Log In

Reset Password
Columnists View from the Center Bear Smart The Travel Troubleshooter Dear Abby Student Aide Of Sound Mind Others Say Powerful solutions You are What You Eat Out Standing in the Fields What's up in Durango Skies Watch Yore Topknot Local First RE-4 Education Update MECC Cares for kids

‘Difficult to feel pride in all Russians can boast about’

Many years ago, in the 1980s, I went to Brighton Beach, then in its heyday as a district of newly arrived Soviet Jews, to celebrate the first year (there would not be many more) of the lively local Russian-language weekly, The New American. It was a grand event, rich in humor and tinged with nostalgia. I asked a middle-aged partygoer for his thoughts on his lost homeland, and his reply has stayed with me: “I hate Russia, for forcing me to leave her.”

It was an apt summary of what waves of émigrés from Russia and the Soviet Union since the early 20th century have felt: a sorrowful sense of loss for a motherland – what Russians call “toska po rodine” – coupled with resentment at the autocratic powers that forced them out.

My grandparents were among the “white” Russians who fled the revolution and moved to Paris in the 1920s. A second wave of emigrants left in World War II. The third, Soviet Jews, started leaving in the 1970s. Vladimir Putin has now created another wave of people fleeing Russia, and many of them may still believe, as my forebears did, that they will one day return to the homeland.

Most probably will not.

It’s hard to say precisely where Russian exiles stand, politically or in their sense of attachment to Russia. The waves of emigrants differ widely one from another, and in the U.S., Russian immigrants have melded quickly into the general population. Brighton Beach is one of the few places with any Russian flavor in the U.S.

Still, the prevailing attitude I’ve encountered among Russian émigrés is the love-hate expressed by my interlocutor in Brighton Beach. It’s the love of an extraordinary culture, a deep attachment to the expanse of steppes and taiga, along with contempt for the chronic misrule, adventurism, imperial illusions and corruption of the leaders.

At least, that was the attitude before Feb. 24, 2022, when Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Now, I more often encounter, and feel, a new attitude: shame.

The émigrés I grew up with, and those I came to know in America and as a reporter in Israel, rarely felt troubled by the sins of their motherland. Why would they? The Gulag was not their doing; their Russia was the culture, the scramble for scarce goods, the anecdotes told around vodka in steamy kitchens, the shashlik by a lazy river. Most Russians concentrated on protecting their lives from “them,” the leadership and its secret police, and to survive. Or leave.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine – so cruel, so pointless, so devastating – has changed all this, at least for those not mesmerized by Putin’s recidivist claptrap. It’s hard not to feel shame at the evidence of Russians killing and raping people who did them no wrong, people who share so much of their history and culture.

And it has become difficult to feel pride in all that Russians can genuinely boast about – the great books, the Bolshoi, the hockey stars, the spirituality– when Putin is dispatching waves of boys to kill and die for his false version of Russia’s manifest destiny and his personal grievances against the West.

The tragic irony of Putin’s war is his attempt to “restore Russian greatness” through violence and hatred has tainted Russia’s real greatness for years to come, just as his attempt to quash Ukrainian nationhood has steeled its foundations.

In the end, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky will survive, and Ukraine will be rebuilt and incorporated more closely in the West. But for Russians, something elemental has been destroyed, and a lot of painful soul-searching lies ahead.

Serge Schmemann is a member of The New York Times editorial board and the author of a book about Russia, “Echoes of a Native Land.”