I live in the Cleveland metropolitan area. There are a lot of Russian immigrants here. Most of them I’ve met are from places like St. Petersburg, Moscow, and eastern Ukraine, though I met one thirty-something woman who hails from Omsk, in Siberia, just a couple of hours by car away from the Kazakh border.
Most of them came over in the nineties. When asked why they picked Cleveland, most say there were manufacturing jobs here at the time, that New York was “too crazy” and Chicago full of gangsters. When met with blank stares about the latter from locals, they will shrug and admit that was what they heard about Chicago in the old Soviet Union. Propaganda.
What I find most interesting are their very personal comparisons between life in America now and life in the old Soviet Union then. All of them miss aspects of Communism and, when pressed, will say that on the whole they prefer it to the capitalist system they live under now. As the woman from Omsk said, when she was growing up under Brezhnev her family didn’t have to worry about the basics: food, clothing, shelter, transportation, education, medical care, utilities. Her parents were provided with an apartment, one car, free electricity and gas for heat, enough food to get fat on, education, etc. They had jobs, and what they earned there they could spend pretty much as they wished. They saved up enough to buy another car and a bigger house. If you wanted more than the basics, she said, you had to work for it, but you could work for it and save up to buy it.
I’ve heard much the same from other Russians, along with the horror mothers experienced when they discovered that day care for their kids wasn’t free at all in America, but very expensive. How is a parent supposed to work when most of their pay goes to day care, they ask? Why, in the richest country ever seen on the planet, are the basics not covered? Most are disillusioned and would like to go home, but either they can’t afford it now or they looked into it and found, as one of them told me, that Russia now is “capitalism gone wild,” and unaffordable compared to northeastern Ohio. So they stay, and struggle just like the rest of us here.
My wife asked the woman from Omsk if they still had gulags and political repression when she was growing up. She rolled her eyes, laughed, and said the gulags went out with Stalin and that the Communists in the ’80′s really “weren’t that bad” and “pretty much” left people alone. She smiled and said, “See, you Americans are exposed to propaganda too.” I asked her what she preferred, life in the Soviet Union in the waning years of Communism or life in Ohio now. She thought for a moment, and said “Siberia then.” Then she said maybe we Americans should take the best of Communism and apply it here alongside the best American traditions of reward for hard work and Constitutional freedoms. Then she laughed again and said, “But your own people on top don’t want to give up anything, either. If you try, they’ll fight you. That’s always been true. Everywhere.”
I don’t believe any of these Russians are lying. I offer their observations and experiences as food for thought. Feedback is welcome.