By Jane Charney
People who find out that I’m originally from Moscow invariably ask whether I go back often. Since emigrating in 1996, I’ve been back once – for a close friend’s wedding in 2006. It was January, and we walked on Arbat among a throng of snowmen (not a metaphor).
I barely recognized the city I’d roamed as a kid and young teen. And Muscovites barely acknowledged my by-then American intonations.
Since then, I’ve traveled to Spain, Morocco, Israel, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Argentina, Canada, and several American states. But the desire to revisit the place of my birth hasn’t struck yet. Every year, I feel more and more American despite speaking Russian at home to my Soviet-born husband and American-born children. I have strong Russian roots, but these days I’m more Russian-speaking than Russian.
In truth, I’m the illustration to the oft-quoted saying that “we were Jews in Russia and needed to come to America to become Russians.” When people asked, I tend to gloss over the Russia part – partially to avoid the vodka jokes. I’m a Russian-speaking American Jewish woman.
I’m also a student of politics and history. More than that, I’m a recovering journalist. My undergraduate and master’s theses covered the intersection of journalism, politics and identity in the early Soviet Union and in post-Soviet Russia. Every time I hear about Putin and his crew squandering the modest democratic gains of the 1990s, I feel a well of frustration and sadness.
I still have friends there, who are actively working toward preserving hope. My first cousin works at the Moscow human rights organization Memorial, and others are journalists and teachers. Still others are just living their lives, raising families, trying to survive — much like many of us in America.
One day, I might bring my kids to show them the wealth of culture and history I remember from childhood — if it’s not all uprooted and deconstructed. It seems at least half of Moscow is in perma-construction mode.
But not now. Not while there’s a head of state who is, for all intents and purposes, a dictator. Not while the screws are tightening on the what little freedom the press has left. Not while gay people are being persecuted – because while there wasn’t sex in the Soviet Union, apparently, there’s no such thing as love in Russia.
I’ve got at least 157 places on my to-visit list. They all come before the motherland.