America was a fresh breath of air for Vassili Syskine, now the father of junior Daria Syskine. For one, his new salary could pay for a quaint house with a little garden. For the first time could he own a plot of land, or a booming business for all he wanted. There were no more lingering remnants of Soviet rule, no more glaring eye over his every move from the government.
“Bureaucracy [in America] seemed to be much less and very different, much [fewer] signatures,” Vassili said. “Nobody required big stamps on all the documents.”
Yet, despite the welcoming arms of capitalism, Vassili struggled to piece the streets of California as part of his reality. Back in Russia, colossal concrete edifices jutted out from every street of Novosibirsk: his home of almost 30 years. They seemed invincible, absolutely still against any rate of wind or snow slapping against the solid facade. But the suburbs of California were filled with pocket-sized houses solely made of wood panels, as if they were ready to crumble down and disappear at any chance. His friend even joked: A car could run through the entire house without a scratch on its body.
“[The houses in California] seemed impermanent,” Vassili said. “But not anymore. We see everything remain in its place.”
And now, for almost 21 years Vassili has found his home in a wooden house situated in the crux of Silicon Valley. He stands ground between Russia and the United States, as a dual citizen of two very different nations at the brink of another Cold War. He’s the middleman in the tug of war — but where to draw that middle line is the real question at hand.
It’s been 21 years since he last lived in the Soviet Union, but Vassili still recalls the run-of-the-mill joke in the waning rule of the Soviet Union. It went as follows: there might be an honest person, a sober person and a Communist, but one can only qualify for two of the three traits. A sober Communist would not be honest. An honest Communist would not be sober, as they would need alcohol to keep their sanity. And an honest and sober person would never be communist.
But the communist country was not always riddled in despair and gore for Vassili, as many people assume. He comes from the peaceful suburbs of Novosibirsk, where the countryside and the downtown beach nestles closely together in walking distance. For almost 30 years he scoured through the wrinkles and folds of the city — often pillowed in snow — both as a little boy and a towering adult with his own boy in his arms.
In the summers, Vassili lived in a dacha: a small, summer house on a patch of land, where he and his family could grow extra food apart from the produce sold in limited quantities during the Soviet era.
As college approached, he waved goodbye to his hometown for a brief while, but in his third year back for break, he met a girl. It was 1986 — five years before the fall of Soviet Union — and three years later, he vowed to be her husband, twisting the ring onto her soft finger.
As Vassili neared his college graduation, murmurs of the failing regime began to unfurl. Communism, which had erected the nation, now began to bare its flaws. At that time, Vassili remained relatively detached from politics — yet even in his eyes, too many people were killed, opportunities were dead and hunger spread like a disease.
“For a long while I didn’t really think about different possibilities for Russia,” Vassili said. “While, say, maybe toward the end of college, everybody started thinking that maybe Soviet rule is not the best possible one.”
And so communism left Russian grounds in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Vassili recalls the year as the advent of the “wild `90s” — after a failed shock therapy by the new democratic republic, the national economy took a hit. Inflation skyrocketed, yet his wage as a researcher stayed flat.
One by one, everyone he knew seemed to be fleeing the crippling nation — one off to Netherlands, another off to Germany. And one year after his stepfather left for America, it was Vassili’s turn. A generous offer from a company in America. That was all that he needed to pull his wife and their newborn son out of Novosibirsk — his city of almost 30 years — and into Silicon Valley.
21 years in America, and Vassili regrets nothing about the move. In his eyes, the corruption polluted the Russian government. He discusses his home country with his daughter Daria — Putin and Trump, the Russian Orthodox Church, the war against Ukraine…
Together they watched a Russian movie: Leviathan. In short, the Russian Orthodox Church razed down a man’s life to build a new church over his land — an act of corruption replicated from real life. But real news is inked with further corruption. To them, current Russia is unwinding any progress made from the past.
“It seems almost like they’re trying to restore the Soviet Union,” Daria said.
But a complete dismissal of Russia seems unfeasible for both Vassili and Daria. Current politics cannot erase the memories of his dear hometown for Vassili. Daria remembers anger balling up inside her, when a classmate naturally chose a Russian to be the villain of his fictional story. There’s nothing black and white about their feelings toward the country — it’s a blend of emotions, logic and family all at once.
“I understand where [the American hatred toward Russia] is coming from, and in general... I also don’t like what’s happening politically in Russia,” Daria said. “But I also know that it wasn’t all terrible in the Soviet Union, and it was not that terrible in Russia. Like my parents grew up fine. I think one of my grandparents is a member of the Communist Party, but that doesn’t mean they were bad people.”
But at the moment, Vassili shakes his head at the possibility of Daria moving to Russia. The time’s not right just yet. He says it’s too corrupt there, that the occupations lack far too much for a good quality of life.
But he still holds hope for the country. Just as his hometown buildings withstood any tumultuous wind or snow, just as the fragile wooden home of California lasted him the past 21 years, Russia, too, will stand ground.
“I was and I still am [patriotic] in the sense that I wish better life for Russia,” Vassili said. “I’m glad when something changes for the best.”
Additional reporting by Mingjie Zhong.
Transcription by Priya Reddy.