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

I was raised in Brooklyn’s Russian community, but nearly no one was really from Russia. Most are Jews from the former Soviet Union. I was born in Russia, but that’s rare. My parents had met in Turkmenistan.

Most people I knew were from Ukraine, as was my father, or Belarus, like my grandmother. Others were from Latvia, Moldova, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and so on. Yet because we spoke the Russian language amongst ourselves, we used “Russian” as a shorthand for self-description.

It wasn’t an exact fit, but it beat the alternative of complicated explanations of a country that no longer exists, changed borders, cities whose names were amended long ago and the way Jews were always kept separate in Soviet society. Today Ukraine’s president is Jewish and very much Ukrainian, though he too grew up speaking Russian.

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

Today it’s more complicated. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion has discombobulated the delicate system.

American-based Facebook groups are changing “Russian” in their titles to a more fitting “Russian-speaking.” It makes sense to drop the shorthand, but it’s also a safety measure.

Facebook has made “a temporary change to its hate speech policy” allowing “users in some countries to call for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the Ukraine invasion,” according to Reuters. If Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, imagines hate speech will remain “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, what with the threat of nuclear war and Ivan Drago killing Apollo Creed in “Rocky IV.” A brief period starting in the 1990s was OK. Then the left imagined Russia had somehow installed Donald Trump as president and wouldn’t let go of this misbegotten belief no matter how evidence-free it was. It formed a “resistance” to him whereby it succumbed 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 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 disinviting Russian conductors, as it recently did to Valery Gergiev, or the Metropolitan Opera canceling singer Anna Netrebko, who 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 for not denouncing Putin. Even in Soviet times, Americans were able to separate the people of Russia from their government. We understood they are not free like us, that they can’t speak up like free people can.

Nor is it only living Russians on the chopping block.

The Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra canceled performances of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s music, and Italy’s University of Milano-Bicocca considered pulling the plug on a course focused on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work.

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

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

Russian is bad. People post pictures on Facebook of “Russian cucumbers” for sale on Brighton Beach, which are not actually from Russia but are the kind area “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 was changing its name to Taste of Ukraine. That turned out to be false, but “Russians” debated the name change online with many finding it absurd. Russian restaurants are seeing declining reservation numbers.

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

Varzar told me the Hallandale restaurant has been getting anonymous calls that include threats. She forwarded a voicemail to me in which the caller refers to Russians as assassins and says, menacingly, that she should change the cuisine of the restaurant.

Varzar is from Odessa. That’s 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 the cancellation of Russian artists and ultimately the threatening phone calls to restaurants. We don’t always need to act, to virtue signal how deeply we care and to display our commitment to canceling the bad people.

The not-actually-Russian community is traumatized by what’s happening in Ukraine, with many people, including me, still having family in both Russia and Ukraine. And yet the community is more united than ever. Putin’s actions might be black and white, but for the rest of the world there is still a lot of gray.

Twitter: @Karol

Source: NYPOST

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