What does it mean to be from a place that is no longer on the map? My homeland, the Soviet Union, disintegrated in late 1991, a scant three years after my family had managed to escape its anti-Semitism and lack of opportunity. As an immigrant in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, with a funny haircut and even funnier clothes, I tended to worry more about fitting in than the place where those clothes had come from.
By the time I became curious, that place was gone. I looked for it in books. I looked for it in college, where, to the dismay of my parents, who wanted old wounds to stay sealed, I majored in Russian literature. I looked for it in Brighton Beach, the heavily Russian community in Brooklyn where I found a late-70’s Soviet aesthetic joined to the coarse materialism possible only in a capitalist society. I even went so far as to go all the way back, but the post-Soviet Russia I discovered on a 2000 visit felt as foreign as the ersatz Soviet Union frozen in time on Brighton Beach.
There’s plenty of Russia in New York, especially in this age of open borders. There’s Petrossian, the dispensary of Caspian caviar in Midtown; the Russian steam baths on Tenth Street, where men with tobacco-stained mustaches pummel you with bouquets of birch branches to improve your circulation; the Black Sea bookstore on Coney Island Avenue, where the socialist realists snuggle against the romantics, and even forgive the surrealists.
But Petrossian is unbearably pompous, the Russian steam baths are kitschy, and in the Black Sea you will hear more about what kind of car so-and-so’s son Misha drives than about anything by Turgenev. Where, then, does the finicky Russian immigrant find his homeland in New York?
I decided to ask around.
Russia is a “feeling,” said Vica Vinogradova, a multimedia producer who came from St. Petersburg in 1990. “It’s when you sit at home in the kitchen and your interaction with someone suddenly becomes open and candid: a kind of kitchenness. This person doesn’t have to be Russian at all.”
Regina Khidekel, the director of the Russian-American Cultural Center, said Russia was tutelage in adversity. “My son Roma came here at 13 having lived through an incredibly interesting period in perestroika,” she said. “And here, he felt an advantage, because he knew something about history and humanity that his contemporaries here didn’t know. We carry an unbelievable experience.”
“Welcome to the world of being a professional immigrant!” the novelist Gary Shteyngart, who emigrated from what was then Leningrad at the age of 7, exclaimed when he heard I was writing an essay about being Russian in New York. For Gary, Russia is America’s untiring appetite for its beguiling, enigmatic former nemesis.
Mikhail Baryshnikov didn’t want to talk about Russia. “I spent only 10 years there,” he said, brushing me off. “I was born in Latvia.” For those of us from the other Soviet republics – I was born in Belarus – Russia is an accident of association and a confinement of identity, too.
“Misha doesn’t want to belong to anything,” said Mr. Baryshnikov’s friend Roman Kaplan, a co-owner of Russian Samovar, the purveyor of nostalgia and fruit-infused vodka on 52nd Street. “He is like a fully detached house.
“For me, it’s like the poet has it,” he added. ” ‘Face to face, one cannot see the face.’ You see the larger things from a distance. Russia is not the horror I left. It’s something far greater. That something is Russian culture. Politicians come and go, but Pushkin is forever, correct? Tsvetaeva is forever. Malevich is forever. Pasternak is forever.”
Modern America is kind to ethnicity. A hundred years ago, when the country was less certain of itself, the greenhorns who sailed from Eastern Europe for the tenements of the Lower East Side were expected to assimilate and lose themselves to America’s cultural largesse. Today, immigration has so thoroughly redefined the American narrative that I feel American precisely because I am an immigrant. New York has subsumed ethnicity so thoroughly that I feel more American than Russian plowing through a plate of blintzes at the Russian Vodka Room.
At the same time, America’s youth and consequent obsession with genealogy – “Where are you from?” after all, is the standard greeting in town – frees the foreigner to keep a bit of home on unfamiliar ground.
“I thought I’d lose my Russianness when I came here,” Ms. Khidekel said. “America allows you to remain who you are, doesn’t force you to change your religion, or your interests. Doesn’t force you to reject anything.”
Where amid all this is my Russia? Where is home, if the place you come from no longer exists? Does immigration mean it can survive – like the demonic figure Woland in Mikhail Bulgakov’s ingenious novel “Master and Margarita,” who must commit evil as a catalyst for the world to do good – only as a shadow, only in opposition, only as not-Petrossian, not-Russian Baths, not-Black Sea?
No. Roman Kaplan’s poet had it right – “face to face, one cannot see the face.” To uproot oneself from native soil, to deny oneself the great, unfathomable fortune of growing to old age in the place one was born, is not to relinquish one’s homeland. But it does mean one can never take that homeland literally again.
If Russia was everywhere back home, it comes in fleeting moments here in New York. Russia in New York is pomposity, and kitsch, and obsession with material possessions, and also the opposite of all those things. As for an “authentic,” “real” Russia? Who knows? I don’t live there anymore.