Do Russian and Soviet memorabilia an immigrant make?

Anna Sui makeup display representing Russian tchotchkesI talked about Russian tchotchkes a few weeks ago. And then recently, I spotted this make-up collection from Anna Sui, and though it’s called “Dolly Girl” and references wind mills, it has an unmistakable waft of the Slavo-folksy to me. $27 worth, no less.

I’m not a fan of the Russian “look”—tchotchkes, nostalgia, kitsch, call it what you will—Soviet kitsch or Russian folkiness—thanks, but no thanks.

I’ll admit to a soft spot for Tsarist Russia. I grew up around fine, handmade china from what was once the Imperial porcelain factory, the version of things Russian that appeared in our home in the early 90s, after Russia replaced the USSR on the map.

Before that, we were a lone island among immigrant households—almost no markers of the country we’d left to be found on our walls or shelves. Our home was notably silent on Russian/Soviet decor. There were no Russian newspapers, no Russian TV, and very few Russian books. (And I’ve talked about the whole Russian food thing too before.) No matroyshkas or Lomo cameras (or card-carrying Lomographic Society members), and even that weird, over-sized Afghan-esque blanket/wall hanging that seems standard issue in every Russian home was relegated to the basement early in my childhood. The most memorable thing on our walls was a series of over-sized Australian Aborigine paintings. Aside from some Russian children’s book and records, it was not quite your standard issue Immigrant home.

Hence this conversation, which I also mentioned in my last post:

Twitter thread on Soviet/Russian tchotchkes with Vicki Boykis

So my theory about this (of course I have a theory) is that leaving a country called the Soviet Union was a very different experience from leaving a country called Russia. Who wanted reminders around of a place that didn’t want you and you couldn’t return to?

Mostly, conversations like this make me realize how unusual my family was in terms of identifying as Immigrants—we didn’t—and how clueless I was about that gap. People are surprised when I tell them that I grew up speaking English at home, or my complete ambivalence towards Russian “stuff.” In turn, I’m puzzled by their surprise. Why should I carry around some misguided sense of affection or nostalgia towards a place we fled?

But those markers, as surface-y as they may be, also ground you firmly to a place, even if that place is on the other side of the world and can’t be found on a map anymore. The absence of “Russianness” from our home decor, our books, and so forth, leaves me in a strange limbo. When I’m in someone’s house that is obviously Russian, it’s familiar and alien at once. I feel like I should have stronger connection to it, or even something to show in return. When I hear conversations in this country about immigration or multiculturalism, I have to remind myself that “hey, that’s me too.” But when something reminds me that I’m not from here—pop culture references that I had to pick up outside the house, say—I also feel alienated from the people around me by my (sudden) non-Canadianness.

So: It’s complicated. And way more to say than can be summed up by a lack of matroyshkas in my childhood.

Ironically, my parents have become softer in their stance towards their home country (I even gave these plates to my mother for her birthday—very Slavo-folksy, yes?), and the rest of the world around me has been in a thrall of things Soviet for some time now, whether it’s kitschy theme restaurants or Soviet avant-garde style. Side effects of the Soviet collapse and time passing.

4 Comments

  1. Vicki on June 24, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Thanks for the shout-out.

    I think the reason so many Soviet Jewish immigrants collect Slavo-folksy stuff is that they had a mostly Slavic identity until they realized they didn’t, in the United States. Even though Russia as a country is Bad For the Jews, our parents for the most part grew up immersed in Russian culture, and things like that mushroom plate evoke that nostalgia. Not only did they grow up in Russian culture, but they heavily identified it, even though they knew they were different as Jews. At least that’s the case for my family.

    We are very proud of Russian accomplishments and, as an extension, Russian folkways.

    And I think what you’re feeling can be described as third-culture kid syndrome 🙂



  2. Lea Zeltserman on June 26, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    You’re one of the few people I know of who consistently talk about this very particular Soviet Jewish niche, so you get lots of shout-outs ;).

    Also, I get a syndrome? It’s my first one – I’m so excited!

    And yes, I think you’re dead on about coming to North America and suddenly feeling more Russian. Or just being told that you’re Russian by the outside culture, just as in Russia they were told they’re Jews, not Russians.



    • Vlada on June 29, 2011 at 2:02 am

      I’m going to join in on this convo! For me, growing up it was a combination of rejecting all things Russian because they made me different and embracing all things Russian because they made me different (the latter came later, too). It was never tied to a history of anti-Semitism, though, because that wasn’t a history I knew too much about at the time. All I knew was that there were parts of my identity that made it more and less difficult to assimilate and all I wanted (at least initially) was to assimilate.

      I feel like now these different pieces of Russian/Soviet memorabilia seem important and nostalgic in a way that they never were before. They remind me of my family (who live three hours away) even though they may have never been a thing in our home. They have that sort of value anyway just because of what they represent and the kind of meaning ascribed to them by others. Do I like matroyshkas because they mean something to me or because others assume they do and I play into it because I wish they did? Hmmmm…

      For the most part, I feel like I’m only now allowing myself to explore aspects of my identity that for a long time I tried to hide/deny or felt uncomfortable/ashamed about. So is this a kind of reclamation? I don’t know.



  3. Anna Tarkov on July 8, 2011 at 8:51 am

    It’s absolutely third culture kid syndrome 🙂 More on that here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_culture_kid

    I’ve felt this way for most of my life. I identify strongly with being an American, but I can never quite get there 100%. Identifying as a Jew is a whole other can of worms 🙂

    My husband incidentally is as American as it gets. Third generation and living in the same city, the same neighborhoods for most of that time. I often think it’s one of the things that drew me to him. Having a strong sense of place, of belonging was something I lacked so I sought it out in someone else. I used to not watch or like baseball for instance, like most Russians. But is there anything more quintessentially American? So when I met Jim and he was really into the White Sox, I started asking questions and grew to love the sport and become a White Sox fan myself. But as much as I could know about the game and the players, it will never feel like an authentic love for me the way it is for Americans who remember their first game, their first hot dog, the first time they saw their favorite player hit a home run, etc. To me it will always feel like I’m a bit of pretender, a faker, even if I’m a genuine fan who understands the game.

    I feel the same way with pop culture references. Even if I was here to experience the band or the TV show or whatever, it still feels like it doesn’t completely BELONG to me. Like the Wikipedia entry says, it’s probably something only other third culture kids can understand 🙂