Back to the USSR

Dmitry Ozeryansky was only 5 when he left his native Kiev with his parents for America. He remembers his extended family assembling to see them off. He remembers knowing that he was leaving his home and never coming back. But he remembers most of all that it was his first time ever in a car.

Ozeryansky spent most of his adolescence completely cut off from that formative experience. Growing up in upstate New York, assimilating became his number one priority.

“I wanted to blend in and be American, but I took it to an extreme,” he said. “I was completely cut off from the Russian community. At the time, that was what I wanted.”

So it was with very mixed feelings that Ozeryansky, now 35 and living in Oakland, joined a group of Russian Jewish emigres like himself to go to the former Soviet Union.

The trip was organized by Lenny Gusel, the program director of Generation R, a group of young Russian Jewish emigres. The group’s original name, “the 79ers,” refers to the year 1979 when a large wave of Russian Jewish immigrants came to the United States.

Generation R was founded under the auspices of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services last year. Gusel, one of the co-founders, knew from the start that he wanted to make a trip happen. Just as he too had gone through adolescence trying to become thoroughly American, he said, “I wanted to give people their identity back and a sense of comfort and pride and just groundedness in who they are.”

Seven people went on the trip, six of them from the Bay Area. The seventh person is also an emigre, living in New York.

The group visited Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then had time on their own to visit their hometowns. They also spent time in the Jewish communities.

“There was no concept of public Jewish life when I was there. My dad did his best to educate me about religion,” said Konstantin Kraz, a 28-year-old Santa Cruz resident who left Leningrad with his family in 1983 when he was 7.

Kraz said he was impressed by the number of younger Jews he saw in synagogue. “It was hard for me to tell how into it they were religiously, but they were there,” he said.

Gusel believes “people are openly Jewish, and are not afraid of looking openly Jewish.” Gusel, who had been back to the former Soviet Union once before, with his parents in 1996, but found it a totally different experience than going with his peers.

“When I went with my parents, I was looking at the country through their eyes and their experiences,” he said. “I was experiencing their nostalgia, and watching them see Russia as much as I was seeing it for myself. Going with my peers, I was not guided by their desire to reconnect with old places and friends, as I didn’t really have those.”

The group marveled at being in a place where, despite the fact that they understood the language and could read the signs, they still felt like foreigners.

“It was amusing going out to local restaurants and seeing food on the menu that we grew up watching our mothers cook,” Kraz said.

When asked to reflect upon what their lives would be like had they stayed, Gusel said he thought he would be a very different person, with different values, as it seems that everyone there is driven by just trying to survive.

Ozeryansky, meanwhile, is trying to reconnect with the Russian part of himself, reading a bit of a novel in Russian every day.

“I felt lost for years, like I was cut off from a part of myself,” he explained.

Going as an adult to the place where he was immersed in Russian language and culture for the first time made him start to even think in Russian. “It brought out a lot of warmth for me,” he said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."