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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Emigre Limbo: Caught Neither Here Nor There

I used to spend summers up in New England in a Russian-language program -- a kind of summer camp for Russia junkies. Amid the green, rolling hills of Vermont we would build our own little Russian society -- hundreds of American students plus a group of teachers, largely drawn from the emigre community.


It sounds idyllic, doesn't it? I was, as always, in the no-man's-land between Russians and Americans -- too Russian for one group, not Russian enough for the other. But I did get to hang around with the "natives" (native Russian speakers) a lot. That's where I got my first taste of Russian life -- we would gather in the evenings at a "dacha," build a bonfire, drink vodka and sing Russian songs. And talk.


That is when I realized that these people had never really left Russia at all. Second-wave emigres who had been in the country since World War II tended to look down on the newer arrivals, who were thought to be too "Soviet." The few remaining first-wavers, who had fled the revolution, displayed their tsarist flags and talked about having known Tolstoy's daughter. They, of course, considered themselves the only true "Russians."


The relative newcomers from the 1970s emigration boom shook their heads in dismay at the flattened intonation patterns and grammatical oddities of their colleagues, whose great and powerful Russian language had been contaminated by too many years away from the rodina, or motherland.


Only in the past few years have there been significant numbers of "real" Russians. In Soviet times the emigres used to avoid them, telling the students that anyone allowed out must be working for the KGB. Now the emigres tend to patronize them, treating them like country cousins who may never have seen a real banana.


I understand that leaving one's native land is a wrenching experience that can probably never be totally overcome. Many Russian emigres in the United States seem to expend a great deal of energy trying to convince themselves that they did the right thing, and trying to assuage their guilt at having done well in their new country. It makes for a schizophrenic existence.


Which brings me to my friend Yura.


The phone jarred me out of a sound sleep at 6 A.M. Friday -- the long, insistent ring that signals an overseas call. In a panic I answered the call only to hear a familiar "privet." It was Yura from New Jersey, formerly of St. Petersburg, calling to tell me that he was arriving in a few days.


"I'm bored here," he said. "I want to come back to Russia."


I groaned. This will be the second time Yura has returned. Three years ago he came for a visit, and our relationship barely survived the experience. A man who was born and educated in Russia, who was over 30 when he left, suddenly claimed not to be able to speak or understand his native language. We went into a restaurant, and Yura addressed the waiter in English.


I was livid.


"It's your native language," I screamed at him -- in Russian, of course. He answered in the same tongue "I'm American now. I only think in English."


Now this American is bored and wants to come back. To speak English to Russian waiters, I guess.


I guess Yura is in no-man's-land, too.