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Soviet Emigres Get Stuck in the Past in ‘Stateless’

By focusing on their departure only, the film misses what the migrants became

Lea Zeltserman
April 09, 2014

What is the authentic Soviet Jewish immigration story? That seems to be the question hanging over Stateless, a new documentary on the immigration in the final, pre-collapse years of the Soviet Union.

The film opens a door into a period largely unexplored in film, with few exceptions. (Refusenik is one.) By default, it carries the weight of every immigrant—every hope, every dream, every tear. It is a powerful, moving portrayal of what is, for many of us, the most important events of our lives. Screenings have been sold out; there is a sense of wonder—and gratitude—among Russian Jews that someone has put our story onto the screen. But the story it tells is incomplete.

The focus of the documentary is the abrupt 1988 change in American policy that stripped Soviet Jews of their refugee status and, with it, their guaranteed entry into the United States. Many were left stranded in Italy, midway between East and West; hence the title of the film. But immigration policies quickly become a footnote, overshadowed by the film’s real heroes, the immigrants who relate their journey out of the USSR, through Vienna and on to Italy.

Stateless opens with a man saying “I don’t fully understand how we withstood it all.” One couple talks of being relieved of $300 by officials at the border. They leave the USSR with just $3 and an unexpected lightness; with that $300 went a lifetime of persecution. Another woman talks of flinging herself over her six-year-old daughter’s body to keep her warm while waiting on a platform in Vienna. She has no idea why they are waiting or how long it will last. It is, she says, the worst moment of her immigration.

But in crucial ways, Stateless whitewashes the immigrant experience with its very Feyvel Goes West slant: From the horrors of the USSR, through the trauma of emigratzya, to success on the gold-paved streets of America. The complexities of immigration are omitted — the families that broke apart, the people that died, the ones who went to Germany or Canada or Israel instead; the rumors, the conspiracy theories, the lack of information as people made the biggest decisions of their lives. The publicity material reflects the same strangely limited historical perspective: At a screening in March at Limmud FSU in New Jersey, the audience was handed a write-up that declared “In the late 1980s…for the first time in over 70 years Soviet Jews were allowed to leave,” forgetting the 250,000 Jews who left in the 1970s.

It’s the first film from Michael Drob, who emigrated at age 10. Drob himself seems unsure of the story he wants to tell; he first focuses on the process of what happened to his own family, and why, but it turns out that some of his interview subjects weren’t actually denied refugee status or even came through after the policy was reversed. People are introduced, but all we’re offered is a tantalizing peek into these lives. Just as we’re waiting to hear what happened next, the camera pulls back and the credits roll. Who were they and who did they become? We never find out—we don’t even know where in the USSR they are from.

“It wasn’t a character-driven thing for me. I wanted to know the process—what happened and why it happened. I didn’t really delve into the people that much,” Drob explained in an interview. “I guess you can call it a little selfish—this was my family.”

Indeed: Two of six interviews are with Drob’s parents and in-laws. But this connection is never explicitly identified. The film lingers, stuck between personal journey and historical documentary without quite reaching either. The mother on the Vienna platform? She turns out to be Yelena Goltsman, a Soviet-Jewish émigré just like all the rest, yes, but a Soviet-Jewish émigré who eventually divorced, came out, and now finds herself at the forefront of Russian LGBT activism in the U.S. (The same weekend as the Limmud FSU screening, Goltsman and her wife were dancing at Masha Gessen’s wedding in New York.)

In the closing moments of the film, Drob’s in-laws state that they are grateful to America for allowing them to fulfill their potential. One can almost picture Goltsman nodding in the background (and, perhaps, elsewhere, Putin scowling). Unfortunately, for most viewers, this poignant echoing is completely lost.

Editor’s note: Stateless is a project of the COJECO Blueprint Fellowships in New York, funded by Genesis Philanthropy Group. The writer received a mini-grant from them here in Toronto, in affiliation with UJA-Toronto, for an oral history project on the immigration period of the 1970s.

Lea Zeltserman is a Toronto-based writer who focuses on the Soviet-Jewish immigration. She is the publisher of the Soviet Samovar, a monthly round-up of Russian-Jewish news, culture and events. Her Twitter feed is @zeltserman.

Lea Zeltserman is a Toronto-based writer who focuses on Soviet Jewish immigration. She is the publisher of the Soviet Samovar, a monthly roundup of Russian Jewish news, culture and events. Her Twitter feed is @zeltserman.