Recently, in keeping with an every-other-daily tradition familiar to most expats, I sat down for a phone conversation with my parents, two Armenian immigrants who have spent the last 20 or so years living in Russia. These conversations usually entail my being awake at late hours to accommodate the St. Petersburg mornings, and thus tend towards a similar set of bleary and mundane topics — family gossip from my mother or forgetful retellings of history from my father. This time, however, our conversation drifted towards the rarely broached topic of politics; a subject that our vague fear of state surveillance kept buried in tension. I have always thought my life as an immigrant to be fundamentally political; my parents disagreed. “There is none... very little xenophobia in Russia. We feel at home here.” I sit and reflect on the experiences we've shared, and I wonder how that could be true. After all, these are the same experiences that led me to leave Russia in the first place.
I have no early memories of Armenia, the country of my ethnicity and birth. By 1994, with the recession deepening and the Nagorno-Karabakh War encroaching on civilian life, my father was already determined to leave Yerevan. After months of deliberation, he flew out to Murmansk, Russia leaving his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter behind until he could afford to bring them along. Very soon after my birth, my mother bought one-way tickets to Saint-Petersburg. Here the three of us settled into a family contact’s vacant apartment, waiting for my father to reunite with us.
I am still fascinated by the courage of my mother: a young immigrant woman with two small children and no social resources, isolated and placeless. She recently admitted to me that during those early years she lived in fear, keeping a sharpened kitchen knife in her reach at all times. Each night she would hear men coming back home from another night of drinking, shouting and banging on the walls as they ambled up and down the stairs. One of my sister’s earliest memories from this time is of a bruised and screaming woman — a victim of domestic abuse — falling at her feet, begging for help. Reasonably, my mother became very protective during those initial years; we rarely left the apartment and lived relatively undisturbed in the bubble of our family for the next few years.
My first encounter with open, explicit racism came during assembly on my first day of elementary school. Some kid sitting next to me, noting that I clearly wasn’t Russian, confidently told me I should go back to wherever I came from. I responded — in equal parts confusion and impulse —- by punching him. Similar experiences littered my middle and high school years, although my reaction to these incidents softened. Like many minority children, I hoped that a strong work ethic and a low profile would even the social disparity between my peers and I. Despite my efforts, I faced a steady stream of derision from not only my classmates, but also my educators and my school system at large. One teacher, who I later learned was no outlier, would significantly mark down the grades of students who were not ethnically Russian. Admittedly, she was very open about her dislike of immigrant students. This was the norm.
As I progressed through my early teenage years and grew more familiar with Russian media, I began to recognize my experiences with racial hostility as instances of a larger national trend. A prominent public figure at the time was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a politician who had gained a significant profile through his leadership of the ultranationalist LDPR (Liberal-Democratic Party), and whose platform advocated for the deportation of Asiatic peoples, limiting the birth rate of Muslims, and building walls to protect Russian borders. Zhirinovsky’s charged rhetoric and increasing parliamentary power had made immigrants like myself targets of political ire and often enough, violence. I vividly remember the murder of Karen Abramian, an immigrant from Armenia who was stabbed 56 times by a gang of Russian nationalists. Every such case made me weak in my knees, fearing for my life and the lives of my family.
In 2010, I was accepted to an international school in the United States, where I finished my primary education and went on to college. Years passed, and I grew comfortable in the diverse and dynamic environment NYC was offering me. But in the 2016 election, in this new tide of Trump-inflected nationalism, I recognize the spectre of Zhirinovsky (who has even suggested that he and Donald might share the same DNA.) Trump has certainly replicated much of the rhetoric and public policy I observed in Russia a decade ago: mass deportation and the suspension of immigrant rights, xenophobia, and racial resentment. But I have also witnessed an organization and unity among people, something that I found sorely lacking in Russia. It is inspiring seeing people go out on streets and fight for their rights, and for the lives of people who are oppressed and feel even more oppressed under the current government. The energy that has inspired these objectors has also inspired me to channel my political energy into my work as a political cartoonist.
Reflecting on this past, I recognize that my life as an immigrant is marked by this significant rupture: the nation of my parents is not a nation I can ever call "home." Putin has said that “Russia is for Russians”; what does this mean for me? My views are not Russian, my work is certainly not Russian, I am not Russian.
Gurgen Aloian is an illustrator based in Brooklyn, NY. He has a unique experience in that he emigrated first from Yerevan, Armenia to St. Petersburg, Russia as a child, and then to New York in order to pursue a career in political cartooning. More of his work can be seen at gurgenaloian.com.