Caught in cultural crossfire: Being Russian American during the invasion of Ukraine

PRIME writer Martin Sevcik, a first-year labor studies student of Russian heritage, poses for a photo inside Kerckhoff Hall. He has been contemplating his identity in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Anya Yakimenko/Daily Bruin)

By Martin Sevcik

April 28, 2022 at 1:43 a.m.

“Do you ever hide your Russian heritage?” 

We were driving along the Pacific Coast Highway on the way to Santa Cruz when my mother posed the question to me. I was gazing out the passenger-side window, absorbing the tall trees and undeveloped fields I never see in Los Angeles. My mother loves California – the people, the weather and the wildlife – and she passed on this adoration to me. 

I immediately understood why she had asked. Just a month prior, Russia had launched its invasion of Ukraine. 

I snapped my head at the question. How could my own mother suggest such a thing?

My mother, a Russian raised in what is now known as Kyrgyzstan when it was part of the Soviet Union, always encouraged me to absorb her culture. I grew up in houses adorned with blue willow china and nesting dolls, and there were always leftover pelmeni and plov in the fridge. Our family friends were from Uzbekistan, Georgia and Moldova, and their shared values and traditions rubbed off on me. I always felt like an American first, but I was regularly reminded of my Russian roots.

My mother’s question concerned me. In the wake of Russia’s invasion, I had indeed been thinking about hiding my heritage. My background had begun to feel like a liability, but I had no clue that my mother – who had always embraced her culture – shared those thoughts.

“Not really,” I lied. “I haven’t really tried to hide it, I think.” I didn’t want to exacerbate the fears that prompted her question.

I turned my head to look back out the window. As the trees rushed by, she continued the conversation.

“It’s a little scary to be a Russian these days,” she said. 

I understood how she felt. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brewed American animosity toward Russian people, even when they have nothing to do with the crisis.

This hostility stems from valid criticism of Russian militarism. My friends, peers and government have rightfully blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his disregard for human rights. His orders have flattened once-vibrant cities, separated families and killed thousands of Ukrainians, including many civilians. More than 5 million Ukrainian citizens have become refugees in the wake of this assault, and millions more have been displaced.

In response, Western democracies have come together to sanction Russia in a rare moment of unity. The West has blacklisted Russian oligarchs, suspended international banking and blocked countless trade goods. 

While these sanctions target the Russian government, Russian citizens are often caught in the crossfire. A shipping service blocked a package for my grandmother containing important medicine mid-route and sent it back to our California home. The reason? “We don’t ship to this country anymore.” 

New microaggressions have slipped into my daily life. Sometimes, when I tell someone I’m Russian American, I watch their perspective of me change in real time. Before one lecture, my seat neighbor asked about my thoughts on the Russia-Ukraine war. I provided a scathing analysis of Putin’s political and moral failings.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” she replied. “I thought that you would … ,” she added, her voice trailing off. 

The conversation abruptly stopped. We didn’t talk about it again.

Vitriolic discourse has bombarded my mother from all sides. Ignorant people have always told her that she isn’t American and that she should go back to where she came from. But now, her Russian friends, colleagues and family say her opposition to the Russia-Ukraine war means she isn’t a true Russian. Global politics have fundamentally changed her life, and much of that turmoil has crept into my own existence.

As I navigate daily confrontations with Ukrainian tragedy, American xenophobia and Russian patriotism, I am forced to address a fundamental question: What does my Russian heritage mean to me?

It was still morning as my mother and I drove along the coast – early enough that we could reasonably expect my uncle to pick up the phone despite being 10 hours ahead in Volzhsky, Russia. We traded places at a gas station so my mother could call him from the passenger seat. The day could not have been more beautiful. It had just rained, and the blue skies mingled with luscious green fields around us – a sharp contrast from my uncle and grandmother’s Russian home, a decaying industrial city near what was once known as Stalingrad. 

My mother knows the risks when she calls. She’ll usually say, “I hope he isn’t drinking,” in a troubled voice before she opens WhatsApp. My uncle is an unhappy drunk, and he picks fights when he drinks. Nowadays, it feels like my mother and uncle fight every time they talk on the phone. 

Today was no different. She cried as they argued during the car ride. My uncle threatened to join the Russian army in Ukraine.

“I’m going to kill those Nazis,” he said, yelling over the phone, repeating false claims of Ukrainian Naziism spewed by the Russian government. “I need to support my country.”

Through tears, my mother pleaded with him, trying to tell him the truth – trying to revert the propaganda that has rotted his brain. 

She hung up the phone partway through the conversation. When he texted her about it, she pretended our cell reception was spotty. 

My mother loves her brother, but she hates what the Russian media has made him become. His television depicts a warped version of the truth – broadcasts and panels and speeches insisting Russia has done nothing wrong. Her brother has never seen photos of Kyiv, Mariupol or any other bombed city in Ukraine. The news tells him Ukraine secretly wants to be part of Russia. In his warped world, the war is obviously justified. 

We kept driving, my mother venting her frustrations aloud. Eventually, the car ride became silent as she winded down. I was afraid to turn on the radio news. The last thing we needed was an update on Kyiv. 

To some extent, it seems like my mother despises her home country – or rather, the closest thing she has to a home country, given the Soviet Union’s collapse. She has never voiced this outright, but it’s implied between the lines of our phone calls. She can’t believe the same people who liberated Nazi concentration camps are piling civilians into mass graves

Not everyone sees it this way. Plenty of our Russian and Russian American friends have instigated arguments over WhatsApp, trying to demonstrate their nationalistic pride. They decry Ukraine’s sovereignty through the screen, punctuating their arguments for the invasion with curses and slurs. When my mother asserts her position – that the war is unjustified and Putin is wrong – the disputes escalate.

“I am proud to be a Russian,” one extended family member declared, implying that my mother is not. They sent her links to Russian news articles asserting that the invasion is justified, that the Bucha massacre was staged and that Russia will win. 

My mother has stopped responding to these messages. There is no point in arguing with people who will never change their minds.

To my family, my mother’s contrary views somehow make her less Russian. And if my mother – born and raised in the Soviet Union to Russian parents – is not a true Russian, what does that make me?

Sevcik sits on a set of stairs near the Kerckhoff Patio. In the months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sevcik and his mother have discussed what their Russian heritage means to them. (Anya Yakimenko/Daily Bruin)

I’ve always been somewhat self-conscious of my identity. I’m not completely Russian – I’ve spent my entire life in the United States. But I’m also not strictly American – you can’t order my comfort foods at Denny’s. 

I’ve navigated the balance between the two since elementary school. On the car ride home from “The Spy Next Door,” a cheesy Jackie Chan family film featuring stereotypical Russian villains, my mother complained about the Russian representation. Her comment opened the door for me to ask her something that had been on my mind.

“Is it good to be Russian?”

I don’t remember her response – only the question. And ever since, I’ve been trapped in a cultural holding space where my identity has been both an explicit blessing and a subconscious curse.

Thereafter, I would mention my heritage when relevant but typically avoid it in conversation. Why face jokes about alcoholism, communism and the gulag from my peers when I could pass as American instead?

I connected with Russian culture, traditions and people but felt burdened by the label. That’s why my mother’s question on the Pacific Coast Highway – whether I ever hide my heritage – bothered me so much. I’ve been conflicted about my identity for so long but never once had she validated these concerns until then.

As I pondered the situation during the rest of the car ride to Santa Cruz, my mother’s query slowly morphed into a suggestion: You should hide your Russian heritage. But deep down, that didn’t feel right, especially coming from her.

A few days later, I found myself loafing around with my father. This is a tradition of ours – we frequently sink into the comfortable chairs at his apartment and half-heartedly entertain meager chats. 

Searching for a conversation starter, I mentioned my mother’s question. My father immediately sat up, and his typically inexpressive eyes lit up. He began to tell me a familiar family story; when World War I broke out, my great-grandfather and his wife escaped from the region now known as the Czech Republic. They moved to a Minnesotan town full of Czech immigrants and established a comfortable life for their family.

But then my father mentioned something I had never heard before – my great grandmother was ethnically German. World War I launched anti-German hysteria across the U.S, and many German immigrants faced heavy persecution. German language and culture largely disappeared from the public sphere, and my family covered up my great-grandmother’s identity for fear of discrimination. I suddenly understood the consequences of hiding my heritage.

I am Russian American, and I want to preserve my traditions for future generations, both out of respect for my mother and for the culture itself. I want my children to eat pelmeni at the dinner table. I want them to observe a moment of silence before they travel – a Russian custom. I want them to truly understand the importance of Victory Day, the day Russia celebrates the Allied victory in World War II and honors the sacrifices necessary to achieve it.

But now, I’m afraid I will be forced to relinquish my culture for self-preservation.

This is admittedly an unlikely possibility. But animosity toward Russia exists, and I sometimes feel my heart sink as I read news headlines. Within days of the invasion, a restaurant in Washington D.C. called Russia House was vandalized, and U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell proposed that all Russian students should be removed from U.S. universities.

This xenophobia is paired with a culture war against Russia. At least 11 states banned imports of Russian vodka, and Electronic Arts Sports proudly removed Russian teams from the hit video game series FIFA. These performative stunts alienate Russian Americans, including myself. 

As I write this, the Russia-Ukraine war continues to command my attention. Ukraine’s future is uncertain. One day, I hear about a devastating assault that leveled a once-vibrant city. The next day, I watch footage of Ukrainian soldiers picking through the shrapnel from a failed Russian operation.

I don’t know what comes next – for my mother, for my family or for myself. Given the strong sanctions and longevity of the war so far, there is a strong possibility I won’t see my family for another few years. My grandmother may pass away before I get the chance to visit her again.

But I don’t want to end on such a dissonant note. It’s not what my mother would want either. For every moment we’ve had our identity challenged, we’ve also had a moment in which our community embraces us. Every day, friends and colleagues from around the world – Russian or otherwise – reconnect with my mother amid the crisis, offering support in this stressful moment. 

Some acquaintances have doubted my mother’s activism in support of Ukraine, claiming her identity makes her efforts insincere. My mother has ignored these comments – organizing antiwar protests in our hometown, planning escape efforts for Ukrainian friends and donating thousands of dollars in relief aid. During all of these efforts – and despite the pressure she felt – she never hid her heritage. 

My mother’s question about whether I hide my heritage doesn’t bother me as much now as it did on the Pacific Coast Highway. Since that drive to Santa Cruz, I’ve had time to reflect on my identity. I now understand that locking my heritage away is the worst possible choice. That’s how your heritage disappears, as it did with my great-grandmother.

On some days, I still feel like I did on the Pacific Coast Highway, trying to sort out my identity. Every day brings new headlines, conflicts and surprises.

But on the Pacific Coast Highway, I wasn’t alone. My mother was right beside me. And I know there are plenty of others – UCLA students or otherwise – navigating the same problems I face. 

My name is Martin Sevcik, and I am a Russian American. I’m still figuring out what this identity means to me, but after years and years of uncertainty, I finally understand that I shouldn’t be ashamed of it.

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