Think twice before punishing a “Russian” for Putin’s terrible war

It’s a tough time being Russian in America. Even if you’re not actually Russian.

I grew up in Brooklyn’s Russian community, but almost nobody was actually from Russia. Most are Jews from the former Soviet Union. I was born in Russia, but that is rare. My parents met in Turkmenistan.

Most of the people I knew were from Ukraine, like my father, or from Belarus, like my grandmother. Others came from Latvia, Moldova, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and so on. But since we spoke Russian to each other, we used “Russian” as an abbreviation for self-description.

It didn’t exactly fit, but it struck the alternative of complicated declarations of a country that no longer exists, changed borders, cities whose names were changed long ago, and the way Jews were always kept separate in Soviet society. today The President of Ukraine is Jewish and very Ukrainian, although he too grew up speaking Russian.

There are also non-Jews from the former Soviet states in “Russian” areas such as South Brooklyn. We weren’t all the same, but we were similar enough to form a tight-knit community.

Today it’s more complicated. Invasion of Russian President Vladimir Putin messed up the delicate system.

American Facebook groups are changing “Russian” in their titles to a more appropriate “Russian speaking”. It makes sense to omit the shorthand, but it’s also a security measure.

Facebook has made “a temporary change to its hate speech policy,” according to Reuters, “allowing users in some countries to incite violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in connection with the invasion of Ukraine.” If Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, envisions keeping hate speech “in context,” it should spend more time on social media.

It’s not like being “Russian” in America has ever been easy. The 1980s weren’t great, which had to do with the threat of nuclear war and Ivan Drago’s killing of Apollo Creed in Rocky IV. A short period from the 1990s was fine. Then the left imagined that Russia had somehow installed Donald Trump as president and would not let go of that misguided belief no matter how devoid of evidence. She formed a “resistance” to him, succumbing to every ridiculous conspiracy theory, the more Russian the better. And now Putin’s despicable invasion of Ukraine.

A protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn on March 6, 2021.
A protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn on March 6, 2021.
Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

But even in the worst of times, when kids called me Commie or when members of the “Resistance” told me on Twitter to “go back” to where I came from, we didn’t have Carnegie Hall uninviting Russian conductors like it did recently the case was at Valery Gergiev or the Metropolitan Opera Cancellation of the singer Anna Netrebkowho denounced the war, but not strongly enough to please management.

It’s not just happening in America. In Germany, the Munich Philharmonic fired Gergiev as chief conductor because he did not denounce Putin. Even in Soviet times, the Americans succeeded in separating the Russian people from their government. We understood that they are not as free as we are, that they cannot express themselves like free people.

It’s not just living Russians on the chopping block, either.

The Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra canceled performances of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s music, and Italy’s Milano-Bicocca University was considering ending a course focused on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s work.

The Russians in America are sitting up and taking notice. On the one hand, we came here to be American and to leave the old world behind. On the other hand, our closed ways, our language, our food now make us a target.

Carnegie Hall has canceled a performance with Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.
Carnegie Hall has canceled a performance with Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.
Photo by GEORG HOCHMUTH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Russian is bad. People are posting pictures on Facebook of “Russian pickles” for sale on Brighton Beach, which are not actually from Russia but are the area that “Russians” use for pickling, and suggest a name change is in order. In the same neighborhood, a rumor spread that the Taste of Russia market would change its name to Taste of Ukraine. That turned out to be false, but “Russians” discussed the name change online, with many finding it absurd. Russian restaurants are seeing declining reservation numbers.

And worse. Tatiana Varzar opened her eponymous restaurant Tatiana in Brighton Beach in the 1990’s and expanded to Hallandale Beach, Florida 17 years ago. Varzar serves a variety of Eastern European dishes: khachapuri from Georgia, salo from Ukraine, lamb chops “pa karski” from Armenia, pelmeni from Russia and so on.

Varzar told me the Hallandale restaurant received anonymous calls containing threats. She forwarded a voicemail to me in which the caller referred to Russians as assassins and threateningly told her to change the restaurant’s cuisine.

Varzar is from Odessa. This is in Ukraine. She left in 1978. “We left an oppressive state and it followed us here,” she says.

It’s the culture of “do something,” even if the something is stupid and wrong, that causes Russian artists to be canceled and eventually to receive threatening phone calls in restaurants. We don’t always have to act, signaling virtue, how much we care, and showing our commitment to eliminating the bad people.

The non-Russian community is traumatized by what is happening in Ukraine as many people, myself included, still have families in Russia and Ukraine. And yet the community is more united than ever. Putin’s actions may be black and white, but there’s still a lot of gray for the rest of the world.

Twitter: @Karol Think twice before punishing a “Russian” for Putin’s terrible war


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