A Russian American's uneasy return to Moscow

By Julia Ioffe
Sunday, April 25, 2010; B02

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.

After a college class on Soviet history helped cement my obsession, I went back to Russia almost every year, until I decided to try living here.

But coming back is a luxury. Repats like myself love living here because we do so voluntarily; because we, with our blue passports, can leave whenever we want, because our parents had the foresight to do it for us.

We don't have to get upset, the way my grandmother in Moscow does, that elections are doctored, because it is not our democracy that is being stolen. We don't have to pay into the corruption that eats up, even by the government's own estimates, one-third of the country's budget.

Here, we live a charmed and parallel life. The extent became clear to me on a recent evening, when I sat in a Russian friend's kitchen, buried in another dispiriting talk of how long the current incarnation of Russia could possibly last. Suddenly, her 3-year-old daughter ran in. My friend leaned down to hug her and murmured sadly into her hair, "Oh, daughter. What will become of us?"

Few repats I know of stay more than five years, and most of us will go back to our more stable, more protected, more predictable lives. Moscow will become a memory, a crazy story that over the years will become a riff repeated at cocktail parties until it becomes shiny from use. We'll read the Russian news less and less, keep in touch less and less with our Russian friends who will still have to live here.

Of course, this rankles someone like Parkhomenko: You left, you lived your cushy American life, and now you're here again, criticizing us before you scuttle back to your suburb?

A few days ago, I finally found the courage to respond. I explained that my job was to objectively report what I saw, not to flatter or berate. Then I asked: "How can you love Russia and ignore all its problems?"

He wrote back long and fast. He said he was now in Kazakhstan. Many of his friends had been arrested. "Believe me," he wrote, "that what's happening here corresponds to Moscow the way Moscow corresponds to New York." He said he had quickly run into Kazakhs telling him to shut his sanctimonious mouth. But his reaction was a distinctly Russian one: It wasn't his place to criticize, and, anyway, what could one man do?

"Eventually, I just became silent," he wrote. "I can criticize the government, I can point out the inaccuracies, but I cannot say that my truth is better than theirs. Alas, everyone has their own. And if I can be helpful to them somehow by proposing what I think is right . . . I will be glad if they accept it. But they are in no way obligated to do this."

But Kazakhstan is not Parkhomenko's, at least not in the way that Russia is still mine, and will be indelibly.

The room where I write is where my great-grandmother spent the last years of her life. I am surrounded by remnants of her elegant china, by my grandfather's art books. Every day, I pass the school -- an ivory block, set back from the road -- where I went to first grade. My mother went to school there, too.

These things have become part of my daily life again, and that is perhaps why Parkhomenko's words jabbed so keenly. Yes, I am critical of Russia, but because I wish the country would meet the standards it sets for itself. I wish the government would stop comparing itself to Europe and the United States in one breath and proclaim its sacred exceptionalism in the next. I wish it would stop posturing and demanding respect, and simply command it with its actions, the way it showed it could when half the Polish government crashed into a Russian field.

I realize these are un-Russian sentiments, particularly in a country where 85 percent of adults, according to a recent poll, think they can do nothing to make an impression on their government.

But how can you love this place and remain politely silent, responding only if the Kremlin calls on you?

Julia Ioffe is a reporter living in Moscow.

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