After I returned from my trip to St. Petersburg, I was trying hard to consolidate what I learned back home with my experiences in the Russian community of Syracuse. I was trying to write an article about the Russian community of Syracuse for the local paper, the Post Standard. But I couldn’t quite get a coherent story. Recently, I’ve decided to switch my perspective, and write a different story.
Even though the original article may not be newspaper-worthy, I feel like I owe it and the people I wrote about some exposure. Love it or leave it, here is my story.
Every time I come through the plain red door of my house I feel like Harry Potter, crossing an invisible divide between two very different worlds. From a world of pizza, wings, and Philly cheese steaks I enter one of salted fish, beef tongue, and pickled vegetables.
A slew of people gather at my house regularly to celebrate birthdays, baptisms, as well as less traditional occasions. Recently we hosted the Annual Beer Festival, a favorite occasion among the Russian community in Syracuse. Families from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan stormed our home for an afternoon of Slavic delicatessen, a variety of local and imported beers, and some great stories.
Unlike many other immigrants, Russians look like any average Syracusean, until we open our lunchboxes, or our mouths.
“I’m pretty sure most people say that I have an accent,” said Varvara Mikushkina, 20. “Here in Syracuse accents are such a bigger part of defining you, it’s almost like a race. When I lived in New York City I didn’t know I was different. There are so many accents in Queens, I didn’t know I had one. I feel studied now.”
But it’s not just the accent that makes Mikushkina feel studied. V-A-R-V-A-R-A is a difficult barrier to cross. She goes by Barbara among her American friends. She lives with two different identities, divided simply by the pronunciation of her name. “I have to be someone I’m not [among Americans]. One of the greatest things about having Russian friends is being proud that they can say my name right. That’s the truth.”
But it’s not just our exotic names that make us feel out of place in this country. We just can’t interact with our neighbors the way we do with our countrymen.
Most of the men are shirtless within fifteen minutes when we host parties on summer days. Our voices get louder, and food begins to be treated very seriously.
In the kitchen, my step-father Sergey Golovko and friend Arkady Tolkachou excitedly discussed the best way to marinate salmon. Elsewhere in the house, Orthadox icons of the Virgin Mary protecting the house from evil thought and of Nicholas the Miracle Maker safeguarding people far from home hang on the walls. Next to them pictures of the canals and palaces of St. Petersburg pay tribute to our home city. On the TV screen stiff anchors speak urgently in Russian about the latest developments in Georgia: “The Georgian army has bombed another Ossetian town…”
Physicists, doctors, nurses, and computer analysts drive up to my house in Ford Explorers and Hyundai station wagons. They come with their kids who go to Liverpool High School and CNS. Most of us are used to having two identities: One to abide by American social standards and the other to feel at home.
Caviar (not a rare luxury in Russian homes), shish kebabs, pickled vegetables, salads and smoked fish, are set around our table. Hearty, warm smells fill the air as we prepare to feast during several Thanksgiving-like hours. I found myself next to Arkady’s wife Elena. She,her husband, and their two daughters came from Misk, Belarus almost eight years ago. Back home, they struggled to make ends meet.
“Here life is good, materially I mean,” she said thoughtfully, sweeping back a strand of short brown hair. So what’s missing?
“My friends and relatives,” she said as she watched me cover toast with red caviar. “I would be completely happy if all my relatives lived here. Otherwise I like everything here better.”
My family and I arrived in the US eleven years ago. I was nine. After living in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia due to my mother’s studies, we have settled in Syracuse. Every time we move the process finding new Russian-speaking friends begins. But it’s as if we had known each other all along. When we meet, we come together easily.
There were twenty of us at my house on this particular day, ranging from age seven to their mid-50s. We met each other through school, work or mutual acquaintances.
“When you meet a non-Russian person for the first time you feel like you have to start from scratch to define you,” said my friend Varvara, “but when you meet a Russian person for the first time you’re already half way done!”
Varvara and I are always very excited when our little community gets together. We are always proud to represent our culture but nothing beats being around people who share your experiences. She boasts a large tattoo of a cartoon goldfish on her left thigh. Ornate orange-and-black flowers wrap around her right leg. Few non-Slavs would know the folkloric origins of the goldfish or recognize the wood-painting Khohloma design.
She is an unusual sight to the unfamiliar eye, and but it’s not the curiosity that bothers her. “It’s the people that examine you but don’t ask anything, because they’re so intimidated by that. I’d rather have you ask and study me rather than study me without asking”
Now that she is entering her second year at Syracuse University, Varvara says that she is more socially comfortable in college. Her Russian friends understand her and she is glad for the opportunities she has to socialize with fellow immigrants.
“No matter where you are and what country you’re from you get it. You get this immigration process you get this poorness. There’s a poorness most immigrants have dealt with.”
I associate this poorness with homelessness. When our parents come here, they are often without a home. Many sell their property in Russia to afford the journey. My parents had to start from scratch in rural Appalachian college towns. We had no connections, little money and a very feint idea of how things worked in this country.
But as I grew up and my parents have established themselves, purchased a house, and built new careers I still have that feeling of homelessness.
“You are a Russian citizen but you’re not really Russian anymore,” my mother’s half-brother Gregory said to me one day this summer in Russia. I spent two months in my hometown of St. Petersburg, and for the first time in my life I saw indifference in friends’ and relatives’ eyes. I couldn’t possible understand their lives they seemed to be saying. How could my home be a place I know nothing about?
Olga Mikushkina, Varvara’s mother confirmed my experiences as she held a piece of shish kebab for her baby son, Konstantin. “People over there think that we betrayed our homeland. Absolutely. No one will say it to your face but I felt it,” she said. “When you go back there you expect people to take you as you are. I don’t think I’ve changed for example, my husband feels the same way, but of course we’ve changed. After ten years it’s bound to happen.”
The Mikushikins’ home is also filled with Russian food and art. Olga’s husband, artist Nikolay Mikushkin, often paints Russian landscapes and cityscapes and has set up a gallery in their home at 176 Kuhl Ave in Syracuse. But often, our ideas about Russia, expressed in words or on the canvas, are ones of a home we left and not of the country that exists today.
As night fell and the air cooled, the men put their shirts back on. We bring out the giant samovar to heat water for tea. When I looked around at my guests, old and young, I think that they are all here to stay. Why? Arkady Tolkachev puts it well:
“My homeland is the Soviet Union, not Belarus, I miss the Soviet Union. There used to be a system that worked. We can say that someone didn’t get what they deserved back then but it’s the same in America. There’s always someone who doesn’t get what he deserves. If you followed the principles of the socialist system you could live pretty well. If you take the living standards in the cities in, say, 1980, I don’t think we were much worse off than Americans.”
All of that is gone today, and so are the places we arrived from in the 90s. My family came from Russia, the Nesterenkos from the Ukraine, the Talkachous from Belarus, and the Mikushkins and Brusgulis from Kazakhstan. In the USSR, the distinctions between the republics were only formal ones. After 1992 all of these people suddenly found themselves divided, living in new nations. Some were just as foreign to them as the US.
The evening drew to a close and the women collect their sleepy children. My mother packed up leftovers of fish, shish kebabs and various salads in the kitchen for people to take home. I watched as our friends prepare to go back to America. I know that once they are outside my doors and back at their jobs they will become reserved and private. They will not be hostile to those who misunderstand them. Like me, they will simply accept that the next time they will fill at ease and understood is in their home or in mine.