Hammers, Sickles, and Fireworks: Understanding My Inner Comrade

How to pay respect to what my lineage overcame to reach me.

In 1989, my grandparents, parents, and then-5-year-old sister underwent a months-long, immensely stressful immigration to America, as many Russian Jews did when the Soviet Union finally crumbled. Their route was a traditional one, with an extended stop in Vienna by way of exit visas that claimed they were headed to Israel. When they finally made it to scenic Fair Lawn, New Jersey in late September, the damp and indifferent American air must have spooked them into demonstrating proof of their commitment to the United States. Naturally, my parents did this by conceiving a first-generation American son and bringing him into the world on July 4, 1990, fireworks exploding above them in thunderous applause as they cradled their pink, wailing symbol of freedom.

The whole process was a one-way ticket in the strictest sense—after fleeing the mother country that had both nurtured and suffocated them their whole lives, neither they nor their immediate families have returned once in the subsequent 27 years. I’ll be 26 on July 4 of this year, which if you’ve done the math right implies that I’ve never seen Russia, not even as a sailor suit-wearing, neo-Gary Shteyngart toddler. Right as the Berlin Wall came down, my parents erected a new wall in its place, a firm divider between their history and their future, both for their own lives and for the generations that preceded them and (ideally) will follow.

There’s a very good explanation for why they did this, but I suspect I’ll never really know the full picture. It’s definitely true that living as a Jew in the Soviet Union was no picnic, even in its final years—despite exceptional grades, my dad was denied from the Moscow University Department of Chemistry because it only accepted a limited number of Jews every year. However, the country’s misconduct toward my family runs much deeper, and I’ve only recently begun to learn about it.

It started on Wikipedia.

Solomon Lozovsky is my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. She still bears his name, even though her connection to him runs through her mother. He was, as the history books tell me, a prominent Bolshevik revolutionary and high-ranking official in various parts of the Soviet government. One of his roles was as the Chairman of the Soviet Information Bureau, commonly referred to (in English, anyway) as Sovinformburo, where during World War II he was responsible for delivering all information from the Soviet battlefronts to foreign press. He was also a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which reached out to Jews worldwide, notably in America, to build support for the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany. After the war was over, two key factors prompted a wide officially sanctioned campaign of antisemitism in the U.S.S.R: the onset of the Cold War and a newly created Jewish state in Israel that was aligned with the West.

That’s my great-grandfather at the signing of the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact in 1941. Standing two men to his left is someone you may recognize.

In 1948, Joseph Stalin eliminated the JAC and ordered the arrest of my great-grandfather, then in his early 70s, along with the other most prominent members of the organization. For years they were subject to interrogation, beatings, and torture because of Stalin’s increasing paranoia that they betrayed the U.S.S.R. by collaborating with America during the war—an effort he supported at the time. Despite incredible pressure, my great-grandfather never conceded any guilt or sold out others. Ultimately, he and 12 other Soviet Jews were executed in Lubyanka Prison in Moscow on August 12, 1952 in an event that became known as The Night of the Murdered Poets. It was so named for the Yiddish authors and artists slain alongside my ancestor.

I’ve confirmed all of this with my mom, but for the most part, learning about my great-grandfather’s life has been a journey I’ve had to take on my own. And I’ve found that the more I discover, the less I know what to do with the information. It makes me both swell with pride and recoil in horror, then dismiss both of those emotions entirely because I feel so removed from him. What remains after this cleanse is a pure, unadulterated confusion about what he and my Russian heritage as a whole mean for my identity. Why did my parents wait until my 20s to tell me anything about him, in passing at that? How have we never visited Russia as a family? How is it possible that I’m so very, very American when there’s such a rich Russian history directly on the other side of the wall?

Parents naturally keep things from their kids, but there seems to be both a very specific Russian brand and a very specific immigrant brand of doing so. When combined, the result is a parental truth locked behind an infinite series of smiling, iron-reinforced matryoshka dolls. To be fair, whatever the specific details my grandparents and parents locked away, the truth of the matter is that I’ve lived an enormously comfortable life and it’s their sacrifices and the sacrifices that came before them that made it possible. But it can be frustrating and even embarrassing to feel so disconnected from my heritage, however tenuous its relationship with Russia.

Today, the closest ties I have to the motherland are my family, my aggressively deteriorating Russian language skills, and the Russians I cling to in pop culture. They come to me via prestige American television (The Americans), westernized Russian sitcoms (Кухня, which means “Kitchen”), and of course your never-ending stream of generic Russian bad guys who drink vodka like it’s water and are either diabolical and disgusting or meat-headed and disgusting. Stereotypes to truly be proud of.

I cling to these Russians because outside of my family, they’re the only connection I have to an enormous part of myself. After a great-grandfather murdered in a shocking injustice, grandparents that survived the Holocaust, and parents that immigrated to the U.S. in their early 30s, there’s me, a 25-year-old first-generation American who wants to make his lineage proud. Who wants to nurture the increasingly fraying roots that fought so hard to get to him. Who wants to prove it was all worth it.

This was taken in 2008 on a family vacation to Japan. I’ve had it easy.

In a way, writing about these deeply engrained desires is my own personal Aziz Ansari Master of None Parents” tribute, where I acknowledge the challenges my own parents went through just to get a chance at freedom. By successfully overcoming those odds, they laid a foundation for the privileged life I’ve led, one that eventually allowed me to reach the exact point in time where I’m openly exploring my identity by typing this sentence. It’s possible that’s what they had in mind, generally speaking—for the first American-born member of the family to be so lucky as to “suffer” through existential crises only a small fraction as oppressive as what the generations before him underwent. That’s why I think there will always be a part of me that feels guilty about the relative ease of my life. Perhaps I subconsciously seek out challenges and roads less traveled in an attempt to make up for it.

Some day, maybe soon, my family and I will go back to Russia together, a moment I’ve often envisioned as closing a loop that swings well outside my field of view. Just recently though, I’ve started to sense that it might not actually be such a dramatic trip. I’m sure for my parents it’ll evoke some heavy nostalgia, and for my sister it might even surface some long-forgotten memories of early childhood. But the truth is that Russia isn’t the same as it was in 1989, and neither is my family—not even close. If you split up from something that shaped who you are, but never went back once after, not in 27 years, there’s probably a pretty good reason why. I’d venture a guess it has a lot to do with respecting your past, but not dwelling in it.

Good thing there’s a fireworks show every year to remind us of that.

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