Field Notes In Conversation
A Weaponized Immigrant: Yasha Levine with Will McDonald
Soviet-American investigative journalist Yasha Levine is currently writing a memoir, publishing it in installments on his Substack1. Called The Soviet Jew: A Weaponized Immigrant’s Tale, it is about his family’s emigration from the Soviet Union and subsequent life in America. Yasha is the author of Surveillance Valley, an investigative history of the internet’s military origins, and co-hosts the podcast The Russians with his wife, Russian-American filmmaker Evgenia Kovda. We spoke over Zoom.
Will McDonald (Rail): The past couple months have been chaotic for you and your family. You were in Russia at the time the mobilization and conscriptions began and were part of the mad dash to the border along with thousands of others.
Yasha Levine: Yeah, we went to Russia in September because—well, for two reasons—my wife, Evgenia, has family there—elderly relatives she hasn’t seen since before the pandemic began and wasn’t sure if she’d ever see them again—so that was one reason we wanted to go. We actually were planning to go around this time before this whole horrible war broke out. Before Russia invaded Ukraine and Putin decided to do this stupid thing that he did.
The other reason was because Evgenia and I had written this script a few years ago. It’s called Inheritance. The best way to describe it is a kind of Soviet zombie film set in Moscow, a film that’s on a very deep level about the collapse of the USSR and Putin’s elite. Before the war broke out, Evgenia’s plan was to start laying the groundwork for shooting it. The invasion pretty much put an end to that. Still, we wanted to see if there was maybe a tiny chance it would be possible to shoot this film — this very indie zombie film — on the sly somewhere in the countryside. Things in Ukraine were obviously bad, but in Russia people were still going about their lives, so we wanted to go and see for ourselves what the situation was like.
Well, we found out. Our trip was cut short because of the sudden mobilization order that Putin gave. And so there was a huge panic, and people fled for the closest border. We got out through the land border with Estonia, and then caught a ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki and got a flight to Rome. Somewhere between leaving Russia and arriving in Finland, we caught COVID, because you can’t really protect yourself in these crowded border stations, on a bus packed with people or a ferry packed with people. So, with COVID layered onto everything else, it was a pretty grim trip.
Rail: Obviously different circumstances, but doesn’t this trip feel strangely similar to your first escape from the Soviet Union as a kid?
Levine: It’s funny you say that because one of the things that characterized our recent escape out of Russia was the total uncertainty of what was going to happen. I mean, we bought a bus ticket that was taking us from St. Petersburg to Tallinn in Estonia, but we didn’t know if we’d get turned back at the border, either by Estonian border patrol or on the Russian side. Because the Baltic states were the first ones to close their borders to individuals with Russian passports. But there are even cases of people with dual citizenship—let’s say Israeli citizenship and Russian citizenship—who got turned back at the Estonian border. And my parents, when we emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1989—I don’t really remember it and they tried to hide it from me because I was only eight years old when we left—but they were very nervous that they would get turned back at each border stop along the way. Because when you decided to emigrate from the Soviet Union, you lost your job, you lost your apartment, and in the months leading up to leaving you were slowly stripped of all the things you used to have. And if something went wrong along the way, at the Belarus border, or the Poland border, there’s a chance that some edict might come through that says, “We are shutting down all emigration,” before they were really in the clear, and if that were to happen they’d have nothing to go home to. All they had was what was in their suitcases. So, at each stop along the way, there was a wave of relief for my parents, and then finally, once we got to Austria, the ultimate relief came through because there was no way they could be turned back by that point. So, there was definitely a sort of symmetry between the two trips. But the similarity was very superficial. I mean, come on, when we went back to Russia this time we were basically tourists. Getting out was definitely stressful, but there weren’t the same sort of life-changing ramifications this time around.
Rail: Then you’re stuck in Rome with COVID, and this isn’t the first time you’ve been stuck there without a clear path out. The introduction to your memoir, The Soviet Jew: A Weaponized Immigrant’s Tale, begins with a photo of you and your family outside the Vatican.2
Levine: Yeah. Of course, Rome is a big place for Soviet immigrants that came to America starting in the 1970s and continuing through the 1990s. Rome was the destination for people who didn’t go to Israel. Some people were there for a few weeks, my family was there for six months, and my dad worked at a bank in Rome as a translator. He’s very good with languages and so he quickly learned Italian and was able to interpret for the Soviet immigrants coming to collect their paychecks. And one of the plans while we were there this last time was to go on a tour of all the places that we remembered from our six months there, and go see the bank where my dad worked, but we all caught COVID and, instead, we were just sweating it out in an Airbnb.
Rail: You made a comment a little while ago about losing everything of your former life when you decided to leave the Soviet Union, except for the contents of your suitcase. I immediately think of Sergei Dovlatov’s novel, The Suitcase, where each item in his suitcase tells a story of the life he once had before emigrating. And you really feel a sense of loss for this man, who—even though he made it to America—he’s still nostalgic for his home country.
Levine: Exactly. Basically, you’re taking these small pieces of luggage with you into the unknown.
But, I have to say, compared to immigrants coming from Mexico or taking this very dangerous journey across the southern US border, Soviet immigrants were more privileged. Soviet immigrants, for all the stuff they talk about—and immigration is a traumatic experience itself—were very privileged. They were sort of the “it” immigrants of the time. They were supported by the White House, and by the Congress, and the Senate, and they were idolized as these victims of totalitarianism. We sort of confirmed this myth America tells about itself about protecting those fleeing danger. So, a lot of resources were given to help us, and the conditions were not luxurious. We stayed in a single-wide trailer in Italy for six months that was cut in half and split between our family and one other. But we were safe, we were taken care of, we were fed. The bureaucratic process was smooth for us. Also, we were white—or white-passing—our religion was not a problem, like Muslim immigrants might be viewed. So, our religion was not a problem, our ethnicity was not a problem, and our politics were not a problem because everyone was anti-communist and very much in support of capitalism and everything that surrounds the American mythology. You know, American Soviet immigrants are more patriotic than a lot of Americans.
Rail: Yeah, you actually have a memoir entry that you shared on your Substack—I think you posted it around the Fourth of July—where you describe scrolling through your Facebook feed and seeing your immigrant friends pledging their patriotism and how grateful they are to America, and you write that, as a Soviet American, your role is to “remind Americans that theirs is the only good system in the world, and that there can be no alternative,”3 and I think that really is the kernel of this memoir and the idea of the “weaponized immigrant.” Also, did you coin that term? It’s so perfect.
Levine: I didn’t coin it. It existed and was used by other scholars. But, I think I popularized the way in which I use it and now others use it.
There’s multiple ways the term gets used. There’s the way that is used by politicians, more the Republican Party, which demonizes immigrants and uses them as a scapegoat for everything that’s wrong. So there’s immigrants as a political weapon. You also have the idea that America is ultimately a nation of immigrants, which is a skewed rhetoric you get from the liberal side of the political spectrum. It’s presented as, “the fact that we allow immigrants in is our strength.” But when you actually look at the logic behind it, it’s really more about needing cheap labor, or we need to grow and Americans aren’t breeding enough [laughs]. I started understanding this more as I got older and looking at my own immigration in a political context and that’s how I started using the term. We were pawns in this larger geopolitical battle that helped justify defense spending and prop up this pretty nasty military industrial complex. Because the narrative was that there was a second Holocaust about to happen in the Soviet Union, and America was saving us, even though the narrative that Jews were under threat was not true. Anti-Semitism did exist in the Soviet Union, but it was not this existential kind of—apartheid kind of—racism. There were discriminatory hiring policies put in place, sure. And unofficial quotas at universities about accepting Jews. But they were not the kind of things that people thought about on a day to day basis. On some level, it was much more benign than the kind of racism that exists in America today, in terms of racism against the Black population and the ghettoization that takes place in America with redlining.
But the Soviet Jews who came to America sort of parroted this idea that the Soviet Union was Nazi-like because it was what Americans wanted to hear. It’s the story they told to immigration officials while applying for refugee status and asking to be let into America. So, it’s like the myth became reality, even in the minds of Soviet immigrants. And this memoir is about how we were weaponized in service of American power and American imperialism.
Rail: You’ve criticized the emigre literary community for exactly what you just talked about, playing into this myth. One of the things that your discussion on this topic has revealed to me is how this weaponization of immigrants makes for some strange bedfellows. Under this umbrella term of weaponized immigrants, you have both Russian nationalists, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as well as writers with very Russophobic attitudes who write about Russian people and Russian culture with outright disdain.
Levine: The way you are treated by American society changes over time. So Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize. He was this prisoner of conscience. He was almost like a martyr who channeled this angst and this deep trauma of the gulag system in the Soviet Union and the brutality of the system. I mean, he did open up to the world this kind of place that existed, this police state and forced labor camps. But he was also a hardcore Russian nationalist and basically a monarchist. So when he came to America he was received as this hero; as a guy who could confirm these horrible aspects of this evil system, but also represented the potential of the people of Russia to resist. But recently, because he was a Russian imperialist and nationalist, who did not have the best things to say about Ukraine and its independence, his star has fallen. At first, he was weaponized one way, against the Soviet Union, and now is viewed the other way, as, like, a weapon of Putin.
Rail: Right. And now you’re seen as an agent of Putin for simply speaking the Russian language.
Levine: Yeah, it’s getting ridiculous.
Rail: Keith Gessen has a new memoir called, Raising Raffi, and it’s a parenting memoir. I liked it, but there’s a chapter where he debates whether or not he should speak Russian to his son. You and I talked briefly before the interview about your daughter—
Levine: Yes, and we speak Russian to her. We’re raising a proper imperialist baby.
Rail: [Laughs] Exactly! So now your toddler is an agent of Putin.
But Gessen writes that he fears teaching his son Russian could put him in danger the way it put Paul Klebnikov in danger, the Russian-American journalist whose parents taught him the Russian language. Klebnikov later reported from the country after the fall of the Soviet Union and “wrote a book about the corruption of the Russian state by big business.” Gessen goes on,
He published another one a few years later about the dangers of the Chechen mafia to Russian civilization … In 2003, he was named editor of Russian Forbes and moved to Moscow full time. The next year while walking to the subway from work, he was shot four times and died. A poorly conducted trial ended in a not guilty verdict for the two defendants.
Levine: Yeah, I see what he’s doing there and it’s sort of sneaky. He’s basically saying that what happened to Paul Klebnikov could happen to his son because it was speaking the Russian language that led Klebnikov to Russia, which led to his murder.
I want to back up a little, though. Klebnikov was a great writer but it’s funny Keith Gessen says his book4 was about “big business.” It’s not. It’s about Boris Berezovsky, the first big oligarch in Russia. And the fact that Klebnikov comes from this white emigre background, and he’s hyper focused on this one person—who happens to be Jewish—and makes it seem like the richer and richer Berezovsky gets, the poorer and more degraded Russia becomes—it’s pretty anti-Semitic. The book is great because it gets into the finer details of how these deals were made to siphon off money from these newly privatized businesses, but there were other characters involved and so, because he’s only focused on Berezovsky, I mean, there’s like a hard anti-Semitic undercurrent and I think it’s funny that Keith Gessen sidesteps this issue.
Back to what you were saying, though, I think this is where the issue of editorial quotas comes in. As a Soviet immigrant writer, you’re expected to take these jabs at your birth country. But, publishing is a business, it’s an industry, and you have to appeal to the reader. Who is reading Keith Gessen’s books? Probably a more liberal reader who has these preconceived notions about the Soviet Union and about Russia today. And so they’re playing to an audience and that’s one of the things that annoys me about Soviet writers of my generation. The writing is filled with these stock scenes and stereotypes: Russian women are slutty; Russian men are drunks; it’s dangerous, you’re always in danger; no one’s safe on the street. It’s so stereotypical. Gary Shteyngart’s books are filled with them and they’re pretty nasty sometimes. But he can get away with it because it’s comedy. The immigrant writers I like always seem to be from an older generation because they’re writing for a Russian audience, and even a Russian immigrant audience. What made Dovlatov great was that he was writing for his own community. He was writing about physicists stocking shelves in grocery stores, and all these dashed ambitions in this new world. And it’s a funny and depressing world, but it’s alive. So, these writers that I like, they’re usually writers who came in the 1970s as adults and usually aren’t published in America; they’re published in Russian and then translated.
Rail: Like Eduard Limonov?
Levine: Yes, Limonov and his ex-wife, Nataliya Medvedeva. Her memoir5 is one of the best Soviet immigrant memoirs that exists. That’s my take on it. She’s almost totally unknown in America and untranslated into English. But Evgenia actually really turned me onto it. She moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s and was a successful model, and actually appeared on the cover of one of The Cars’ first albums.6
Rail: Speaking of editorial quotas, Limonov said he couldn’t get published in America because he wasn’t anti-Soviet enough. And he may have been right—the cheapest English language translation of It's Me, Eddie—his most famous book—I could find on the internet was a 250 dollar used paperback. Hardcover copy was 500 dollars. So it’s essentially impossible to read him in America.
Levine: That's pretty amazing. I wonder if you can get some pirated version… probably. But that's pretty amazing.
Limonov and Medvedeva were immigrant writers and they lived for a time in America, in New York and LA, and I like their politics and their aggressive positions. They have a lot of bile towards this country. [Laughs] I feel like I’m at a disadvantage because my experiences of coming to this country were all as a child, and that’s sort of why my generation’s literature is crappy, because we came as children and we don’t have a lot to offer and it’s purely from an observational level. Maybe the next generation that came, maybe they can reflect now that they’re truly American, not because they are writing for a market but because it’s just natural for them. They can sort of take the legacy of their parents and mix it with their own understanding of what America is.
Rail: You’ve got me thinking about that movie, Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Levine: That is one of the most brilliant films about the immigrant experience and like the intergenerational split… it’s incredible. I mean, it’s doing something no Soviet writer has done basically [laughs], and it gets at it in this incredible way. But—again—Daniel Kwan7 is not an immigrant. So, that generation can look at the immigrant aspect of their family and from a very secure American perspective, rather than being in between this nebulous perspective that also suffers from the fact that you were just a kid when it all happened.
Rail: Well, it’s a wide ranging project, because you’re telling your own personal immigration story, as well as telling the story of your ancestors, and what their lives were like in the Soviet Union. It’s a small sample size, but what you’ve shared has been very enlightening about life in the Soviet Union, and I think you’re asking important questions about the American immigrant experience.
Levine: Yeah, I’ve got to stick to it. There’s signs that some of these myths are being dismantled. These myths about Soviet Jewish immigration to America and Israel. People are doing a critical appraisal of that narrative, which is great, but there’s not a lot of it. It’s pretty fringe. There is a rebooted publication, Jewish Currents, that came out and did a Soviet issue8 and I think they actually did a pretty good job of interrogating this myth of Soviet anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was a problem but the real reason they left was because they thought they could do better in America.
Rail: I can’t wait to read more excerpts.
Levine: This has actually been helpful talking with you because it’s put some wind back in my sails. I’m still not fully recovered from getting out of Russia and COVID, and I’ve got all these other projects I’m working on. But people dig it.
- Godfather of the Kremlin
- Hotel California
The Cars (1978)
- Co-director of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once