The Washington, D.C. metro region is home to many different immigrant groups, but one demographic that barely a makes blip is the region’s Russian-speaking population, and in particular, non-Russians who spent their early years growing up in the former Soviet Union (FSU).
In 2012, 38,518 immigrants were granted legal permanent resident status in the metro Washington region. Less than 1.7 percent came from FSU countries, excluding Russia. Of the 31,601 immigrants naturalized in the region that same year, less than two percent came from the FSU, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
This group consists of a generation of people from the outer Soviet republics – such as Estonia, Armenia, or Kazakhstan – who often studied Russian in school, while speaking other languages at home. They share the common experience of growing up under Soviet rule.
Washington resident Mariana Cernei was 13 when her native Moldova became independent in 1991. Her first language is Romanian.
Cernei, who moved to D.C. over ten years ago with her American husband, identifies closely with the area’s active Romanian community, but still has friends and acquaintances from the FSU with whom she speaks Russian.
“I think those who move abroad tend to have more of a connection with people from FSU,” says Cernei.
She adds that that this mostly applies to her generation and older, who have memories of watching the same films and television shows from Soviet times.
“We only had a couple of TV channels so everyone was watching the same programs,” Cernei says.
They share childhood memories of preschool, summer camps, games and being a “Pioneer.”
The Pioneers were a youth organization from the Soviet Era, comparable to scouting in the U.S., except that almost all children aged 10-15 participated.
Maria Felenyuk was just nine when the Soviet Union collapsed, but remembers the Pioneers well – because she was too young to get in.
“I was mad when the Soviet Union fell apart because it was the year before I was supposed to become a Pioneer, and I was so looking forward to getting the red scarf!” says Felenyuk, referring to trademark uniform accessory worn by all Pioneers.
Felenyuk grew up in Kyiv, Ukraine and has good memories from her early Soviet childhood.
“There was no crime, there were no poor or rich people. I could go to the store by myself when I was six,” she says.
Her father is of mixed Slavic and Jewish heritage and considers himself considers himself “Soviet” – not unlike many Americans with mixed ancestry. He moved to Cincinnati in 1997, which has an establish Russian-speaking community.
Felenyuk’s Ukrainian mother raised her with a strong sense of nationalist pride in Ukraine. But she also had a strong sense of adventure, and followed her father to Ohio.
Not until she moved to D.C., after college, however, did she start to feel at home in the U.S.
Within weeks of arriving in D.C., someone from the Ukrainian community reached out and invited her to a happy hour at the Ukrainian embassy.
“My Ukrainian has gotten so much better living in DC than it’s ever been,” says Felenyuk, who went to a Russian-language school in Kyiv.
“D.C. is very educated. In Ohio, people had no idea where Eastern Europe was,” she says. “When I moved to DC and I realized people here know where Ukraine is, I started to feel more Ukrainian again.”
Like Cernei, Felenyuk got her American citizenship five years ago. It was not an easy decision, because she had to revoke her Ukrainian citizenship.
She almost walked out of the swearing-in ceremony.
“The only reason I didn’t walk out is because the speaker – an Asian-American – gave a speech about keeping your identity. He basically said that I could be 100% American and 100% Ukrainian.”
Ludmilla (Buryak) Clarke is also of Ukrainian decent, but from a very different upbringing than Felenyuk. She moved here with her American husband in 2001 from Turkmenistan.
Clarke said her adjustment to American culture was made easier by her exposure to Peace Corps Volunteers in Turkmenistan she met through her husband.
“People from the former Soviet Union do very well in D.C.,” Clark says.
She has FSU friends from Georgia and Kazakhstan, and her international development organization employs people from all the former Soviet states.
However, her Soviet-era experiences were very different than many of the FSU people she knows in D.C.
Clarke’s mother is Russian, but her stepfather was Turkmen. She grew up in a small Turkmen village near the mountains north of the Iranian border and spent her free time at home, helping her mother with the cooking and cleaning — like a traditional Turkmen girl.
Clarke went on to study English at the university level, which is one thing — despite their different upbringings — that she has in common with many of her FSU peers
“I always thought it would be great to learn another language so I could have friends outside of what I had at that point — someone who came from a completely different culture,” Clarke says.
Another thing that some FSU people in D.C. share is a wariness of Russia.
Buryak, who often escorts delegations from the Russian university system for her job, described one occasion where they party was complaining about the increased immigration to Moscow from other FSU countries.
They described immigrants in Moscow as “those who came from the mountains.”
This attitude is partly why she and her family didn’t join the waves of Russians who fled Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Ukrainians and Russians moving back to Russia are often seen as outsiders – like foreigners in their own country,” Clarke says.
Being from some of the most remote mountains — literally — in the FSU, she could have taken such a comment personally. But it was doesn’t directed at her — the delegation thought she was from Moscow.
About this Story
My interest in the former Soviet demographic stems from my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan. I am acquainted with several people who were born in the Soviet Union through Peace Corps connections in Washington.
Through these acquaintances I know that a DC has a large number of younger professionals from the Former Soviet Union, and a lot of them know each other, not necessarily as friends, but as a larger circle of acquaintances.
Because of this commonality I was quick to lump FSU people together, but after conducting my interviews I realized that finding a substantive commonality was challenging.
Imagine comparing someone from Massachusetts with someone from Minnesota, except the Minnesotans still spoke Swedish as their first language.
After I interviewed Ludmilla I realized that her sense of former Soviet identity is very different than Maria’s. I interviewed Marianna because I wanted to get the viewpoint of a non-Slav, whose mother tongue was not Russian (even though she started learning Russian at age two).
In spite of these differences, I opted to find a commonality. The FSU community is very intertwined in D.C., and their similarities worth exploring. If I had more time, I would have tried to interview someone else, like a Georgian, for yet another perspective.
I recorded two of the interviews with the thought that I could use sound bites as a multimedia element. I quickly learned that – in spite of my best intentions — I conduct my interviews more like a conversation and end up interjecting before a good sound bite comes out.