My journey into the past

If a week in Russia made me feel like a stranger, how will second-generation Britons feel in years to come?

Published in the Evening Standard 1 December 2005

I?ve been in a country that should have felt like home ? and yet it couldn?t have felt more foreign.

I?ve spent the week in Russia, the country my great-grandfathers left behind just over a century ago. I walked the streets, listened to the language, watched the faces, searching for a flicker of familiarity. But I felt as much an outsider there as I would in Congo or China.

That hardly makes sense. Both my father?s grandfathers were born in Russia. The one whose story I know best, Berel Mindel, grew up in a tiny rural hamlet, Dunilovich, on a patch of land that would be claimed in the course of his lifetime by Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Belarus: it was not so much no-man?s land as everyman?s land. But when in later life he or his four brothers were asked where they came from, they would say Russia ? usually with a vague wave of the hand over the shoulder, as if to say ?back there somewhere.? When they arrived in newly Edwardian London in 1902, their papers were in Russian.

The strange alphabet I saw on street signs and newspapers would have been utterly familiar to them: it was the Latin alphabet of English that took some decoding. The music I heard on car radios, a kind of plonking Vodka mix of accordion and balalaika, would have surrounded their childhoods. The oppressive cold and bathwater grey skies would have felt entirely natural.

But not to me. I needed translation, in every sense. Western brand names ? which now fill the post-Soviet skyline ? were a rare handle of familiarity I could grasp; the rest was entirely exotic, as remote from my own life as Tokyo or Tunis.

There are some obvious explanations for this disconnect. For one thing, neither the Mindels nor the Freedlands were from Moscow. They lived in the Russian sticks, far away from the sophistication of the big city. The grandeur of St Basils Cathedral or Red Square would have been as alien to them as to me.

And, crucially, they were Jews. If the faces I saw in Moscow looked so different from my own, that?s how my great-grandparents would have felt too. As Jews, they were permanent outsiders ? regarded as a tribe apart. They would not have been seen, and probably did not regard themselves, as ?Russian? at all.

That rule, incidentally, still applies in today?s Russia ? to Jews but also to the scores of different minorities that live in the country. All citizens are Rossiskii, but only those ethnically Russian can call themselves Russki. And the Mindels and Freedlands were certainly not Russki.

Sure, they would have spoken Russian for any contact with authority, but their mother tongue would have been Yiddish. They would have eaten different food, listened to different music, told different stories.

Which was why I felt the twinge of recognition only twice this week ? once when I was looking for it and once by surprise. The first came with a visit to Chagall, a kosher restaurant named after the great Russian-Jewish painter. Amid prints of the artist?s trademark flying brides and moon-lit goats, I was served a chicken soup that tasted like home ? accompanied by black bread just like the one I remember from my great-aunt Yiddi?s house.

The second moment caught me off guard. I was interviewing the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, now a political campaigner who pointedly does not rule out a future run for the Russian presidency. (He is Jewish and therefore has no chance, say most sceptical observers.) He spoke with a tinge of world-weary humour that I recognised immediately: his manner would have made him fit right in with any Jewish gathering, in London or New York.

All of which has got me thinking. For if this is the way I, the great-grandchild of immigrants, feel about the country that would have been classified as my forebears? ?motherland?, what might that say for the generations that came to Britain later ? including the newcomers of today?

My hunch is that their grandchildren will feel the way I did this week. Talk to young, British-born Pakistanis or Indians and many will describe how they feel when they go ?back home? ? as if they are neither going back nor going home. Some have the language, but many don?t; others find their humour, their entire outlook, is worlds apart from the one they encounter in what is meant to be ?the old country.? They come away with a new feeling ? that they are, in fact, very British.

If that is true of these second-generation immigrants, it will surely get truer by the time it reaches the fourth generation ? where I am now. The connection with the ?country of origin? will fade away.

But, if the Jewish experience is any guide, that will not be the whole story. The sense of identity, even of difference, will endure. It may take new forms ? sometimes taking on new religious intensity, sometimes expressing itself as solidarity with a wider, global community ? but it will not go away.

For Jews, that has meant a surge towards orthodoxy in some places, a strong affinity with Israel in others and often both at the same time. What it has not meant is any great desire to reforge the link with Russia or Poland or Lithuania or any of the other places Jews were, crucially, only too happy to leave behind.

Of course, the experience of Black and Asian Britons has not been the same. But it seems perfectly possible that the British Pakistanis of Southall or the British Bengalis of Brick Lane will find their children and grandchildren feeling less and less Pakistani or Bengali as time goes on – but no less Muslim. Indeed, that trend already seems to be underway. And one day, perhaps, they will visit Karachi or Dhaka ? and they will feel as I did in Moscow this week, recognising almost nothing.