Journal Archive > 2001 > October

Tufts' Russian-speaking community has experienced unprecedented growth over the past decade.
© Mark Morelli

A shared past informs their world view

Their earliest memories are of a place and time that no longer exist—the world of "little pioneers" and collective ideals in which children were taught to think of their classmates as friends, comrades, brothers and fellow citizens. But it was also a world of cynicism and discrimination in which the government was not to be trusted, and opportunity was limited.

While much has changed for these Tufts students who were born in the USSR during the Soviet system's last gasp, many lessons from their childhood remain and inform their world view today. It's one of the factors behind the growth of a cohesive Russian-speaking community on campus.

That shared upbringing is "pretty much a bonding agent," said Grigoriy Syrkin, A03, who arrived in 1997 from Kirovsk in northern Russia.

And, it appears to transcend the vast geography of the former Soviet Union—whether from Russia, Belarus or Ukraine, from cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg or towns like Kirovsk or Bobruysk, these students say the environment in which they were raised has created a similar world view.

"It's part of our identity," said Karina Weinstein, J02. Although she was only 11 when she left Odessa in 1991, "those first 11 years were very important."

"It's a value system that you acquire," said Joseph Lomakin, E02, who emigrated in 1992 from St. Petersburg. "A mentality about what life is all about." In general, he said, Russians are more cynical about government and have an overriding distrust of bureaucracy and authority.

Weinstein and Lomakin are among a group of several dozen students who either live in Russian House or are involved with the Russian Circle cultural organization.

"The big common value is education" and the sacrifices that Russian immigrant parents have made for their children, Weinstein said. "Maybe it's not unique to Russians, but our parents moved here to give us the chance to go to college, and that's slightly different than our friends."

"It's significant that our parents are intellectuals," Lomakin said. "That's part of our common ground. They came here largely for our benefit."

In addition, most of the native Russian speakers enrolled at Tufts are Jewish, and they shared the experience of discrimination and limited opportunity. "Most Russian Jews came here to give their children a chance to go to school," said Marina Goldis, J02. In Russia, both before and after the fall of communism, Jews either faced quotas at prestigious public schools and universities or were denied entry altogether.

"In Russia, on your passport, it's always different," Lomakin said. "Instead of ‘Russian,' it says ‘Jewish.' " And that difference carries a lifelong stigma, cutting Jews off from education, jobs, housing and many other avenues of advancement, and exposing them to outright anti-Semitism.

That shared past has also helped shape their visions for the future.

"My personal experience as a Soviet Jew, persecuted for my religion," has helped fuel a "drive for social justice" and spurred a particular interest in Latin America, said Weinstein, an international relations major. "I can connect to all other people in other parts of the world who face racism and prejudice."