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Immigration to and, More Commonly, from Russia

What prompts citizens to leave their homeland forever and how does their life change because of it? I’d like to start my reflection at the first steps of the process – in the consulate, because as it happens, I was there this morning (don’t freak out though, I’m not moving).

The Russian consulate we visited – a place that deals with different federal documents, getting them, renewing them, getting rid of them – is located in Seattle, Washington in a stately skyscraper downtown. Inside is a luxurious hall, tastefully furnished. Elevators in this thirty-something floor building are called by indicating your desired level on an electronic pad. Everything is of the top class, of the newest technology. You soar up to the twenty-fifth floor and enter the Consulate . . . and, it’s like you were dumped in the middle of some scrawny office in the Soviet era. Bland walls, the air stuffy and too hot, a dozen service windows you have to visit, each with a cranky line and an even crankier employee.  Overall, hours of headache.

I describe all this to you because it reflects so well one of the greatest incentives to move from Russia to America. Despite all of Russia’s cultural treasures and powerful history, it has not risen economically nor politically to a first-world level. The government is far from democratic, laws are obeyed as seen necessary, day –to-day life is just mess – in short, the government simply needs to figure itself out.

Most immigration occurred towards the end of the Soviet era, when citizens were finally being let out of the country. Some came for reasons of religious persecution, some (mostly women) came by marriage, others – especially mathematicians and scientists – came by work invitation. The Soviet era especially brought starvation and other hardships to many, many families and so people left in hopes of finding a better life. However, Russia has come a long way since the fall of the Soviet Union, so don’t start cancelling your travel plans.

What is the life of Russians now settled in the US? This varies of course with the reason they came, but for the most part people seem to be content. These accounts come from personal experience of course, so they only relate to the current and the local, all filtered through my perception. There were of course times in US history when immigrants were more than unwelcome, as in the Red Scare, but in the present it seems that Americans have accepted the Russians and Russians have accepted the Americans.

Those that came for marriage either live happily with their new family or divorce, which is unfortunately becoming common. Those that came by religion have grown their communities and built churches. Those that came by work became professors in various universities and research corporations. Interestingly, the three sections do not seem to mix incredibly much, and all are completely different in general characteristics, so the Russian you met today might not reflect the majority of the immigrant population, not to mention the native population.

Of course, immigrating isn’t just a matter of signing a ton of paperwork and stepping out of the office into your new country. It’s so much more work, more time – a choice that is hard to reverse. However, home is a different place for every person and sometimes it’s not where you are. Sometimes you have to travel half the world to find it and spend half your life making it your own.

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