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In Brighton Beach, A Nostalgia For Oppression

There is something very bizarre about walking around Brighton Beach these days.

In Brooklyn’s Little Odessa, you’ll hear the whispers of the victories and disappointments of immigration. Simply stroll down the boardwalk and listen to the conversations, émigré speaking wistfully of what once was, who they were: Back there, “my wife was the director of the factory…”; “There, I was a decorated officer….”

Listen closely: From the windows of apartments, down the halls of nursing homes and community centers, you’ll hear other voices: The relentless chatter of Perviy Kanal — Russia’s Channel One, the Kremlin-backed news channel, streaming Putin propaganda across the ocean and directly into the living rooms of immigrants who fled their motherland.

“They switch on American television just for the weather forecast,” Brighton Beach resident Gennady Estraikh, professor of Yiddish studies at New York University, told me.

Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants are greatly patriotic to the land that took them in. They march under the banner of American capitalism, the dream of this goldeneh medinah, the privileges it has given them, and they are eager to discuss Soviet repression and just how terrible things are back there. The majority of Russian Jewish émigré identify as Republicans and supported Trump in 2016 — ostensibly, as advocates of free markets, having survived communism.

Yet at the same time, many Russian-speaking Jews — particularly older ones — still rely on Russian government media for information.

This dissonance — of living in America, yet depending on Russian information and culture — does not exist in just the South Brooklyn enclaves of our elders. It exists nationwide, throughout Russian émigré communities, in Queens and New Jersey and in Florida’s Sunny Isles. While most of this duality lives among the older generations, which consists of those who have memories of the Soviet Union, one finds this mentality even among many younger Russian-speaking Jews, like those in their 30s and 40s. While some young Russian American Jews secretly harbor progressive, democratic views, they remain the silent minority. Enter some of the community’s large Facebook groups, and you’ll often find political declarations written in all-caps, either love of Trump or hatred of the libs, with links to Russian-backed conspiracy sites. I’ll never forget sitting at a table, surrounded by Russian-speaking Jews, and hearing one woman, adorned in a MAGA hat, shout, with pride. “Odin za vseh, i vse za odnogo!” “One for all and all for one.” Her adamance was a modern, American reincarnation of the old Komsomol Pioneer — she simply needed a red scarf.

A customer stands next to the TV screens during a broadcast of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

A customer stands next to the TV screens during the broadcast of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s extended interview with the nation’s three main television channels at a shop in Moscow, on October 17, 2011. Image by Getty Images

Every time I find myself in Russian-speaking Jewish circles, I often experience vertigo: How can one reconcile a professed love for America, coupled with the total acceptance of anti-American Kremlin propaganda? How can one reconcile being a refugee, desperately knocking on American doors with suitcases filled with hope and Chekhov, and years later advocating for stricter immigration policies? How can one emerge from a country that persecuted truth-tellers and then support a president who repeatedly calls journalists the “enemy of the people”?

As a child of Soviet Jewish refugees, I grew up haunted by the specter of Soviet Jewish writers.

Soviet Jewish writers stood up for the truth — and were persecuted for it. Or so the narrative went.

Isaac Babel, master of the short story, rendered Odessa’s underworld the most anti-Soviet of characters: gangsters, smugglers, prostitutes, beggars, the unemployed.

Ilya Ehrenburg compiled the forbidden “The Complete Black Book of Soviet Jewry,” documenting the Nazi persecution of Soviet Jewry.

Vasily Grossman, a war reporter, wrote the autobiographical novel “Life and Fate,” which touched on Soviet totalitarianism and Nazi killings of Jews; the KGB seized the manuscript in 1960.

Dovid Hofshteyn, editor of the Moscow Yiddish monthly Shtrom, the last free Jewish newspaper in the Soviet Union, advocated for Hebrew language study.

Itsik Feffer penned the epic poem “Di Shotns fun Varshever Geto,” a tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and embraced Zionism publicly.

Raisa Bloch, a Muscovite poetess who explored Judaism’s themes, was arrested in 1921. “Do not kill me with a sling,” she wrote. “Let me finish singing my wild tidings…. To one without a voice, a voice is given.”

Grossman and Ehrenburg were the only ones who survived the Stalin era. Babel was executed. After being released, Bloch escaped the Soviet Union and fled to Berlin; she was killed in 1943 in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Hofshteyn and Feffer were murdered on the Night of Murdered Poets in 1952, a Stalinist order to silence “treasonous” Jewish intelligentsia.

It is hard to call all these writers “dissidents” — some were avowed Communists, after all. Yet it was their mere existence, their Jewishness, their visibility and their sharp tongues that became dangerously problematic for Stalin.

And so, I understood early on, it was in our blood — as eternal contrarians, as “Hebrews,” which literally means to be “from the other side” — to chafe at the idea of accepting authoritarian propaganda. Those Soviet Jewish journalists were the Davids in the face of the hammer-and-sickle-bearing Goliath.

As a child, I grew up listening to stories of secrets, the dangers of dissenting opinions, the minuscule day-to-day rebellions that citizens pulled off, anecdotes that were cherished and repeated in private gatherings in tiny kitchens over cheap vodka and, later, in American kitchens, too.

We first-generation Russian Jewish immigrants are raised on the harrowing memories of the war and Soviet persecution. The traumas are slathered onto our black bread with butter and red caviar and sprinkled into our tea. As teenagers we drink it with our vodka, while bored at family parties, over tables groaning under salted fish and salads.

My grandfather often described to me visits to Babi Yar, seeing Jews paying their respects, holding triangular-shaped posters. When the policemen would look away, they would combine the triangles, one facing up and one facing down, so that they were holding Stars of David. This was our dissent! This was all we could do!

We grew up on a steady diet of stories describing what it was like to be constantly, ruthlessly, suffocated as an individual. (Consider Pushkin’s exclamation: “Why the devil was I born in Russia, with brains and talent!”) There were stories of late-night KGB raids of newsrooms, destroyed typesets, the letters flying all over — all because a story was deemed not sufficiently Soviet. Stories of someone being called in to the regional KGB office for a harsh dressing-down. How dare one criticize a state policy? How dare one publicly defend traitorous Jewish families who apply for exit visas?

These were the villains of my childhood; they’d appear in my nightmares — the all-watching KGB officers, banging against a table or, worse, showing up in a black van in the dead silence of the night.

And given this mesorah, this tradition, decades later, New York City is a rather strange place in which to be: to be a journalist with a Soviet Jewish background, to devote oneself to a mission of free speech — and to then experience constant attacks on journalists and mainstream media, from the very community that survived those same consistent attacks on free speech.

Immigrants tend to be held hostage by their home cultures — by their own subconscious nostalgias. Perhaps we products of the Soviet Union, inevitably, need icons. Some turn to religion and find an icon in the Lubavitcher rebbe, others turn to politics and find one in those they deem to be “strongmen,” the Trumps and Putins of the world.

“People who have undergone oppression having fled the source of oppression will be looking for a new source of oppression,” said Mikhail Iossel, a Leningrad-born literature professor at Concordia University. “Physically you can escape the area of propaganda — but your mind is already inundated with it.” Iossel has been deeply grappling with Russian Jews’ embrace of authoritarians for years now; his book on this subject, “Notes From Cyberground: Trumpland and My Old Soviet Feeling”, was published in November 2018.

Estraikh believes that political sympathies are often rooted in the inescapable cultural connection to a motherland — subconscious as it may be. “For Russian Jewish émigrés, everything going on in Russia is wrong, and everything that emanates from Russia is bad,” he said. “Yet at the same time, culturally we are still listening to [pop star] Alla Pugacheva and less interested in, say, the death of a famous American actor. That creates an affinity, whether we like it or not.”

The respect for authoritarianism may be rooted in the basic needs of immigrants, too.

“First-generation immigrants have historically been conservative,” Iossel told me. “People arriving to unknown shores, who don’t understand their new land’s language — they’re willing to go with whoever will present a simplistic picture of the world. Black and white, monochromatic — they are looking for someone who will take care of them. Many seek belonging and community, and find it in a church or synagogue. Republicans present a much simpler picture of the world, one that is uncomplicated — and that speaks to new immigrants. And now, along comes someone who says, ‘You can speak publicly the way you speak privately. It’s on me.’ [Trump] says to us, ‘I’m a walking receptacle of your shame.’ He legitimizes the pockets of darkness in us. Trump could be holding hands with Putin, he could be cavorting on a white horse with him! It’s a powerful existential bond [for Russian Jews] with Trump. He calls it the way he sees it, he stands up to political correctness. It’s the ‘He who’s not with us is against us’ mentality. For Russians, ‘compromise’ is a dirty word.”

“Our parents’ generation… came over with nothing, and many of them did quite well here; they genuinely don’t understand why other people can’t do the same,” said the Moscow-born Keith Gessen, author of the 2018 novel “A Terrible Country”. “They don’t know American history very well, whereas their kids went to the very good American schools that their Soviet parents made sure they attended, and we learned American history, and I think we’ve been able to understand much better than they how American society has been set up, and who it has excluded. They think they came here with nothing. In fact, they came here with very valuable advanced degrees in things like math, physics, computer science… which, by the way, they got from the evil Soviet Union for free.”

Iossel points out that Trump’s beloved birther movement was started by a Russian Jewish immigrant named Orly Taitz, a dental assistant from Kishinev. “She was undeterred by her own imperfect English to start this campaign,” Iossel noted.

Perhaps survivors of Sovietism have a traumatized relationship with information altogether. The ability to discern what is truth and what is fallacy was key to survival for an urban Soviet Jew — but at one point, did absolute cynicism take over? So much so that the ability to sense what is “fake news” and what is true has disappeared? Did the long-dead masters of the Soviet Union perhaps succeed in demolishing the critical reading skills of millions of people to this very day, regardless of the country’s legacy of great writers? Has our ability to be truly discerning, believing and distributing propaganda that personally enriches us, while scoffing at real journalism, been corrupted entirely?

“People have been crippled coming out of the Soviet Union,” Iossel said. “Nothing good can come out of being under constant power and pressure. It takes years and years to overcome.”

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Forward’s Life/Features editor. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram; contact her at [email protected]


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