Global Education

Student renounces Russian citizenship

By Alex Gershanov
Published: September 2009

Though I’ve lived in America for over 12 years, I’ve always felt a deep connection to my homeland in Russia. I’ve never truly considered myself an American and don’t see myself accepting that title anytime in the near future. Now I admit, there’s a good deal of hypocrisy in that. I speak better English than I do Russian, I associate more with the American culture than I do the Russian culture, and most importantly, I don’t think I would ever survive living in Russia. All that aside, I find significant meaning in saying, “I am Russian, and stem a great deal of pride from that one, small phrase.

I’ve visited Russia for a month in summer every other year since I was about seven. Over these trips, I’ve come to realize that America and Russia are two vastly different worlds. To my deep regret, this past summer was perhaps my last trip “home for many years to come.

In part, my family decided to move away from Russia so that I wouldn’t have to serve the mandatory, 2-year military service after high school. Now that may not strike you as a particularly powerful motive to leave because of American military propaganda (mind you that that is exactly what it is). In America, the army is glorified through highly targeted advertising, every other billboard reading, “Live Army Strong. Hell, even I’ve considered joining the Marines.

But what I know for certain is that the Russian army is not a place you want to be. Once a week you hear horror stories of troops being forgotten about in Siberia, recovered either half starving, frozen, or worse. Many who enter the army come out deranged, disabled, or destitute; some don’t come out at all.
I am still a citizen of the Russian Federation and by every law I am mandated to attend that draft. Now I doubt that if I were to stay in the States, the SpetsNaz would come quietly in the night and whisk me away to Mother Russia. If I didn’t return for military duty, however, I would never again be able to set foot on Russian grounds without running the risk of being arrested.

In that light, this past trip was not one of leisure or relaxation; it was to begin the long and grueling process of revoking my citizenship. This would be the only way that, in time, and with a visa, I might be able to visit Russia again. It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to encapsulate what Russia means to me in a single passage, but if you were in my shoes, this is what you would see.

As soon as you step off of the plane and enter Sheremetyevo-2, the main Moscow airport, you get the feeling of “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. Leaving the shiny and pristine Logan airport, you arrive at a dark-lit, gritty waiting room as you attempt to pass through passport control.

Once outside, you realize the rules of the road mean little to the Russian people and that if you have the equivalent of 20 US dollars to “tip the police, the road is your oyster.

To someone like me, who has lived in America for most of my life, this offers a certain sense of freedom.
In general, Russians, particularly in Moscow, are not the nicest of people, at least when compared to American citizens. All but the youth do not take kindly to foreigners, and coincidentally, that is exactly what I was viewed as for most of my trip. I was unfamiliar with the slang, the social customs, and in fact the city itself. It was hard for me to feel Russian and believe in being Russian, and yet be completely alienated by a people who I still consider my own.

There is a large divide between Russia and America in that kids in Russia are significantly “freer than kids are here. Though legally the drinking age is 18, few liquor stores will deny you alcohol at the expense of losing a customer. Focus on safety is significantly less visible than it is in the states. If you go to an amusement park, there are no “you must be this tall to ride this ride signs. If you want to ride a motorcycle at breakneck speeds along a death-defying course, you need not a driver’s license but five dollars and life insurance (optional).

Another difference I noticed is that kids seem to mature and gain independence a lot quicker in Russia. Perhaps it is because the lack of safety precautions offers more life experience. Perhaps the unfavorable economic situation allows parents to focus less attention on their children. The fact of the matter is that children venture through the city on their own from the age of ten. These young children run to the store for groceries, trek halfway across the city on their own to school, and occasionally even hold down part time jobs to support their families. I’m not sure whether this is a good or bad thing, but it is certainly something you rarely see here.

Noticeable, also, is that the city is significantly dirtier and more aged than most cities in the states. And by this I don’t mean the cigarette butts or the beer cans lying around in the gutters, but a distinct layer of time that is visible in every building. Cracked roads and cracked streets appear everywhere but the center of the city. The economic troubles that Russia has dealt with in the past and in recent years can be strongly felt in the appearance of Moscow.

Through all of this, I cannot honestly say that I dislike Russia. In fact, seeing all of these differences, both good and bad, I’ve felt more connected to Russia and have enjoyed the periodic month or so that I have spent there in past years. While never being able to live there due to legal reasons and my separation from Russia’s culture, I will always feel that Russia is my home, and I take pride in calling myself Russian. Having said that, in a few months, when I will swap citizenships and “become an American, I will still hold on to the part of me that will forever declare, “I am Russian.

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