by Julia Isakov
Growing up, I was always told stories about the Soviet Union “back in the day.” Both my mother and my father grew up in Ukraine, and their families had lived there for generations. But Ukraine wasn’t the biggest part of their identity. They were all Russian.
When I was a little kid, I asked my grandparents how they managed to live in Ukraine while not speaking Ukrainian. I couldn’t imagine being able to survive in the United States without English! My grandpa just laughed and said, “Of course we speak Ukrainian, we just don’t unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
I was a little ashamed of my Ukrainian identity when I was young. Before the Russian invasion of Crimea, most people didn’t even know what Ukraine was. Whenever anyone asked where my family was from I would say Russia and hope that they didn’t ask which city. The way I saw it, my family was Russian, and we just happened to be on the wrong side of the border when the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred.
This nostalgia for the USSR affects my family’s whole life. Every single time the conversation leans towards Ukrainian politics, someone reliably brings up the “good old days.” As I got older and learned more about the world, the idea of the “good old days” of the USSR conflicted with what I was taught in school about communist Russia. And yet my grandparents always insisted that it was better then and that Ukraine’s downfall was because of Western influence.
There were times when I felt like I personified that negative Western influence to the rest of my family. When the extended family gathered together, they’d debate over my identity; one person would look me up and down and say, “Yes. She’s definitely a slavanka.”
Someone else would interject with: “No, completely Americanized.” Some people would say I was Americanized with pride, proud that I lived in the United States, and could have a better future than kids born in Ukraine. Others would say it almost with disgust, disappointed that I didn’t keep in touch with my roots.
Regardless, the thing that stayed with me from all of these discussions is the importance of success. Both my parents and my grandparents talked about how in the “good old days,” the people who did well in life were those that studied and were at the top of their class. It more fair than the current corrupt Ukrainian system, where those who pay off the teacher get the highest grades. My grandparents always insisted that by having good grades, I can continue the family legacy, even if it’s in a new country.
My grandpa taught me about the good old days so that I could create a series of amazing new ones.