Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Russian way to the American dream

The West Coast of North America has been attracting explorers from the Russian Empire since the Bering expedition of 1741. California is still the land of milk and honey to immigrants from all over the world, including those arriving from Russia. They learn English, acclimate and assimilate very quickly. Many Californians will readily say that they have Russian friends. Of course, most Americans can’t fathom the difference between Russia and other countries of the former U.S.S.R. Therefore, anyone from Eastern Europe is generally considered to be “a Russian”, regardless of their ethnicity or the actual country of origin.
Fresh arrivals to the West Coast often start their American journey in West Hollywood - a city in Los Angeles County, colloquially referred to as WeHo. It became LA’s own version of New York's Brighton Beach. West Hollywood is officially the most walkable city in California, with Russian stores, restaurants, pharmacies and doctors’ offices lining busy Santa Monica Boulevard. West Hollywood's Russian-speaking community is the most concentrated congregation in the United States.

WeHo is an eclectic mixture of different nationalities and lifestyles. Demographic studies show that approximately 41% of the city's population is made up of gay or bisexual men, sharing West Hollywood with approximately 20% of Russian immigrants, as well as a varied mixture of American artists, seniors and business people. A rainbow flag flies in WeHo’s City Hall, where posted notices are printed in both English and Russian.

This peaceful co-existence was recently tested in 2013. International debates over the possibility of intervention in Syria resurrected the Cold War sentiments in the mainstream media. The re-plays of James Bond films, featuring Russian villains, flooded TV channels. Politicians and talking heads on television repeatedly referred to Russia as an “evil nation” that cannot be trusted. Mainstream media demagogues, normally unconcerned with anything that takes place beyond American borders, proceeded to dissect Russian laws, events and politics.

Russia’s law that aims to protect the children from gay propaganda ruffled the feathers all over America. West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran encouraged gay bars to protest this law by boycotting Stolichnaya vodka. Numerous bars have removed the brand from their shelves and stopped ordering it from distributors. Some establishments went even further, publicly announcing that they “could not support any brand associated with Russia.”
The protesters in WeHo also staged an open protest, by ceremoniously dumping the contents of Stolichnaya vodka bottles into a gutter. While the protest did take place, no vodka was spilled in the process – as the bottles were filled with water, not spirits.

Throughout this controversy, West Hollywood’s Russian residents remained characteristically nonchalant. They traditionally avoid any entanglement in protests or conflicts. Russian-speaking émigrés are typically reluctant to interface with government or law enforcement. This prompted the city of West Hollywood to create the Russian Advisory Board, as well as to add Russian-speaking Deputies to the local Sheriff’s Department.
The cautious unwillingness to make waves stems in part from the difficulty of immigrating to the United States. Statistics reveal that immigration from the countries of the former Soviet Union has fallen dramatically and continues to decline. Some estimate that in 5 to 6 years, Russian-speaking immigrants will account for less than 1% of American passport and green cards holders. The Department of Homeland Security has extraordinarily low quotas for the number of visas available for the applicants from the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), as compared to other countries. Businesses that promise to circumvent this shortage are simply bilking hopeful immigrants out of their hard-earned money.
Another reason for the self-sufficient avoidance is the disappointment with the disparity between America’s shiny image as the land of dreams – and the cruel realities of living in the United States. While the standard of living usually improves for those who arrive to the U.S. with significant amounts of money, the reality is quite harsh for those starting from scratch. Highly educated Russian doctors face years of additional training to obtain a medical license, having to work as nurses, medical assistants or even lab technicians. Engineers usually have to put in at least two to four years of additional training and work experience, in order to receive a license. Education evaluation boards tend to equate Master’s Degrees from CIS countries to an American Bachelor’s Degree. Some employers (such as the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department) even claim that a Russian Master’s Degree means nothing more than an American high school diploma.

The cutthroat, dog-eat-dog approach from employers, landlords and co-workers is sometimes hard to handle for good-natured, trusting CIS immigrants. Many of them eventually return to their home countries. Others turn to crime and substance abuse, out of desperation. Those who stay and persevere, become valued members of the American society. Their plight to survive, combined with mistrust towards the government and law enforcement, is shared by many Americans. Indiscriminate mass surveillance, prosecutions of whistleblowers and infringements on the freedom of press have awakened the country to the deterioration of constitutional rights and freedoms in the United States. Massive unemployment and poverty add to the uneasy atmosphere.

As the American economy is struggling, the unemployment is on a rise. In West Hollywood, the unemployment rate is a lot higher than the nationwide average. Recent job growth rate is in minus. Formerly bustling Russian stores, restaurants and bakeries see a reduced number of customers. Busy Santa Monica Boulevard sits uncharacteristically quiet, in spite of California’s perfect weather. Patiently overcoming setbacks and disappointments in the melting pot of America, resilient Russian immigrants continue their pursuit of the elusive American dream.

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