I discovered who I was after the Soviet Union collapsed.
My family immigrated to California in the late 1970s, part of the exodus of Russian Jews escaping anti-Semitism. I was young when we left, and while that spared me the worst of the anti-Semitism, it also cut me off from the Russian part of my life.
My coming of age in the U.S. was a culturally schizophrenic experience. I spoke Russian at home and English everywhere else, simultaneously growing up in two languages and cultures, knowing that I didn’t wholly belong to either one but without a clear sense of how the two fit together. By the time I was graduating college, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, and it became possible to go live and work in the emerging post-Soviet space. I found an editing job in Moscow in one of the many Russian-American joint ventures that had sprung up in the newly liberalized environment and went to cure my cultural schizophrenia.
I arrived in Moscow after being gone for fourteen years. The country I had come to was called by its new name, Russia, or rather, Russia was the old name from before the Revolution that had now been resurrected. Names of cities, streets, and metro stops also changed, the Soviet-era ones reverting to their pre-Revolutionary counterparts. This national name changing, confusing for many, made me feel comforted. Like me, Russia had to go into the past to find its identity because it wasn’t sure what that identity was.
As Russia struggled to understand itself, I began to sense that for me the answers were possible. I felt this when I spoke Russian, not only in private settings like in the U.S., but at work, in the street, everywhere. I felt it too standing on Red Square, the onion domes of St. Basil’s swirling in front of me in a colorful sea; walking around Chekhov’s house-museum, amazed at being in my favorite writer’s home; reconnecting with family friends I hadn’t seen in years and hearing stories about my family I hadn’t heard before; spending time with new friends, Russian and American, the evenings infused with a sense of the community we were making in this time and place.
On my last day in Moscow after two years, I was on the Staryi Arbat, one of the city’s major and bustling boulevards. The street stretched before me, lit up by the afternoon sun, its nineteenth-century architecture painted in bright twentieth-century pinks, aquas, and yellows. As I took it all in saying goodbye, I felt rooted. I had two languages, two cultures, two parts to my identity. The fragments of my two selves did not fit into a neat whole, and there would always be cracks and missing pieces and voids. But they could now coexist without jostling each other for position. I had to fly halfway around the world to make this happen, but it had and I knew it.
I left home in Moscow to go home to California, and for the first time, both of those statements were true.