One of New York City’s most famous ethnic enclaves is Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood, home to the country’s largest cluster of Russian immigrants. Many arrived here in the 1980s and early 1990s, part of a wave that included thousands of Jews fleeing anti-semitism and discrimination in the Soviet Union. Despite Brighton Beach’s plentiful Russian signs, restaurants and stores, many who live there express little nostalgia for a homeland they were happy to flee.
But that’s not the case for an older community, the “white Russians” descended from noble families who supported the Russian Empire and fled after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Their ancestors always considered exile – whether in Paris, Berlin, or New York – just a temporary stop, a place to wait until the Soviet Union collapsed and they could return home.
“My grandfather kept a suitcase with canned food under his bed,” remembered Vladimir Galitzine, a descendant of one of the largest of the Russian noble families. Galitzine said his own father “never bought a house,” so sure was he that he’d be moving back to Russia one day.
A few generations on, the white Russians are a far less visible community than the Russians in Brighton Beach. Many in today’s generation have never even set foot in Russia. Yet in some ways, they are even more “russkis” than many newcomers.
“For them, Russia is in their heart and in their life and it will last forever,” said professor Olga Zatsepina, describing the white Russians who are scattered in a few neighborhoods in and around New York City.
Zatsepina is director of the Russian American Cultural Heritage Center in New York and author of a book, Russians in the USA. The white Russian community “did a great deed by saving Russian culture and Russian language for their children,” she said. They made sure their children learned Russian. They went to Russian Orthodox churches every weekend. Many became highly accomplished professionals in the U.S., but “they never became real Americans,” Zatsepina said. “They always remained inside their group without the outer assimilation.”
One member of this secluded diaspora is Masha Tolstoy Sarandinaki, who was born in the U.S. in 1951.
Her father Vladimir was the grandson of a Russian count, the revered Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.
Vladimir Tolstoy escaped from Russia in 1919 and settled in France. His wife Olga was the daughter of a chamberlain to Russia’s last tsar; her family fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. Vladimir and Olga met in Paris, married and stayed there for decades before moving to Nyack, New York in 1949.
Despite her parents’ noble pedigrees, Masha Tolstoy Sarandinaki remembers when the Russians in Nyack wanted to build a church, they could not afford to hire workmen. So they designed and built it themselves.
“Even we children participated in gilding a dome,” Sarandinaki said, of the Holy Virgin Protection Orthodox Church, which is still an important site for Russians living in and around Nyack.
For Russian history, Sarandinaki’s parents’ generation had to rely on Soviet textbooks to teach their children – but they were only allowed to read the chapters up to the Bolshevik Revolution. Black stickers were used to cover the Soviet history.
“Oh, Lenin again!” Sarandinaki remembers thinking, when she would pick off some of the stickers and see the Soviet leader hidden beneath.
As an adult, Sarandinaki worked for the U.S. government-funded Radio Liberty, which hired many Russian exiles to broadcast news into the Soviet Union during the Cold War. More recently, she was an office manager in New Jersey, until moving to Virginia for her husband’s work. Her three grandchildren all have traditional Russian names: Asya, Ilya, and Alexander, and she herself prefers her Russian nickname, Masha, honoring her Russian family members from several generations ago.
Sarandinaki’s Russian is different from the language spoken in today’s Russia. She pronounces “tetushka”(auntie) and “dyadushka”(uncle) in a way that could be only found in classical Russian literature of many decades ago – the language her famous great-grandfather used in works like Anna Karenina and War and Peace.
“I have read Anna Karenina,” said Sarandinaki, “and part of War and Peace.”
“I always looked through the War part and read only the Peace parts,” she joked.
Only in 2000, at age 49, did Sarandinaki finally visit the land of her ancestors. She traveled to her great-grandfather’s country home, Yasnaya Polyana, to reunite with other Tolstoy descendants from all over the world. She said that everything looked so familiar that she felt as if she had always lived there. A local journalist asked about her feelings. “I came home,” she answered.
Now she travels to Yasnaya Polyana once a year, and knows almost all of the 300 Tolstoy descendants scattered around the world. “I love Saint Petersburg and Yasnaya Polyana,” said Sarandinaki. “But I am an American” and would not consider moving to Russia, she said. “I am neither fish nor fowl.”