Eldest Immigrant Daughter Unlearning the Shame Culture of the Former Soviet Union
The avoidance of shame is a community obsession, one I haven’t been able to escape even in my thirties.
This is Eldest Immigrant Daughter , a column by Ruth Madievsky that explores diasporic identity through digital culture.
Since 2020, I’ve belonged to a private Facebook community that’s become something of a support group. It’s one of the few reasons I’m on Facebook at all these days (the others being birthday reminders and gawking at the terrible opinions of people I lost touch with years ago). Created a year into Trump’s presidency, the group is a place where liberal and leftist immigrants from the former Soviet Union can work through their culture-based shame. I can’t remember how I found the group, but I can tell you what keeps me there: the unparalleled hypnotism of seeing what I’d thought were my most idiosyncratic struggles reflected in the experiences of strangers.
Shame, known in Russian as pozor , is omnipresent in former Soviet Union (FSU) culture. Anything that has the potential to disgrace your family in the eyes of their immigrant community can be a source of pozor: promiscuity, leaving a celebration too early, being perceived as cheap, large tattoos, drug use, voting democrat, selecting a career that doesn’t pay well (and therefore counts as spitting in the face of your family’s sacrifices), anything nonheteronormative at all. The avoidance of shame is a community obsession, one I haven’t been able to escape even in my thirties. For women—especially eldest immigrant daughters, upon whom the family honor often rests—evading pozor is as ritualistic as brushing your teeth and as urgent as a heart attack.
The paradox of FSU culture is that everyone is already gossiping about everyone, so it’s actually impossible to avoid disgracing yourself. At some point, you will be ridiculed for not giving your third cousin an adequately extravagant wedding present, for declaring a “bullshit major” in the humanities (or being related to someone who has), for not bringing enough food to buckle the dining table. You’d think being aware of this would make us as a culture care less about pleasing others. Nope! Pozor-policing is the community’s go-to method for drawing critical eyes away from the shamer and onto the shamed. But by perpetuating this cycle of smug mockery, we all end up boiling in the same cursed soup.
As a child and young adult, I did everything I was told to avoid being a pozor. I announced my intention to become a pharmacist like my mom at age ten, kept my romantic and sexual interests out of the public eye, didn’t challenge anyone’s politics, didn’t do anything worth much scrutiny at all. I did a great job upholding the family honor, at least on the outside. Inside, I believed I’d already transgressed to the point of no return; shame and anxiety marched through me like so many ants. I was disgusted with myself for “going along with” my own sexual assault when I was nine and, before that, for all the times my friends of all genders and I explored each other’s bodies (by which I mean we jerked each other off).
I’d drank the pozor Kool-Aid, big time. The version of me that family and friends knew—the people-pleasing, mostly straight-A student who seemed destined for an FSU-approved career and marriage with two children before thirty—felt like a fraud. Alone with my thoughts, I suspected I was either a devilish sex fiend fated for a locked psychiatric ward or a closeted lesbian incapable of love and secretly dying of AIDS. HIV isn’t even transmitted the way I was assaulted, but pozor is impervious to logic. My panic attacks told me there was no way I could survive what I’d experienced unscathed. I was right, in a way. But what I didn’t understand is that the aftermath I so feared had already arrived in the form of my shame and anxiety, their most distressing symptom being my conviction that “the real me” was a secret even to myself. Any intuition about my own nature felt like self-deception. Of course, it wasn’t pozor culture alone that did this to me. The casual misogyny, ableism, and homophobia I absorbed from dominant culture share the blame. Beyond misunderstanding basic scientific facts, I was too immature and frightened to comprehend that horny people, people with mental illness, queer people, and those with HIV aren’t doomed to unhappiness.
For eldest immigrant daughters, evading pozor is as ritualistic as brushing your teeth and as urgent as a heart attack.
For many years, I suspected there was something incurably wrong with me, and that it was imperative I cover it up. When I desired something the FSU community would find scandalous, it proved I was an unstable deviant. When I went through dry spells where I desired nothing and no one, it proved I was incapable of love. It wasn’t until I finished college, found a writing community, and made friends more self-actualized than me (not necessarily in that order) that I began to question the utility of shielding myself from pozor. It wasn’t the opinions of others I lived in fear of, but their effects on my family. As mentioned in a previous installment , disappointing my parents has always felt like a national emergency. I didn’t care if the FSU community discovered that I was hardly the picture of heteronormative innocence or that our political common ground was the size of a postage stamp. But if my family was ridiculed for it, I felt I might die. The only way forward was to continue living a double life of protesting and donating to the causes I cared about on the sly, of exploring my unwieldy desires away from my community’s eyes.
Cue my discovery of a private Facebook group where fellow post-soviet immigrants attempt to deprogram each other’s pozor-addled brains. One woman described a fight with her family that was hideously similar to one I’d had a million times. The content of the argument is irrelevant—what got me was the woman’s description of her family member refusing to apologize, opting instead to change the subject and then to come by later with an unsolicited plate of cut fruit. “Classic FSU behavior,” several members commented. “They deflect blame like Serena Williams launching a tennis ball over the net,” one person wrote. “There is no culture of admitting that one is wrong in Russia and apology is associated with punishment,” said another. There were thousands of posts like this, recontextualizing behavior that I’d thought was particular to my upbringing as actually being culturally shared.
There are chronicles of fights over how many great-aunt’s brother-in-law’s stepchildren have to be invited to an intimate wedding (the answer is always “all of them”) and whether a decision to go vegetarian was exclusively intended to inconvenience one’s family. Others are more agonizing: One member shared that her grandmother is convinced she’s going to turn her three-year-old gay by letting him paint his nails; whenever the grandmother babysits, the first thing she does is remove his polish. Another member’s parents believe he’s choosing to be trans and wouldn’t allow him to say goodbye to his dying grandfather unless he dressed as a woman.
Though I haven’t experienced most of the traumas described in the group, I can relate to the frustration and exhaustion of feeling illegible to one’s community. I’ve had to defend my partner against a family friend’s allegations that he’s “not a real man” because, five years into our relationship, we were splitting the bills. That fight, like so many others, was doomed from the start because I don’t even believe in the concept of “real men” but felt protective of my partner regardless. More generally, the FSU community—or least my FSU community—values family over all else. That makes it hard for my political arguments to resonate against a backdrop of emotional accusations like “how could you vote to increase your family’s taxes, after you gladly accepted their money to pay for your education, after all they’ve sacrificed for you?” It’s a rhetorical question, the Facebook group’s members reassure me and each other; no answer other than “you’re right, I won’t do that” could ever be satisfactory. To an outsider that may sound cynical, but to me, it felt like freedom. My job was to say what I needed to say; how my words were received was beyond my control.
Some members are estranged from their families or haven’t found themselves any happier after standing up for themselves. Others have succeeded, or at least made progress, in setting certain boundaries. One member recently wrote about their eighty-five-year-old grandmother full-throatedly supporting their transition. Another trained her family to stop commenting on her weight by hanging up or leaving a gathering every time they did so. Bearing witness to these struggles has emboldened me. I read their stories like instruction manuals, but I know there’s no generalizing how to navigate these conflicts. When I start to spiral, I remind myself that my family’s love for me supersedes any specific desires they have for the type of life I’ll lead. For instance, a few years ago, I did an interview that articulated my politics. A dismayed family friend sent the interview to my parents, seeking an explanation. The way my parents reamed this person out! My distasteful opinions were far overshadowed by this family friend’s much bigger pozor of criticizing me to my parents. When it comes down to it, my family will never take an outsider’s side over mine.
I still have a ways to go in being as open with the FSU community as I’d like. Paradoxically, like so many first-generation immigrants, I disclose things on the internet—where literally anyone could find them—that I would never share with some of the people who love me most in the world. The internet is where I’ve written frankly about my sexual assault, where I’ve tweeted about desires and beliefs that would make my community’s jaw drop. Given the personal nature of my writing, basically anytime I publish anything, I perseverate on whether I’m about to ruin my life. The fact that I continue to publish anyway feels like progress, even if it comes at the cost of only sharing my more vulnerable pieces in spaces where my FSU community is unlikely to encounter them.
For now, this sectioning off of myself works, in ways that the American edict to “just be yourself” fails to consider. Yes, I want to live an authentic life, but I don’t want to constantly be in conflict with people I care about. Sometimes omission makes more sense than disclosure; other times, it’s lonely and suffocating. I’m still learning how to navigate that balance, as are my fellow pozors in the Facebook group, some of whom are in their seventies. It may be a lifelong battle. Straddling expectations between your old culture, your new culture, and the hybrid that springs up between them is part of the first-generation immigrant starter pack.
Paradoxically, like so many first-generation immigrants, I disclose things on the internet—where literally anyone could find them.
On my more ungenerous days, I wonder if the reason I haven’t had some of the more dramatic ruptures described by other group members is because of the secrets I’ve continued to keep. Other days, I tell myself my family and community’s love isn’t conditional, that no matter how I “disgrace” myself, they’ll get over it. That’s how it’s been with my politics. I’ve had some truly ugly arguments with people who, twenty minutes later, were feeding me within an inch of my life. After holding my ground for years, I’ve reached the blessed state of “lost cause.” People still pick political fights with me, but with the air of someone trying to explain object permanence to their dog.
I suspect that we first-gen immigrants cling to “classic FSU” stereotypes for the same reason others cling to terms like narcissist and emotional vampire . Taxonomies are comforting. They remind us we’re not alone. The first time I discovered the “cut fruit as immigrant parent love language” meme (see here and here and here ), I almost ascended to another spectral plane: “Immigrant Parents Shocked to Discover a Plate of Cut Fruit is Not a Substitute for a Constructive Apology,” read a 2020 Reductress headline that my friends and I traded back and forth like a playing card. Tweets like “ immigrant parents really replaced emotional intimacy with a plate of cut up fruit and have the audacity to ask ‘why aren’t you married yet’ ” and “ all immigrant parents do is yell, cut fruit and trust facebook ” sent me howling. They don’t adequately capture my relationship with my parents (what meme could?), but these moments of shared community among all immigrants, not just my fellow post-soviets, are a salve. The work is hard, but we’re doing it together.
“Classic FSU behaviors” like refusing to apologize, not respecting boundaries, and prioritizing the avoidance of pozor over one’s well-being and happiness probably do exist. But a person can’t be reduced to a concise checklist of behaviors. And, inconvenient to our victimhood as it is to admit, a hostile initial reaction to one of us rocking the boat does not foreclose eventual acceptance. Our people don’t discard each other lightly. You may never get an apology or an acknowledgement that anything has changed in your relationship. But you may discover a gauzy curtain where before there was a wall.