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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Emigres Either Love America or Leave It

NEW YORK — The Russians are not, as the old movie would have it, coming.

Rather, many have gone.

Some have just slammed the door on America — the country where, as one of them put it, his Russian friends have become "slaves to the dollar" — and have gone back home, to Moscow, to St. Petersburg and even to Kiev, Ukraine.

And by voicing just what they feel, they have left in their wake a small but impassioned debate about how Russians really view the United States.

It was a furor that journalists at The Russian Bazaar, a weekly newspaper based in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, scarcely expected when they published an article in July titled "Why They Are Leaving."

In the story, Valentin Labunsky, a 49-year-old journalist from Kiev who has been in the United States four years, wrote at great length about the complaints of three departing immigrants: a 24-year-old female student, a 30-year-old male journalist and a 50-year-old former school headmaster.

Broadly speaking, the three, who had been in America from one to four years, bemoaned the obsession with materialism, the emptiness of conversation, the ugliness and what the student deemed "the utter treelessness" of their part of Brooklyn and the functionality and inelegance of what she branded "the American uniform, jeans and sneakers."

Above all, they lamented the lack of what Russians call "dukhovnost," the spiritual dimension of life.

The headmaster from St. Petersburg, his wife, — a translator of German literature in Russia, but retrained here as a bank teller — and their son, who became a computer programmer, depicted a four-year struggle to establish themselves in New York City. When, finally, they had a half-way decent apartment, good jobs, a car, had paid off their debts and even had some money to spare, he said, "we suddenly found a terrible emptiness inside."

"There, in St. Petersburg, we lived poorly, but to the full," said the headmaster, Ilya, who like other Russians in the article would give only his first name. (Labunsky said all three feared that giving their full names could lead to trouble with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in part because they have green cards entitling them to live here.)

Suddenly deprived of their full spiritual life, "We really realized that human beings do not live by bread alone," the headmaster said. "When we were struggling here to survive, we didn't think about this. But when we had finally staggered to our feet, we started to look for America's dukhovnost. And we just couldn't find it. I don't want to heap dirt on America, a country that accepted us as its own. But neither I, nor my family, could accept the values of this world, all their serials, their humor, their television. And not because it's worse than ours. It just isn't ours."

None of the criticisms voiced in the two-page article were new. But they were apparently striking for many of the 1 million Russian speakers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and for others across the country.

Nothing prepared Labunsky or his boss, Natasha Nakhankova, for the avalanche of reaction from readers. Their paper, which prints just more than 10,000 copies a week and, they say, has a readership of 40,000, received a flood of phone calls and 237 long, handwritten letters in one week, some from as far away as California.

They printed pages of the most articulate letters, along with forceful rebuttals to the three departees in a series hastily written by Labunsky titled "Why We Are Staying."

Most of the letters, especially those written by emigres who went through the horrors of leaving the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, were passionate paeans to the United States.

As Nakhankova, 44, concluded in an editorial, "the discussion has shown how dear America is to most of us, what patriots we have become today, we, who so recently thought that the very word patriotism was something dreamed up by Communist propagandists."

The outpouring of gratitude for the assistance given to many emigres and the chance to build a good life was the stuff of a White House speechwriter's dreams.

Scattered among the letters, however, was isolated support for those who decided to go back. A woman who signed herself simply Vita said the stories of the departing immigrants had made her weep because "everything they say is the purest truth."

After six years in America, she stated, she would not return to Russia, but her estrangement even now from America was plain.

Voicing sentiments that are common enough among arrivals from the former Soviet Union — though not, generally, among their children, educated here — she complained bitterly about the bad treatment caseworkers give former Soviet nationals asking for welfare, about the loud music of her neighbors and the continual worries about making ends meet.

Immigration, she concluded, "is like moving a flower that should live in black earth to sandy soil. It is still alive, but with each day it withers, and finally it stops blooming, and all that remains is a coarse stem."

More than 380,000 immigrants have come from the former Soviet Union since it began collapsing 10 years ago.

Although there are no figures on the number of people who have returned, nobody imagines that there is a mass movement back to the former Soviet Union. For one thing, the struggling countries formed from the breakup of the Soviet Union are all poor, often affording little in the way of jobs or wages.

Some Moscow residents, however, do report that several friends who had left for Western Europe and for Israel have been trickling back to live and work back home. Young and educated Russians find that they can parlay their Western experience and their new languages into good jobs in Moscow, either in the expanding field of marketing and advertising, or in representing foreign businesses.

This kind of movement is an acknowledgment of how things have changed since the Cold War. The immigrants who arrived then had been forced to burn their bridges, sell off apartments, renounce citizenship and arrive in their new homelands with little in their pockets.

In the last decade, however, the collapse of communism has made travel freer. And, if they can get past tightening visa requirements in all Western countries, Russians, Ukrainians and others from the former Soviet world are increasingly dipping their toes into America, just to see what it is like.

Dmitri is a 23-year-old lawyer from Kiev who also refused to give his full name. He said in an interview that he had been in the United States, off and on, for four years, liked it well enough and determinedly avoided discussing whether he missed Kiev. ("Nostalgia," he said briskly, "is a hard thing to think about.") In his view, the three who returned home are "losers" who lack his toughness.

Yet Dmitri, too, hangs out mostly with other young Russians because, he said, the kind of educated Americans he would like to socialize with "look down on us" and would never welcome the likes of Russians struggling to find work and pay rent on a small studio in unfashionable parts of Brooklyn into their social circles.

As for staying here, who knows?

"I'm kind of lost in the world," Dmitri said. "I have been born in the Soviet Union. Since my homeland collapsed, I've been looking for my place in the world."