Riding the Waves of Russian Immigration

Once, one of my friends asked me to say something in Russian, my native language. I did so. The reaction that followed was beyond all my expectations — it was a reaction of astonishment. Puzzled, I asked, “What did you expect from that?” “I thought your voice would change. I thought it would become low, maybe husky, like how Russian spies or bodyguards speak in the movies.”

In the year since I moved from Russia, I have encountered all kinds of weird reactions. Some stereotypes are amusing, some are correct, like the notion that Russians love vodka. Others, however, are utterly incorrect. For instance, the one that Russian immigrants support Putin. Russians for the most part support Putin, while Russian immigrants do not.

Traditionally, there are five waves of immigration identified. Let me introduce them, who they are, why they immigrated and what their political stances would most likely be. To understand who present Russian-Americans are, it is important to consider the last three.

The third wave happened from the 1970s to the 1980s. By 1970, a lot of people, typically Jews, wanted to immigrate but were prevented from doing so by the Soviet Government. Thanks to Western pressure, including student protests in the University of California, the Soviet Union allowed for the emigration of Jews. Those third-wave immigrants usually hate Putin because of his nationalistic rhetorics and silent support of anti-semitism.

The fourth wave happened during the collapse of the Soviet Union in the ‘90s. These immigrants fled from the declining economic, political and social systems to pursue new opportunities and to ensure some degree of stability in their lives. Those people are well-assimilated and have no common position in American politics. However, many of them dislike Putin’s anti-west rhetoric.

The last, fifth wave, are liberal people who left Putin’s Russia for political reasons and/or in pursuit of business, educational and research opportunities. Putin’s desire to substitute education, news and press with propaganda, to control media, to impose strict censorship, and to lift an iron curtain all over again does not appeal to urban and open-minded young people who have grown up in west-oriented Russia. I personally could not accept this return to the authoritarian system of the Soviet Union. Therefore, I attended all 2011-2013 “Snow Revolution” oppositional protests, gave interviews, wrote oppositional articles on social media, and volunteered at the Civic Assistance Committee, a group which defends refugee rights in Russia. Three years ago, I decided to leave Russia when it became too scary, and I understood that I either needed to stop speaking up in politics or I would start wasting my time in jails and hospitals.

You will meet third-wave Russians as parents and grandparents of other fellow students, fourth-wave Russians as your professors or older colleagues in research and business, and fifth-wave as your roommates, classmates, and TAs. All these Russian immigrants are not these abstract people from another nuclear state who love Putin and hate the U.S. — they are real people, with nuanced and sometimes contradictory opinions, trying to reconcile their ideas and upbringing with the new reality of the U.S. and changing world.