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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Recalling Russians Abroad

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A key phrase for Russian officials in Cold War II is "the fate of Russians abroad." Intoned regularly and bathetically, it refers to purported human rights abuses against minority Russian speakers outside Russia. What is not clear to the intoners, apparently, is that depending on the audience, the phrase "Russians abroad" may conjure images entirely different from those they intend.

For many Americans who learned Russian during Cold War I, "Russians abroad" brings to mind our teachers, members of a great diaspora who arrived in the United States in three distinct waves, each bringing its own versions of two basic stories: cautionary tales of the perfidies of Moscow and paeans to Russian language, literature and culture. We accepted all three and believed both.

The horror stories were all too credible, as the Soviet system had never hidden its antipathy toward its own citizens. In 1922, the newly proclaimed Soviet state rounded up the cream of its remaining intelligentsia -- some 160 philosophers, scholars, scientists and writers -- and shipped them into exile, the first authoritarian state voluntarily to lower the IQ of its national gene pool.

If Moscow initially wanted some Russians out, after World War II it wanted others to return. The victorious Soviets prevailed upon their British and U.S. partners to repatriate thousands of displaced Soviet and Eastern European nationals to an expanded Soviet Union. That most of these unfortunates were sent directly to the gulag upon their arrival was both shameful and tragic.

After two generations marked by cataclysm, Russian speakers in the West were joined by a third emigration, whose members successfully cited Israel as their "historic homeland," or successfully badgered the Soviet authorities into expelling them. All three waves flourished in San Francisco in the mid-1970s, as did Maria Vasilyevna Mironova, a grandmotherly figure who had left Russia before any of them.

In 1905, Vasily Mironov took his family from Rostov-on-Don to the Far East, where he worked for Russia's Chinese Eastern Railway. The Bolshevik coup found the Mironovs outside Russia, making their decision not to return simple if not easy. Maria Vasilyevna retained only a 5-year-old's memories of Rostov-on-Don, but grew up steeped in the rich emigre culture of Harbin, until the Chinese Civil War drove the family even farther from home, this time to South America. Five years in Brazil were followed by emigration to California in the mid-1950s. After 20 years in San Francisco, with her husband now deceased and her son teaching in Monterey, Maria Vasilyevna decided to let her spare room to a graduate student in Russian literature. It made sense: She needed the rent, and I needed to speak Russian.

Maria Vasilyevna was happy to talk about her life on four continents, and she was tireless in deciphering my muddled responses. Her stories, however exotic, never strayed far from their origin -- and hers -- in Russian norms and traditions. Nor did she let me, "Mark Ivanovich," stray far from them either.

Not content to chat over meals, she would "invite" me to the kitchen in the evening, open the oven against the San Francisco chill and listen attentively as I read classics aloud. Her eyesight failing, Maria Vasilyevna somehow kept in touch with her native culture through these labored recitations, which both encouraged and amazed me.

However feeble the reader, the literature let Maria Vasilyevna demonstrate her authentic heart-on-sleeve Russianness. She would laugh out loud at comic characters and offer commentary or advice for others: "Serves him right!"; "She can do better"; "Don't go to Petersburg; you'll be sorry!"

The reaction I recall most vividly came when we finished Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons." As Bazarov's humble parents stand quietly over their son's grave, the narrator speaks simply but movingly of the peace of a world better than ours, and the novel ends. I looked up, weary as usual from the effort of concentration, and saw my landlady quietly weeping. I remember thinking: These people are different.

Vive la difference. When I hear the phrase "Russians abroad," I think of banished philosophers, displaced persons, exiled dissidents and Maria Vasilyevna, great emissaries of a great tradition. When I hear officials today decrying "the fate of Russians abroad," exhuming the manipulative lexicon of feigned indignation from the Soviet era, I want to tell them to find a new term. This one belongs to three earlier generations that brought Russia's signal contributions to modern culture to millions around the world, including me.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.