When Russian emigres in the West talk positively to their new neighbors about Russia, they perceive themselves as being largely disbelieved.
And when those emigres talk Russian politics with fellow emigres they are likely to be greeted by disagreement.
These are findings of a study I conducted last November. I invited readers from three online publications — OpEdNews.com, EurasiaReview.com, Russia-Insider.com — to participate in the study.
Responses came from both diaspora members and non Russians, about 60-40. Over 80 percent of all respondents reside in North America, the balance in Western Europe or elsewhere.
It was up to each individual reader to take part. That means those in the study are self-selected and do not represent a statistically valid sample. Accordingly, we can’t generalize from the results with certainty. But they do suggest some anecdotal patterns that are interesting to consider.
Take for example the matter of Russia’s role in the world today: Is it positive or negative? I asked the Russian respondents if they are familiar with the views of fellow diaspora members. They overwhelmingly said yes.
How do they characterize their compatriot’s attitudes? Well, it depends. There is dramatic difference in assessments. It depends upon the period in which the survey participant emigrated. Those who left Russia in the 1990s say that nearly a third of the diaspora members they know view Russia’s role positively. But for those who came earlier and those who came since 2000 it’s a different story. They see only around 10 percent of their fellow diaspora members viewing their homeland positively. But obviously in both cases most diasporic views are negatively biased.
It seemed puzzling that respondents in the middle period of emigration, the 1990s, saw things differently from the rest. It seemed aberrational. Those who emigrated earlier and those who came since 2000 responded like each other. They perceived the attitudes of their compatriots more bleakly than the 1990s group.
At first I thought the aberration might be related to how much first-hand contact people had with modern Russia. Are some working off of memories of a bygone time? But that didn’t seem to correlate. Only about a third of the 1990s cohort had visited Russia in the past five years. That’s the same for visits of the earlier emigres. Some members of both groups have in fact never been back. But those who emigrated since 2000 are visiting Russia in greater numbers. Ninety percent of this group report at least one visit in the past five years. They’re the ones with the most current personal experience. So it’s not first-hand experience in today’s Russia that is making the difference.
The reason that the 1990s crowd think compatriots are more positive than the other emigre cohorts remains a mystery. This survey provides no clue.
The non-diaspora survey respondents have a slightly different story to tell. They think they have a sense of how their Russian emegre neighbors look upon Russia’s role in the world.
That’s possible because many of those Russians have not been closemouthed about their country of origin. In the survey almost all the Russians confessed that they’ve conveyed their attitudes toward Russia to others in their present country of permanent residence.
What do the non-Russians think of those views? To them the immigrant views seem pretty evenly divided between positive, negative, and neutral.
Whatever those views may be, however, the North American and Western European responders have been mostly unpersuaded by them. Two thirds claim they have not been influenced. But not everyone is immune to diasporic influence. A solid third admits to having been influenced by what they’ve heard from the Russians.
The personal comments I received from survey respondents give even more insights into the Russian diaspora question. Here is a sampling. (Comments from diaspora members are tagged “D” and those from others are labeled “ND.”)
D: “Russia is a new country. With the collapse of the USSR it went through a terrible period, but in this century it has been reborn. It is now a vibrant, prosperous country, with better prospects for its people than the US. Many in the Russian diaspora are either stuck in the past or forced to face an uncomfortable truth that they made the wrong choice by leaving Russia. Or perhaps they are simply trying to fit in wherever they are by abandoning their past. As for my own family, we are going back to Russia.”
ND: “I worry about the ‘independence’ of Russian immigrants to the US.”
ND: “Here in Finland the Russian diaspora is very diverse in both educational level and Finish socio-economic status. Like many expatriates, they tend to view the ‘old country’ through the lens of their memories. Some are romantically protective of Russia, some are exaggeratedly critical. But all seem to talk about a personal image of Russia, not the currently existing reality.”
D: “Russia’s diaspora in the West seems totally passive politically. The negative stereotypes about Russia and Russians in the US are so pervasive and deeply rooted that any voices that don’t fall in line are dismissed as enemy propaganda.”
D: “Most of the people that emigrated before the collapse of the Soviet Union came having had terrible experiences. Now they extrapolate those experiences and assume it’s been the same since they left. They think everyone is suffering. Since the Ukraine crisis began, the few Russia supporters there were have disappeared altogether.”
D: “The Russian diaspora in North America is totally brainwashed by CNN and Fox News. Even if people have been back to Russia they still believe the Western corporate controlled media: Russia is an aggressor and Putin is the epitome of evil.”
ND: “My Russian emigre family suffered great losses under Stalin. I was reared on accounts of Stalinist Russia, purges, etc. But over the last 18 months or so, alternative news sources have turned me around with regard to Russia. May God preserve Russia.”
D: “I was brought to the US as a small child and have always had an internal desire to return to Russia. Here in America whenever I speak positively of Russia I’m made to feel like a naive idiot, even by some fellow emigres.”
ND: “I am an American convert to Russian Orthodoxy. The priests I know all dislike Russia; no one believes Putin is a true believer; and I’ve heard the priests even say that Patriarch Kirill is FSB. They’re convinced there are few believers in Russia. I think many Russians who now live here have not been back in quite some time. They are only going on past memories and have no idea how things have changed in Russia.”
ND: “Before I had ever traveled to Russia, I had many negative opinions, even ones that were self-contradictory. Working with Russians, talking with them, and eventually marrying a Russian changed my opinion to positive.”
D: “The American media lie in unison. It’s as if there is a central ‘information’ command that disseminates the ‘proper’ messages. It’s creepy. They lie by omission and by fabrication. Most people, including the Russian-speaking diaspora, do not have the time sort through it all and dig for the real information. So, they just believe what they hear and form opinions based on that.”
ND: “A work colleague of mine is a Russian citizen who regularly visits family there. She says ‘everyone in Russia loves Putin,’ that Yeltsin was a ‘disaster,’ and generally confirms the attitudes and opinions coming from the Russian media. She was able to convince me that Russian state media are not pure propaganda, and that they cover both sides of controversial stories.”
D: “All the anti-Russia propaganda and lies about Russia are making me consider a move back home to Russia.”
ND: “There’s nothing wrong with Russia’s diaspora here in Australia. But there is something wrong with the Russian government’s attitude toward them. Germans here have the Goethe-Institut, but there is no Pushkin equivalent. And there’s no easy way for the diaspora to visit Russia, just the same tiresome bureaucracy that we all face.”
The question that prompted this study is whether Russians who’ve emigrated to the West offer us a clear picture of what’s really going on today. I wondered whether it is biased toward their motherland. Or perhaps it is tainted by bad experiences they’ve had in earlier times.
The answer seems that both conditions appear to be true at the same time. The Russian diaspora is not a unified body. Perhaps its diversity can be summed up in the following stereotypical characters:
John. His birth name is Ivan. He’s here in the West and wants to fit in. When his American friends and colleagues bemoan Putin, he just keeps his mouth shut, even though he knows they’re misinformed. John even changed his surname from Simonov to Simons.
Anna. Like John, she is dedicated to assimilating into the Western society in which she now lives. She’s totally apathetic to today’s political and economic situation in Russia. Unlike John she doesn’t have a quiet belief that the Western critics of Russia are wrong. She’s convinced that the negative criticism she hears in the news is justified.
Anastasia. She is an unmistakable immigrant and makes no pretense of being Westernized. She wants to get along, but not to blend in. Indeed, she makes a point of her victimhood past in Russia. Her friends are more likely fellow immigrants than natives of her new country. She’s not at all afraid of voicing her condemnation of her former country. She doesn’t want to be identified with what’s going on now.
Vyacheslav. He came to the US seeking a better lifestyle and greater professional opportunities. But as tensions have grown between Russia and America he’s become increasingly uncomfortable. Vyacheslav believes that Americans have developed a totally fallacious view of Russia. He’s appalled by the omnipresent denigrations he hears in the news. He has emegre friends who feel the same. Some of them are ready to pack it in here and head back to Russia.
Given all that, it’s hard to say that anything is intrinsically wrong with Russia’s diaspora. All the Johns, Annas, Anastasias, and Vyacheslavs are creatures of their own experiences and circumstances. They are what they are.
Clearly their various roles in the US-Russia political dialog may not be to everyone’s liking. But the truth is that some of them are wallowing in honest misunderstanding and others are living in fear of expressing views that run counter to the Western mainstream.
The answer seems to lie in reducing the amount of misunderstanding all around. Not just among the diaspora members, but also with the Westerners amongst whom they now live.