a local organization but a national one. It was founded in New York and has branches in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Colorado, Chicago, and Florida.
— Who initiated this organization?
—NGOs representing various nations would gather at the United Nations, but there were no Russians. And then someone had the idea to band together and found the Congress of Russian Americans. Its first president was Eugene A. Alexandrov, who wrote the Biographical Dictionary of Russian Americans containing information about many Russians living in America. And the organization’s main task was to fight against Russophobia. Even today this problem remains. If during Soviet times we had to say that we weren’t Communists or “Reds,” today we don’t say that — we’re all Russians.
When the Soviet Union fell, we started helping out Russians in Russia, primarily children. We built a shelter near Nerekhta. We helped orphanages in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don, and Pskov. These were just the cities where we had representatives whom we trusted and were sure that the money we sent would go where it was intended.
We had a drive to give shelter to a family — that is, we wanted to help a particular family in Russia. And it’s interesting that we had, for instance, one Mexican participating in this drive, as he also wanted to help a family from Russia. There was a family with three children whose father had died. And this Mexican sent them a hundred dollars a month. And then he even went to Russia himself to meet them. He bought them a washing machine and a cell phone for each child. And this assistance continued for many years.
The state university in California wanted to close its Russian language program. I met with the mayor and the university president. I wrote letters explaining there was a rich history connected to Russians in California. And we succeeded in saving the Russian language program.
We also wrote petitions addressed to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in opposition to closing the Fort Ross park. Schwarzenegger was planning to close it on account of a lack of funds. But this didn’t happen, thanks to our appeals. After that the Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg got involved. His charitable foundation built a windmill there and sponsored a film about Fort Ross, as well as some cultural and educational measures.
— When there was a new mass emigration from Russia in the 1990s, how did the old and new generations of the emigration come to work together?
– It was complicated. Even when we moved from China there were similar complications. I remember that one of my acquaintances was shocked when he found out I had come from China, and he told me: “I always thought you were from Europe.” And the ones who came from Europe looked down on the “Chinese” ones. Then, ten years after us, Russians started arriving from South America. The “Europeans” and the “Chinese” had already bonded by that time and they regarded the “South Americans” with disdain. Later on they regarded Russians from Russia in the same way. There was much that sounded “off” about their accent and expressions.
Now, let’s talk about assimilation. Some people tried to forget their Russian right away. It was totally different in my family. After the American school, I would go to a Russian school, as did my children later. You would go to American school, come home at 3 in the afternoon, change into your uniform and go to Russian school at 4 o’clock. I would go twice a week, and my children went three times—including on Saturdays from the morning until 1:30. And on Sundays too we would have to get up early, in order to go to a church service. Our piano and ballet lessons could only be taken with Russian teachers.
I had a friend who immigrated from Kiev in the mid-1970s. He had twins and his wife left him. Now his children don’t speak Russian at all, because he wanted it to be easier for them to assimilate. And somehow I ended up talking with his son, who admitted to me that he blames his father for not teaching him Russian.
It was very touching for me when my oldest daughter finished Russian school and at the graduation ceremony said: “Of course, we chided our parents for making us go to one more school. But now I am very grateful to them because we didn’t just learn a second language, we learned our native language.”
– What does the Congress of Russian Americans do today?
– Russophobia is still a problem. Just days ago I wrote a letter to President Trump congratulating him on taking office and thanking him for his support of Russia in his speeches. It’s crucial for two countries of such magnitude to be on friendly terms and to help each other. But today there’s one-sided propaganda against Russians. By the way, Reagan was a great friend of the Congress of Russian Americans. Several years ago I also wrote a letter to President Obama on the behalf of the Congress of Russian Americans. Our Congress is a serious and respected organization with thousands of members. They fill out forms to join and pay membership dues. So I wrote to Obama: Why is there such one-sided propaganda against Russians? I also wrote about the history of the Crimea — that it was always Russian territory, and one needs to know this history. Of course, Obama didn’t respond.
At a meeting of the Congress of Russian Americans
Incidentally, on the topic of knowing history: we regularly conduct lectures on Russian-American history. We commemorated the 150-year anniversary of the important historical event when the Russian Tsar Alexander sent a squadron of ships to help President Lincoln. This year we will mark the 200-year anniversary of the Russian fortress in Hawaii, the 150-year anniversary of the sale of Alaska, and the 100-year anniversary of the October Revolution. We will give out scholarships for studying in Russian language programs. We organize youth festivals. We will also hold a Russian Children’s Day when we will collect money to aid those in need. We are trying to make the Russian presence in America more visible.