A Russian American's uneasy return to Moscow

By Julia Ioffe
Sunday, April 25, 2010

MOSCOW -- About a month ago, I came home to find an odd e-mail from Alexander Parkhomenko, a man I've never met. "Is everything really so bad in Russia?" he wrote.

I have been reporting from Moscow for the past six months, and Parkhomenko had been reading my work. He liked the stories, he said, "but one gets the sense that you were brought back here by sheer force to this hated country, back to the funny, stupid Russians, back to a horrible city unfit for life, and that your 'love/hate relationship' means mostly the latter."

This was not the first time a Russian had attacked me -- in an only-I-can-make-fun-of-my-family sort of way -- for being critical of Russia, which to many people here is indistinguishable from hating Russia. But something about the way Parkhomenko cut to the central dilemma of my place in Russia shook me.

Because I am back. And -- aside from the detail that I now live on the same street, in the same building, where I spent part of my childhood and from which my parents, Jewish refugees, took me almost exactly 20 years ago -- I am back in a way that is very easy to resent.

I may have been born here, speak the language, and have Russian family and friends, but I no longer have Russian citizenship. Instead, I am back as a representative of the American press, the same institution that needles the Russians for their failures and their absurdities.

I am, in other words, a traitor.

I am not like the Chinese American or Indian American repats, thousands of whom have rushed back to propel the countries of their roots on their jet-packed upswings, enriching themselves along the way.

I am a Russian repat, and there aren't that many of us. In fact, most people are moving in the opposite direction. According to a recent calculation, more people have emigrated during the alleged stability of the Vladimir Putin era than during the chaotic 1990s. Until last year, Russia ranked among the three countries that produced the most asylum-seekers. Last year, it made progress; it came in fourth.

Few of us are here to participate in something uplifting, a fact I realized by the time I had my first grumbling, fatalistic conversation with a local. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I had coffee with a spokesman for a Russian state corporation. First he asked if I really believed all the negative things I wrote about Russia and his company, or if it was the American editorial line. By the second cup, he was rolling his eyes at the kickbacks and bribes he knew were probably all over the company, and dismissing Russian sloganeering about modernization as "Potemkinism."

If Russians don't have much hope for this place, we Russian-born, American-bred returnees have even less. A fellow repat recently read Alexander Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin" with her Russian-language teacher. When they got to the part expressing hopes that in 500 years the nation would have decent roads, they burst out laughing. "Onegin" was first published in 1825.

For those of us born here, the question of when Russia will catch up with its hopes is not that funny. Twenty years ago, on April 28, 1990, my parents -- at 30 years old, just three years older than I am now -- dropped their careers and their friends who gathered at the airport to sob, took their two little daughters and walked through passport control, relinquishing their citizenship forever. They took us away as a political statement about this nation's chances of a bright future; to them, there would never be one.

Once safely in lush American suburbs, however, our parents sentimentalized the country they'd left -- the culture, the language, the better table manners and the clear truth that we Russians won World War II virtually unaided. And like many expat children who hardly knew the place, I accidentally fell in love.


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