Conflict Within Culture: First and Second Generation Russians
By Aaron Bowen
Valentin Solodyankin finds himself living in two worlds. English is easier and it's the language he uses most of his day. But speaking Russian at home with his family helps him maintain his culture.
His accent becomes stronger when he's around other Russian people, but then disappears when he's around his English-speaking friends.
"My parents are always telling me to speak in Russian when I'm at home. I'm not used to speaking in Russian because I'm around Americans so often," Solodyankin said.
More than 25,000 Russian speakers live in Spokane and they make up the city's largest linguistic minority, according to Andrey Grebenshikov, the creator of community website Russianspokane.com and the city's only Russian-language newspaper. Spokane's numbers are so high because families follow each other from Russia to help create similar communities in America, Solodyankin said.
But conflict abounds the Russian community. A disconnect exists between first and second generation Russians in Spokane. The first generation doesn't want the second to forget the culture from which they came, while the second attempts to fit into both U.S. and Russian culture.
Second Generation Reflection
Solodyankin is not a typical second-generation Russian. In fact he isn't really second generation at all. He came to America with his parents in 1991 when he was four, so technically he can be considered first. His family came to America like so many other Russians looking for religious freedom. He attends Slavic Baptist church. Solodyankin goes at least four times a week, once for a traditional service on Sunday, choir practice on Monday, he teaches a class for younger children on Tuesdays and another time for Bible study on Wednesday.
"Church is huge in maintaining culture. If someone doesn't show up at church then people start wondering if they've gone out into the world," he said.
When someone leaves the church, they have left their country behind with it. They may keep their faith but leaving the church is like disowning their heritage.
He was considered American when he traveled to Russia last summer by the native Russians. They told him it was because he was happy, and joking around. Native Russians are far more serious; they don't often joke or laugh in public, and they rarely smile. Solodyankin thinks this is because they do not have all of the amenities that the immigrants do, and their lives are much harder.
"They would ask us why we were always smiling," Solodyankin said.
To Solodyankin's parents there is nothing more important than maintaining the culture and traditions of Russia. His parents encourage him to speak Russian when he's at home. The biggest difference between his parents and he is that they always speak Russian Solodyankin says. Part of maintaining culture to them is not marrying outside of it. His parents believe he must marry a nice Russian girl. However, he does not particularly care from what culture his future wife comes. His parents do.
"My parents aren't as trusting of Americans. If something goes wrong they will blame Americans even if it is nobody's fault," he said.
First Things First
Members of the Russian community maintain that their culture is open to outsiders. Oksana Tepp is a first- generation immigrant from Russia who teaches Russian language courses at Eastern Washington University, and Spokane Falls community college and is happily married to a American.
"Russian culture is open to anybody in the US, to everybody who wants to learn about it, appreciate it or to become a part of it," Tepp said.
Russian culture is more open in larger cities, such as New York or San Francisco, but in smaller cities like Spokane the Russian speaking ethnic group is more isolated and organized through the church, Tepp said.
Vitalia Vasylenko, a Russian exchange student who attends Whitworth University, says the community is quite open to outsiders. She says the younger generation interacts with U.S. culture fine, while language barriers cause problems for the parents and older generations.
To Tepp, one of the most important things a Russian parent can do is educate his or her children about the culture of the motherland. She teaches her children as much as she can about Russian history, literature, art and culture traditions.
"I will always remember my Russian roots, but maintain and cultivate Russian culture everywhere around me," she said.
She feels the younger generations are letting their cultural heritage slip away. That the second generation seems to have all but lost their cultural pride, and the third generation, Tepp believes, is completely American. In Russia, family is everything; the community is everything. The individualistic culture of the U.S is very different from Russia. Americans tend to focus on the individual. Russian families like Tepp's have a hard time getting their kids to be family and community oriented while living in the U.S.
"They speak more English than Russian and know very little of their own family history. They are becoming Americans very quickly," Tepp said.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that more 2.6 million Russians adults the U.S. and about half of them have their Bachelor's degree or higher. With 1.4 million in the work force, over half of the Russians living in the U.S. are unemployed.
A study done in 2002 by the Journal of Employment Counseling found that Russian immigrants go through a condition called 'role shock.'. Immigrants experience feelings of stress and embarrassment when adjusting from a high-powered career to a low-level position.
Solodyankin's father has his master's degree yet he works for Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane. His father doesn't care what kind of work he does as long as he can provide for his family. That is what is most important in the Russian community, more important than cultural traditions and speaking the language is family. Solodyankin says without family none of the cultural elements really mean anything.
"My parents have become friends more than parents," he said.
Though they may quarrel about what language he speaks and who he dates, Solodyankin and his kin believe the most important things are still respect and family.