Archive | Russia

An Immigration Memoir

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) runs a fascinating website that posts memoirs of Russian Jewish immigrants who arrived over the last 40 years. A friend of the family who runs the site asked me to write up my own story for them. Since HIAS helped out my parents when we first arrived in the US back in 1979, I was more than happy to do so.

Unfortunately, the technology of the HIAS site isn’t yet quite able to handle some of the formatting in my document. So for the moment I have posted it here. It tells the story of my experience as an immigrant from roughly the age of 5 to 18 (1978-91). We plan to transfer it to the HIAS site later.

Memoir writing isn’t one of my strong suits. But some aspects of the story might be of interest to VC readers. For example, I describe how I first became a libertarian (pp. 22-24), and how the immigration experience influenced my later research agenda as a scholar (40-42).

There are also cameo appearances by world-famous political philosopher John Rawls, whom I encountered when I was fifteen (24-26), and financier/Obama transition team economic policy adviser Anjan Mukherjee, who was my high school debate teammate and closest friend at the time (various places, esp. 30-33, where I describe the interesting parallels between our two immigrant experiences). Those of you who are former high school debaters yourselves might also be interested in the parts where famous debate coaches Les Phillips (my coach at Lexington HS in Massachusetts), Richard Sodikow (Bronx High School of Science), and Tim Averill (Manchester, MA) figure in the story. Obviously, I also describe my family’s life in the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, and the reasons why my parents chose to emigrate (1-7).

I would [...]

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On Immigrants Changing Russian Names

Fellow Russian Jewish immigrant Alina Simone recently wrote a New York Times op ed about her decision to change her last name from the original “Vilenkin,” which she considered to be a liability for an “aspiring indie rock singer.” Historically, it is not unusual for immigrant actors and other performers to change foreign-sounding names that are difficult for English-speakers to pronounce. On the other hand, it has become far less common for ordinary immigrants to change their names merely to seem more assimilated, as was common in the early twentieth century.

In my case, the name “Somin” has actually been a slight advantage in my career. It’s short, easy to pronounce, and also distinctive. That makes it more likely that academics and other readers of my work will remember my name, and less likely that they will confuse me with anyone else. There are a few other Somins in the United States who are not related to me, and more in Russia. But the name (which derives from the town of Somino in present-day Belarus) is uncommon even Russia. And there are no other Somins in the American academic world, as far as I know. [...]

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Was Ayn Rand the Most Influential Russian Immigrant to the United States?

I have previously blogged about the massive impact that Ayn Rand had as the leading modern popularizer of libertarianism and the recent controversy over whether she is an asset or liability for free market advocates today. An interesting question (at least to me) is whether Rand was the most influential Russian immigrant to the United States. To my mind, her only serious competitors for the title are aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky, who designed the first mass-produced helicopter, among other achievements, and novelist Vladimir Nabokov. I exclude cultural figures like composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, who came to the US late in life, but did most of their important work elsewhere. Like Rand, Nabokov and Sikorsky left Russia in large part because of ideological opposition to the communist regime. Interestingly, Sikorsky was precisely the type of anti-communist inventor and entrepreneur who could have been the hero of an Ayn Rand novel, but for the fact that he was a very religious Orthodox Christian. Nabokov has far more “high culture” cache than Rand and his novels have greater technical merit. But I think it’s clear that Rand has influenced the world views of far more people; she certainly has had many more readers. Even among those who have read Nabokov, I doubt that many have significantly changed their views on any important moral or political issues as a result.

Google founder Sergei Brin is a dark horse candidate. But I think that internet search engine technology was likely to develop in a roughly google-like direction even without Brin’s distinctive contributions.

Are there any other candidates I’m missing – besides Senior Conspirator Eugene Volokh, of course?

UPDATE: Commenters reasonably point out that I omitted some important candidates, such as Irving Berlin, primarily because I had not bothered to check [...]

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Retrospective on the Iranian Hostage Crisis

Last week, I was interviewed by Radio Free Europe’s Russian-language station about the 30th anniversary of the Iranian seizure of American diplomatic hostages in Tehran. The transcript, in Russian, is here. For the fraction of VC readers who do not read Russian (a fraction that is smaller than almost any other U.S. law/policy weblog), here’s a summary of my key points: The hostage crisis initially helped President Carter fend off a primary challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy, as Carter stayed in the White House attending to the issue. However, as the kidnapping wore on, Carter’s weakness became increasingly evident to the American people; it was observed that Soviet government diplomat do not get seized, because everyone realized that the Soviets would respond forcefully. Accordingly, one result of the hostage crisis was the election of Ronald Reagan. (Who of course later made his own terrible mistakes in thinking that he could establish a working relationship with the Iranian tyrants.) Today, Iran is still ruled by tyrants who hate the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, and the West has new leaders who, like many of their predecessors, cling to the vain hope that the Iranian regime can be pacified by concessions. The world’s largest exporter of terrorism, the Iranian regime aims to  dominate the Near East and the Muslim world. With nuclear weapons, the the Iranian regime threatens the whole civilized world. Everything would be different if the Khomeni revolution had been stopped at the very beginning. The longer that regime change in Iranian is delayed, the worse for everyone. [...]

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I Wasn’t Paying Attention When the Wall Came Down

I’m sorry I wasn’t and I don’t quite know what happened.  I don’t say this to be flippant in the least.  I knew that big things were happening, but unlike many others’ experiences, it all seemed very gradual to me and finally anti-climactic.  It seemed like something that was gradually sliding into place that had been sliding into place for a long time but was also terribly fragile.

I credit that feeling to two things.  One was that I was working in a Manhattan law firm, and completely buried in learning international tax.  The other was that I had spent the previous several years putting in large amounts of time with Human Rights Watch, both its Americas division and its Helsinki division.  I had done many missions in Yugoslavia, watching the Soviet empire fall apart while watching Yugoslavia fall apart very much upclose, at the village level, and watching it lead to war, affected how I saw the Soviet Union.  I had a huge anxiety that war would break out in the Warsaw Pact; or that it would be a repeat of 1968 – especially a fear of a repeat of the end of Prague Spring, that fear more than anything – or something that I didn’t know, but bad, would happen.

I was also perhaps lulled into a sense of passivity that was somewhat Bush senior’s approach – looking backwards, it had important advantages by treating it as a matter of course – but for me, at least, it felt a little like events were unfolding, not so much as Frank Fukuyama would later say, but more as people like Adam Michnik and the Eastern Europeans intellectuals I knew said it would, if only the US and Western Europe would stay the course.  In Yugoslavia, it was a very [...]

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How my father helped free Soviet prisoners

Last month in Massachusetts, my father, Jerry Kopel, received the Soviet Jewry Freedom Award from the Russian Jewish Community Foundation. He was honored along with his fellow former legislator, Tilman Bishop. (Bishop is now an elected Regent of the University of Colorado. He is a conservative Republican from Grand Junction; my father is a liberal Denver Democrat.) In 1979, my father and Bishop created the Committee to Free the Leningrad Three; these were Jewish and Christian refuseniks who had attempted to flee the Soviet Union in 1970. They were part of a group of 10 which bought all the seats on a small charter plane, and planned to overpower the pilot and escape to Scandanavia. Their plot was thwarted at the airport, before they ever boarded the plane. The group was known as the “samoletchiks”–airplane guys. By 1980, 7 of the 10 had been released due to international pressure. Five of them were part of a swap involving some captured Soviet spies; the other two had completed their prison terms. 

Thanks to the Committee to Free the Leningrand Three, the remaining three were all released by 1985.

In a recent column, my father explained some of the Committee’s unusual tactics. First, they did not adopt the standard legislative approach of merely getting a resolution adopted. A resolution is a one-time thing, but the Committee aimed for continuing pressure. Colorado legislators were invited to join the Committee, which eventually comprised 95 of Colorado’s 100 state representatives and senators. Every member was required to write personal letters, not form letters, to the Soviet authorities, and to the prisoners. Bishop (who started in the House, and then went on to a long tenure in the Senate)  made sure the Committee members kept up the writing.

More information about the samoletchiks and the [...]

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Two Views of Preemptive War

My Opinio Juris colleague Julian Ku noted there a few days ago that Bloomberg had reported that the Obama administration is considering plans to modify or end the Bush doctrine on preemptive use of military force:

The Pentagon is reviewing the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemptive military strikes with an eye to modifying or possibly ending it.

The international environment is “more complex” than when President George W. Bush announced the policy in 2002, Kathleen Hicks, the Defense Department’s deputy undersecretary for strategy, said in an interview. “We’d really like to update our use-of-force doctrine to start to take account for that.”

Meanwhile, in Moscow, while Secretary of State Clinton was getting a rather brusque treatment, reports appeared that Russia was endorsing not just preemptive use of military force – but even preemptive use of nuclear weapons, and that even in local or regional wars.  As a Washington Times column summed up the reports:

The Russians succeeded in putting Mr. Obama and the Americans in their place. Nikolai Patrushev, the chief of the Presidential Security Council, manufactured an occasion while Mrs. Clinton was in Moscow to warn that Moscow reserves the right to make “a pre-emptive nuclear strike” against both small and large enemies.

In an interview with Izvestia, the important Moscow daily, he said Russian officials are examining “a variety of possibilities for using nuclear force, depending on the situation and the intentions of the possible opponent.” In situations critical to national security, he said, “options including a preventative nuclear strike on the aggressor are not excluded.” Even regional or “local” wars will be included in the new strategy, expected to be official policy in December.


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