Awful Russia breaks another Heart

Julia Ioffe (who blogs at Moscow Diaries), writing in the Washington Post:

About a month ago, I came home to find an odd e-mail from Alexander Parkhomenko, a man I’ve never met. “Is everything really so bad in Russia?” he wrote.

I have been reporting from Moscow for the past six months, and Parkhomenko had been reading my work. He liked the stories, he said, “but one gets the sense that you were brought back here by sheer force to this hated country, back to the funny, stupid Russians, back to a horrible city unfit for life, and that your ‘love/hate relationship’ means mostly the latter.”

This was not the first time a Russian had attacked me — in an only-I-can-make-fun-of-my-family sort of way — for being critical of Russia, which to many people here is indistinguishable from hating Russia. But something about the way Parkhomenko cut to the central dilemma of my place in Russia shook me.

Because I am back. And — aside from the detail that I now live on the same street, in the same building, where I spent part of my childhood and from which my parents, Jewish refugees, took me almost exactly 20 years ago — I am back in a way that is very easy to resent.

I may have been born here, speak the language, and have Russian family and friends, but I no longer have Russian citizenship. Instead, I am back as a representative of the American press, the same institution that needles the Russians for their failures and their absurdities.

I am, in other words, a traitor.

I am not like the Chinese American or Indian American repats, thousands of whom have rushed back to propel the countries of their roots on their jet-packed upswings, enriching themselves along the way.

I am a Russian repat, and there aren’t that many of us. In fact, most people are moving in the opposite direction. According to a recent calculation, more people have emigrated during the alleged stability of the Vladimir Putin era than during the chaotic 1990s. Until last year, Russia ranked among the three countries that produced the most asylum-seekers. Last year, it made progress; it came in fourth.

Few of us are here to participate in something uplifting, a fact I realized by the time I had my first grumbling, fatalistic conversation with a local. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I had coffee with a spokesman for a Russian state corporation. First he asked if I really believed all the negative things I wrote about Russia and his company, or if it was the American editorial line. By the second cup, he was rolling his eyes at the kickbacks and bribes he knew were probably all over the company, and dismissing Russian sloganeering about modernization as “Potemkinism.”

If Russians don’t have much hope for this place, we Russian-born, American-bred returnees have even less. A fellow repat recently read Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” with her Russian-language teacher. When they got to the part expressing hopes that in 500 years the nation would have decent roads, they burst out laughing. “Onegin” was first published in 1825.

For those of us born here, the question of when Russia will catch up with its hopes is not that funny. Twenty years ago, on April 28, 1990, my parents — at 30 years old, just three years older than I am now — dropped their careers and their friends who gathered at the airport to sob, took their two little daughters and walked through passport control, relinquishing their citizenship forever. They took us away as a political statement about this nation’s chances of a bright future; to them, there would never be one.

Once safely in lush American suburbs, however, our parents sentimentalized the country they’d left — the culture, the language, the better table manners and the clear truth that we Russians won World War II virtually unaided. And like many expat children who hardly knew the place, I accidentally fell in love.

After a college class on Soviet history helped cement my obsession, I went back to Russia almost every year, until I decided to try living here.

But coming back is a luxury. Repats like myself love living here because we do so voluntarily; because we, with our blue passports, can leave whenever we want, because our parents had the foresight to do it for us.

We don’t have to get upset, the way my grandmother in Moscow does, that elections are doctored, because it is not our democracy that is being stolen. We don’t have to pay into the corruption that eats up, even by the government’s own estimates, one-third of the country’s budget.

Here, we live a charmed and parallel life. The extent became clear to me on a recent evening, when I sat in a Russian friend’s kitchen, buried in another dispiriting talk of how long the current incarnation of Russia could possibly last. Suddenly, her 3-year-old daughter ran in. My friend leaned down to hug her and murmured sadly into her hair, “Oh, daughter. What will become of us?”

Few repats I know of stay more than five years, and most of us will go back to our more stable, more protected, more predictable lives. Moscow will become a memory, a crazy story that over the years will become a riff repeated at cocktail parties until it becomes shiny from use. We’ll read the Russian news less and less, keep in touch less and less with our Russian friends who will still have to live here.

Of course, this rankles someone like Parkhomenko: You left, you lived your cushy American life, and now you’re here again, criticizing us before you scuttle back to your suburb?

A few days ago, I finally found the courage to respond. I explained that my job was to objectively report what I saw, not to flatter or berate. Then I asked: “How can you love Russia and ignore all its problems?”

He wrote back long and fast. He said he was now in Kazakhstan. Many of his friends had been arrested. “Believe me,” he wrote, “that what’s happening here corresponds to Moscow the way Moscow corresponds to New York.” He said he had quickly run into Kazakhs telling him to shut his sanctimonious mouth. But his reaction was a distinctly Russian one: It wasn’t his place to criticize, and, anyway, what could one man do?

“Eventually, I just became silent,” he wrote. “I can criticize the government, I can point out the inaccuracies, but I cannot say that my truth is better than theirs. Alas, everyone has their own. And if I can be helpful to them somehow by proposing what I think is right . . . I will be glad if they accept it. But they are in no way obligated to do this.”

But Kazakhstan is not Parkhomenko’s, at least not in the way that Russia is still mine, and will be indelibly.

The room where I write is where my great-grandmother spent the last years of her life. I am surrounded by remnants of her elegant china, by my grandfather’s art books. Every day, I pass the school — an ivory block, set back from the road — where I went to first grade. My mother went to school there, too.

These things have become part of my daily life again, and that is perhaps why Parkhomenko’s words jabbed so keenly. Yes, I am critical of Russia, but because I wish the country would meet the standards it sets for itself. I wish the government would stop comparing itself to Europe and the United States in one breath and proclaim its sacred exceptionalism in the next. I wish it would stop posturing and demanding respect, and simply command it with its actions, the way it showed it could when half the Polish government crashed into a Russian field.

I realize these are un-Russian sentiments, particularly in a country where 85 percent of adults, according to a recent poll, think they can do nothing to make an impression on their government.

But how can you love this place and remain politely silent, responding only if the Kremlin calls on you?

24 responses to “Awful Russia breaks another Heart

  1. LR you really do surpass yourself with these fabulous posts!

    • Francis Smyth-Beresford

      Yes, whether or not the content reflects accuracy rather than emotion, Julia Ioffe is a gifted writer. You do know LR wrote only the first line, I suppose? Still, I guess your assessment that she “surpasses herself” is more or less true, for what it’s worth.

    • Voice of Reason

      I absolutely agree with Ron: Julia Ioffe’s articles far surpass in their intelligence and kindness the usual stuff written in this blog. Keep up the good work, Julia!

  2. Thanks for posting this article.

    An honest first hand account of Russia’s tragedy (used in the truest literate meaning of that word) as a nation.

    I would pay money to see a debate between Julia Ioffe and say the likes of Russophile fantasists like Mike Averko for example.

    • I still don’t understand why she chose to go to that dump called Russia. It’s just irrational and so there must be some reasons she prefers not to reveal

      • Francis Smyth-Beresford

        Yes, probably some conspiracy – perhaps she works undercover for the CIA, or the Mossad. No, wait, that doesn’t make any sense either. If those state services wanted to know what’s really going on in Russia, they’d just read this blog. Here’s a chance for you to get some recognition, RV; call up Langley and suggest they pull all their diplomatic operatives out of Russia and shut down the U.S. Embassy. All they really need is a laptop and an internet connection.

        • I meant she had some personal reasons in my opinion

          • Francis Smyth-Beresford

            Okay, fair enough. But I’d suggest being paid a decent salary plus full per diem expenses for living in a foreign country, coupled with an excellent chance of being the only reporter on the scene (compared to, say, Washington, where everybody who isn’t a politician is a reporter) if something big happens is incentive enough. Also, she gets to operate autonomously, without an editor looking over her shoulder.As a bonus, she gets to visit relatives.

            Most of the Russia critics have something in common; no ideas for improvement. Just saying Russia should be more like America isn’t a solution, and a constant one-two punch of criticism and insults only incurs enmity. Suggesting Putin should spend more oil profits on orphanages would be a start, but even that would not address the root problems as to why there are so many orphans. It’s much too complicated to be resolved by criticism alone. It certainly has nothing to do with who is the current world champion in women’s tennis.

            • What do you mean “the only reporter on the scene.” Moscow is full of foreign correspondents. I believe there are at least 10 full time American news outlets maintaining bureaus there. Plus British, German, French, etc.

              • FSB is not too good at counting it seems.

                Or telling the truth.

                • Francis Smyth-Beresford

                  Perhaps I should have said AMERICAN reporters, although I thought that was pretty clear. If not, sorry. Perhaps it was once as you describe, RV, but press services have been winding down their foreign-correspondent operations since about 2005 or earlier – mostly due to costs. There are still far more American reporters in Washington, a city of just over half a million


                  than in Moscow (10.4 million) and other cities outside the United States.


                  Foreign press is not really relevant, unless you think Americans would be just as happy to watch the BBC for their news. But since you brought it up, the foreign press presence in Washington has been steadily growing as domestic sources declined.

                  Still, I admire your ability to diagnose an inability to count or tell the truth based on nothing, since you supplied no alternative information beyond your brilliant appraisal. It sounds like fun. Andrew has horns like a water buffalo. Prove you haven’t.

                  • I am not sure what it is we are arguing over now. You said Julia was the only foreign correspondent over there. I said it is manifestly wrong, there must be many more. Then you said there are more American journalists in DC than in Moscow, and I of course agree, but isn’t that natural having lots of press people covering the nation’s capital?

                    So, what’s the topic now? You have managed to confuse me completely

                    • Francis Smyth-Beresford

                      “…coupled with an excellent chance of being the only reporter on the scene (compared to, say, Washington, where everybody who isn’t a politician is a reporter) if something big happens is incentive enough.”

                      I never said that Ms. Ioffe is the only foreign correspondent in Moscow. I said she had an excellent chance of being the only foreign reporter on the scene if something big happens, which would be a function of a large city with a big population and a small community of foreign journalists. My point is that major news outlets have drawn down their foreign correspondent staffs, and that Ms. Ioffe is a member of a much smaller community than might have been in, say, the late 1990’s. She writes a blog with occasional bylines in major outlets such as the Washington Post, so I’m assuming she’s operating independently, and is not part of a foreign press office. Hence the suggestion she operates autonomously.

            • Your words are very wise Francis!

  3. Bloody hell.
    Julia Ioffe.
    Yet another jewess to spread crap around.
    Isn’t the live in USA or Israel good enough to just stay there?

    • Voice of Reason


      Your ability to make friends and influence people is amazing. You must be a hit at parties. You must be a professional diplomat. Am I right?

      • You know, everybody loves such a smart, attractive and modest person as myself.

        • Ouch. I am Russian, with mixed ancestry. I love my country.

          What I seriously beleive, is that Jews made my country better.

          Julia Ioffe may be stupid, but making such comments towards Russian Jews as an ethnicity, and laughing over the surname “Ioffe” is a much more stupid thing.

          • I did not laugh at the girl’s surname.
            Actually i didn’t laugh at anything in that my initial comment. That’s just annoying. I’ve seen similar articles so many times already.
            Why all these people call their parents ‘refugees’ for example? That’s the apparent lie. Yep, their parents ran for better life. It’s not a sin.

          • Dmitry, i’m really curious where have you seen the ‘laughing over the surname Ioffe’ and any ‘comments towards Russian Jews’.
            Anyway, thanks for the good example of how jewish people were ‘ruthlessly oppressed’ in Russia. The country-known institutions were named after them.

      • Imagine someone beeing sick meets that ‘Julia’.
        And ‘Julia’ as a ‘good journalist’ starts criticising him for the weak voice, high temperature and diarrhea.
        What would be your opinion about that kind of ‘criticism’?

        • She’s stupid, yes.

          But Jews as an ethnos were ever a good for Russia.

          • 1. I know and love many jewish people,
            and happy to have such people here in Russia.

            2. I don’t think that ethnicity matters that much – like all jews or all russians are same.

            3. I have a deep respect to the country of Israel.

            4. Yet i’m not going to close my eyes on who personally are those active ‘critics’. Why actually should i?

          • When you have finally decided who among you patriotic Russians is more anti-Semitic and who is less, can somebody explain what’s so unusual about the last name “Ioffe.” Who older than 5 years old is laughing at people’s names?

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