The symbol of the United States, inscribed in gold on my new passport, is a bald eagle. I lay it next to my Russian passport, which is red and worn. It also sports an eagle, but the two-headed eagle of tsarist Russia, a throwback to pre-Soviet times – an ancient symbol.
I admire the American passport. It has taken twelve years of living in the U.S. for my family to become citizens, and this little blue book has been a long time coming. It makes me wonder: if the number of heads is the only difference between the two symbols, is naturalization a kind of chopping off of a head for us Russians? Cast the east-facing head off of the red eagle, throw its crown to the ground, and the two birds are indistinguishable.
Though the metaphor is bloody, the execution is not torturous. In New York City, where I have lived with my family since we left Moscow, becoming a New Yorker takes only a few months. Get comfortable with the subway system, learn to walk fast while drinking coffee, stop taking pictures in front of tourist attractions, and you’re as good as a native. In Moscow, on the other hand, you can live for years and slave away for the city but still never be a Muscovite. If you don’t look Slavic you’ll always be stopped by police officers who will check your papers. Even if you do, the uncertainty of the law, of the cost of living, and of the atmosphere itself will not allow you to feel like you belong. It is not a place structured to make newcomers feel welcome. Though I was born there, I feel its cold shoulder, too.
The truth is, I live suspended between the two cities. Brooklyn is my home hands-down, but Moscow has its rights, like a biological father who has lost his kid to the stepdad years ago. Every year I am obliged to return to Russia to visit relatives, to pay my respects at the cemeteries, and to snap photos in front of the Kremlin. Even as I grow older and pare down my annual trip from two months to two weeks, the pull from my home to my homeland is strong, and often sickening.
This is how I explain that nausea: if New York is the city of anything-can-happen, Moscow is the city of anything-can-not-happen. Anything can be banned; any protest can be put down, and any marriage can end in divorce. The best intentions and wisest plans can suffocate from the perpetual gray days and the government’s corruption. And yet once a year, I must visit that biological father, no matter what I think of him.
My immigrant story is a typical one. I share the immigrant’s dream – I want to get an education, lead a successful career, start a family, and live in a big house. Without knowing the reality of my mother country, it would be easy to lose myself in the quest for these things. But along with its miseries, Russia grants me valuable perspective: it tempers my dreams and aspirations; it drags them out into the light. It reminds me that I cannot squander my glorious blue passport because the wealth and the freedoms of this country are not my birthright; they have been given to me as a gift. The only way to use this gift well is to, in turn, give those wealth and freedoms to others – to be New York and not Moscow to the individuals around me. This is the burden and the boost of my decapitated eagle. Life is better for me with just one head, but the scar that remains reminds me always what it means to have two.