Russia vs. Ukraine is an ongoing reminder that roots ≠ home
Reflecting on a year-plus of war and a lifetime-plus of floating
For the first 6 or so weeks after Vladimir Putin directed his forces to cross into Ukrainian territory in early 2022, when the situation was seemingly all over the news, I wasn’t sure how to feel. On the surface, the reaction was simple enough: this was terrible, unbelievable, frankly absurd. Brewing underneath was something much more complex and uncomfortable, though. So I took a crack at giving shape to the mess through an essay, submitting it to a handful of publications that accepted unsolicited op-eds. The piece was never picked up, but today its ideas are still authentic to my feelings. Maybe even more so now than they were back then. Below are those ideas and feelings, edited only slightly to account for the time that’s passed.
Early in 2020, my sister and I had seemingly managed the impossible. We had finally convinced our immigrant parents to take a family trip to Russia, just over 30 years after their departure in 1989. The triumph was, well, short-lived. Covid arrived to cause far worse damage than disrupted travel plans, but our disappointment ran deeper than missing out on a little beach time. This was about our heritage. This was about seeing it, feeling it, experiencing it through our parents’ eyes. We saw the trip as a chance to reconnect with our roots. A chance to go home.
However, over a year into Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine—after an invasion that shook up the geopolitical world order, triggered a massive refugee crisis, and snuffed out any hope of a return to our one-time motherland—I now wonder if a sojourn in Russia really would have delivered us to our roots and our home all at once. If the equation “roots = home” is actually true. On one side, roots are where you come from, underpinning the life you build as you age. On the other, home is supposed to be the physical or spiritual place to which you return. Family straddles both of these concepts, and they sound pretty similar, but are they identical? You’d be forgiven for believing they are if your family has lived in a free country for more than a few generations. The chances are higher that they’ve melded into the same thing. If you’re an immigrant though, the calculation isn’t so neat.
Like many former Soviet Jews, my family’s ties to Ukraine and Russia are complicated. My paternal grandparents were born in Polonne in 1918 and two out of only a handful of its 6,000 Jews that survived the Holocaust. My maternal grandfather was born eight years later in Melitopol, a city overrun by the Russians a week into the invasion. His wife, my grandmother, is the only one of my four grandparents born in modern-day Russia—Moscow, specifically. She arrived in 1928 and is the youngest child of Solomon Lozosvky, a Bolshevik revolutionary from the former Yekaterinoslav province of Ukraine and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party until Joseph Stalin’s post-WWII antisemitic paranoia soiled his name and eventually claimed his life alongside 12 other prominent Jews in the Night of the Murdered Poets.
In short, trauma lurks in the dark crevices of my family’s history. How could it not? We’re of eastern European descent. We’ve persevered through the brutality of multiple autocratic regimes. We are, as Stalinist rhetoric put it, rootless cosmopolitans. Or, since that sort of historical sentiment contributed to our escape from a collapsing USSR, we’re what Putin likes to call traitors and scum. Pick your authoritarian, pick the language popularized under him—the reality is the same. Apparently our loyalties have never been with a homeland unless it’s a strictly Jewish one. Roots laid anywhere else never get a chance to run deep, no matter how assimilated we become. Rent a house, buy a house, but don’t draw attention to yourself. It’ll only expedite the inevitable next move.
My parents are as blunt as immigrants come about the circumstances that led them from Moscow to America, and their feelings about the former. Whereas they acknowledged anxiety and even some trepidation about leaving in ‘89—even as it was crumbling, the rodina, or homeland, still excelled at baking a propaganda of guilt into the Soviet consciousness—today they don’t consider Russia home in the fixed sense, a place worthy of return. If and when the war ends, my dad is more interested in skipping past Russia to Ukraine, the land his parents came from. My mom has told me she doesn’t feel Russian at all. “This is why we left,” they said when Putin’s forces invaded. “In fact, it’s even worse than what we left.”
It’s easy to appreciate the motivations for leaving a place that oppressed your family, but children of immigrants often grow up with an incomplete understanding of their heritage that’s difficult to reconcile with the better upbringing granted to them in a new country. While it’s said that leaving your country is never forever, without strong ties back to the origin, things begin to fade. Memories, language, culture. This can take generations, but in my family’s case, the process feels like it’s running downhill. I’ve never been to Russia or Ukraine and I grew up with a mostly rose-colored selection of stories from our history there. At age 32, I’m a first-generation American living a relatively comfortable life that encases inherited trauma and internal conflict over my parents’ attempts to protect me from it.
While I love my family’s traditions and quirks (house slippers, sitting down for exactly one second before travel, the substance of every toast given with a shot of vodka at the dinner table), I resent my parents for the missed window to travel to Russia. While I’m embarrassed about my deteriorating Russian speaking skills and disconnect from a more open generation I’d be part of in another life, I’m immensely grateful for the sacrifices my family made to get here. Back and forth, it’s simply two sides of the same immigrant coin. None of the dark side compares to the present suffering of the military and civilians losing their lives in the war, the millions of displaced Ukrainians, the tens of thousands of Russian protestors, or the fresh wave of emigrants causing yet another brain drain from Russia. But still, it exists, and the problem is what to do with it—especially without the crutch of a family pilgrimage to Russia.
I texted my friend Leonid—the only Russian Jewish contemporary I know well—about these feelings soon after the war’s outbreak. He was born two weeks before me, his family left Russia when he was two years old, and he’s never been back. “Glad to see our families tell stories the same way,” he said. “50 different cities mentioned with a random assortment of stories and no easy way to really learn about your family history.” He also expressed a fear of returning to Russia as a former Soviet refugee and getting pulled into the army, even outside of the conscription age. When I told Leonid that my parents probably worried about the same for me, even if it was highly unlikely, he joked: “‘ehhh..you speak Russian well enough...welcome to the army.’” It’s funny, but not even that implausible. We could go back, but only if we supported and even fought in a war that looks outrageous through our Western eyes.
Of course, none of that will happen. Any return won’t be a dramatic trip to find ourselves and our roots that ends in imprisonment or enlistment. When and if the war actually ends, more likely what we’ll get is a trip as strangers to the land in which our parents grew up. No more, no less. In the meantime, we’re left to continue the business of tentatively—because that’s the only way to do so as a Jew—building on the shallow roots laid in America a generation ago. My dad has taken this endeavor quite seriously, even recently breaking ground on the construction of a family dacha—essentially, a summer house—on the west coast. Whenever I come home from Brooklyn, I join him on one of his semi-weekly 45-minute drives out there to work the land for the day. We carve paths around the property, we carry heavy bags of soil along them, and we plant trees—some in honor of his parents, some simply to bear fruit, and all to ensure a family legacy exists long after us both. We want the same thing all families want, and what the select few who’ve never had to worry about moving around manage to achieve: roots and home, both in the same place. A harmony between that which made you and that to which you return. An illusion that becomes reality. An equation that’s perfectly balanced.
Subscribe to Footbridge, by Victor Beigelman