When Stas Schectman first told his parents that he was planning to return to Russia to conduct research for his doctoral dissertation, he was met with a difficult question: “Why, after all we went through to get out of there, would you want to go back?”
Their anxiety is understandable, considering they fled then-Soviet Ukraine in 1978 to pursue a better life for him in America. But Schectman’s parents, like the families of many of the young Jews of Russian descent now participating in the distinguished Fulbright Program in Russia, gradually have come to accept his decision.
The Fulbright Program of educational grants, founded in 1946 by U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, is the largest U.S. international student exchange program. With a 2006 budget of $235 million, the program awards approximately 1,300 scholarships in more than 140 countries worldwide.
For many skeptical parents, the opportunity to participate in the prestigious program, whose previous recipients include Thomas Pickering, Sylvia Plath and former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, trumps any fears they have about their children returning to a country that for many of them still remains shrouded in painful memories.
Jane Vaynman’s mother talked her out of doing a year abroad in Russia when she was an undergraduate at Stanford, but when it came to a Fulbright scholarship and a chance to work with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, Vaynman knew it was too good to let pass.
“At least you’re somehow touching the U.S. government,” Vaynman’s mother told her.
Vaynman, who is in Moscow to study issues of nuclear non-proliferation, will return to the United States in the fall to receive her doctorate from Harvard University.
Jewish students of Russian descent make up at least 15 percent of the 2006-07 program across Russia and nearly one-half of Fulbright students in Moscow. For many of them, the program offers not only the opportunity to! conduct research in their chosen field, but also to rediscover their heritage — one they and their families had previously been denied.
“When I was little I used to get about once a year this thing called ‘a small present,’ and I used to always call it ‘a small present,’ ” Vaynman, a native of Kiev, recalled. “It was like my favorite food. In reality it was matzah, but they wouldn’t tell the kids that because God forbid you would utter the word matzah on the playground.”
To shield them from ostracism in Soviet Ukraine, Vaynman wasn’t told she was Jewish until the period leading up to their departure in 1988. She was 7 years old.
Each of the Fulbright scholars who spoke to JTA was quick to point out the lack of overt influence their Russian Jewish background played in their decision to return. However, they were equally aware of issues lingering just beneath the surface that may have played an integral, if not subconscious part in their circuitous journey back to their mother country.
After growing up integrated into middle-class America, part of the appeal for Schectman, a 31-year-old doctoral candidate in visual anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia, was living somewhere “where there was something actually attached to being who I was.”
Sana Krasikov, 27, cited anti-Semitism as “a very big reason” for her family’s emigration.
“Not because of overt persecution, but because there were all kinds of limitations and quotas” imposed on Jews by the Soviet government, she said.
Now Krasikov, whose father was placed on a seven-year waiting list after being told that only 2 percent of doctorates in his field were allotted to Jews, has returned as a recipient of one of academia’s highest honors. She is spending her Fulbright year conducting research for a book on a familiar topic: female immigrants caught between two cultures.
Vaynman, who speaks fluent Russian but whose ability to read the language has declined, sa! id she h as not experienced any anti-Semitism in her first five Fulbright months in Russia.
“Maybe it’s because I can’t really read the anti-Semitic slogans spray-painted on the walls,” she kidded.
A certain sense of apprehension about their Jewish roots, formed in their youth and nurtured by their family’s experience, seems to remain.
“If I say that my family emigrated before the end of the Soviet Union or in the late ’80s, they immediately know that I’m Jewish,” Vaynman said. “And if anybody asks me the question ‘when did your family leave,’ I know what they’re asking.”
Perhaps that apprehension is justified.
Schectman was harassed last year by a group of young, drunken soldiers on the Moscow subway. They demanded to see his passport — Soviet passports contained a line identifying Jews and other ethnic minorities — and questioned him as to his ethnic background. He attributes this incident to his “nose, forehead and the fact that I was wearing a suit.”
“And since then I walk around the city definitely more aware of the possibility of that happening, which is something I had never experienced before,” Schechtman said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been aware of my Judaism.”
The fact that the episode only strengthened his resolve should come as no surprise given the amount of turbulence these young scholars, working at the forefront of American academia, have overcome in getting to where they are.
The experience of being a part of a more visible minority, removed from the lifestyle into which he has fully assimilated, has had a strong impact on Schectman.
“I’ve never felt more Jewish than I have since I’ve gotten here,” he said.