Soviet Stories: Baltimore’s Russian-Speaking Community Shares Lessons on Resilience
The key to coming out of a trying time with real resilience is a united community.
The Russian-speaking Jewish community of Baltimore knows this. It’s how they recovered from financial and emotional troubles in the former Soviet Union. They persisted through food shortages and anti-Semitism.
A Life of Hardships
“Growing up, you didn’t have the same opportunities, being Jewish,” said Vlad Volinsky, 51, of Pikesville. He grew up in Belaya Tserkov, a city in Ukraine. “My father couldn’t get into the institute he wanted because he was Jewish.”
This was just one of the difficulties for Jewish people in the Soviet Union. Systematic oppression translated into job discrimination and universitiy acceptance. Anti-Semitism was also present in daily encounters.
Volinsky remembers being bullied because he was Jewish. He was one of two Jewish kids at his school. When he was 9 years old, two brothers followed him home. They threw stones at him and shouted a derogatory word at him. Volinsky ran home and told his mother.
“She didn’t let me fight,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Say thank you for your compliment,’ and move on.”
Volinsky learned to see the bullying as “just another thing that happened,” and not to let it hurt him. “They were making fools more of themselves than hurting me in any way. We believe in ourselves very strongly and because of that we have stayed strong.”
Zhanna Anapolsky Maydanich, 48, of Owings Mills, said she was fortunate to be better off because her parents could go to college. Getting admitted to college was not easy for Jewish people. They would have to apply many times, go beyond the normal standards, only attend evening classes, and live in separate dorms.
She was just a child in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine formerly known as Kiev, when she accepted that being Jewish not only limited financial opportunities or career promotions but also compromised health and safety.
Tatyana Kolchinsky, 75, of Pikesville, lived in Moscow for many years, fending off starvation with the charitable donations of her sister who lived abroad.
“They hate us there,” she said. “Finally we got the visa, but my husband died with visa in his hand because they told [us] he does not have right to leave Russia.”
“Living in Ukraine in the ‘80s to ‘90s was difficult,” said Miriam Vurgaftman, 51, of Pikesville.
Vurgaftman spent her childhood in Kyiv, then moved to Moscow when she was 17.
The toll of the Soviet Union on Jewish life went beyond bullying and discrimination, she noted. It hurt their ability to practice religion as well.
“Jews were not allowed to attend some educational institutions and celebrate their holidays,” Vurgaftman said. She had no access to kosher food or kosher supermarkets.
“All the Jewish traditions were lost,” she said.
She said people were “brainwashed” by the Soviet Union. She didn’t know what it meant to be Jewish.
This impact on Jewish life is something Rabbi Velvel Belinsky, rabbi of the ARIEL Jewish Center and a Chabad shaliach, remarked on. While Jewish people in the U.S. might see their shared tradition as the unifier of the Jewish people, in the Soviet Union that was not the case.
“In the USSR, most Jews had no chance to participate in any of that, but they were instead united by common [un]fortunate experiences of anti-Semitism,” Belinsky said.
Belinsky grew up in Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg. By then, life for Jewish people had started to get better, he said, but not by that much.
“I probably was too young and stupid to fear for my safety, but I should have,” he said. “Even though my years were already much better times — people were not sent to jail for teaching Torah, they would only lose their jobs and be kicked out of school. I had friends who were beaten up, taken into custody by the police for no official reason.”
Because of the official atheism of the Soviet Union, when Belinsky got involved in the Chabad movement, “some people thought that I really went crazy,” he said.
The Key to Survival
Volinsky said he could not compare his childhood to the current pandemic crisis, “but in a way it is similar because people are finding that there’s someone across the country who cares,” Volinsky said.
Through hard times in the Soviet Union, the community stuck together, Volinsky said. That’s what gave his family the resiliency to overcome.
“The Jewish community is still strong there,” he said of his tiny hometown, where he said everybody helped each other. “People found ways to get by.”
Anapolsky Maydanich agreed.
“Soviet Jews helped each other and looked out for each other,” she said. “It is certainly easier to find courage to move to a new country and to start new life when you are not doing it alone.”
On top of that, she added, their internal strength and determination helped. She said that while discrimination can make or break a person’s spirit, “for those Soviet Jews who sought a better life for their family, their belief in themselves and their determination to escape desperation” was what led them to success.
When Jews from the Soviet Union immigrated to Baltimore, the community, with organizations like HIAS and Jewish Family Services, helped them settle.
Anapolsky Maydanich was 7 years old when she arrived, but her Russian-Jewish identity is still woven throughout her life.
She noted that the Russian and Ukrainian culture is not the same as the Soviet-Jewish culture. She sees that some traditions were modified by Soviet Jews to hide and comply with Soviet policies.
“Judaism is a source of strength and pride for Soviet Jews, but the culture of Soviet Jewry celebrates perseverance, faith, and family, rather than focusing on traditional rituals,” she said.
Vurgaftman moved to Baltimore by herself in 1992.
“I was so proud to come here, knowing that America has given me my Jewish freedom and identity, where I was able to build a home for my family,” she said.
Her daughter, Toni Vurgaftman, is now 23, and she continues to celebrate her heritage. She is involved with organizations specifically for Jews from Russian-speaking families, such as ARIEL and RAJE.
“All of the organizations focus on bringing people together so that they can learn more about Judaism in a Jewish environment and be proud of their heritage,” Vurgaftman said.
When Volinsky’s family arrived in the U.S., it was the support of other immigrant families that helped them assimilate. Likewise, when new families arrived, he helped them.
This support allowed Jewish families to persevere in the Soviet Union, and it remains important today in the U.S.
“Soviet Jews settle together,” Anapolsky Maydanich said. “Russian-Jews patronize Russian-Jewish-owned businesses, they employ each other, and take care of those within their community.”