Though the USSR is history, its high child rearing standards live on
Though the USSR is no more, a generation of teenagers and young adults is being raised by the last Soviet parents, who fled to the United States and Europe after 1991, and whose education and expectations were marked by the high standards of the old regime.
TikTok meme pages and Instagram parody accounts document the collective culture developing among the U.S. descendants of those with Soviet roots.
Late one evening at a Starbucks in New Jersey, two high school girls huddle, giggling over their pink drinks. They’re talking about their junior prom. They discuss their classmates’ dresses, and the cute boy from third period gym who Vika likes. Then the talk turns to their SAT and AP exams.
“If I don’t get at least a 1550 on the next SAT my dad said he’s kicking me out,” laughed Nika Bannikova, citing a near-perfect score.
“I got a 1380 on the January one, and my mom cried,” her friend Victoria “Vika” Fayfman replied, citing a score in the 93rd percentile – that is, higher than 93 percent of test-takers.
It’s not an uncommon scene. Many children of immigrants feel pressured to perform by their parents’ sacrifices on their behalf. It is in the ideals of the late Communist party to “raise children…to attend to their physical development and their instruction in and preparation for socially useful activity,” according to the text of a 1968 law, “Principles of Legislation on Marriage and the Family of the USSR and the Union Republics.”
Though the USSR is history, its elevated ideals about child rearing live on.
Bannikova’s family comes from Tashkent, now the capital of independent Uzbekistan. She speaks Russian and Uzbek, and now English. She emigrated to the United States with her parents and younger sister as a sixth-grader.
Bannikova works at an Eastern European daycare center, where the Soviet Union reconvenes in the bright yellow hallways, in an amalgamation of Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, Kazakh, Georgian, Azerbaijani and Belarussian teachers, parents and children. Her linguistic abilities serve her well there, and she’s more comfortable engaging in conversation with those whose first language is not English.
Bannikova’s responsibilities include filling in for teachers when they need a break, and greeting parents and retrieving children from their classrooms at pickup time. She works from 4 to 7 p.m., four days a week, while studying for her AP exams in physics, language and history.
“There’s a lot of pressure from my parents to get into a good college,” she said. “I want to go to Boston College, but they want me close to home, but somewhere good enough for them — so they expect me to go to Princeton. I’m not getting into Princeton,” she added.
It is a common complaint of many children of immigrant parents. Their parents are riding the glory of the American Dream, and investing all of their hopes in their children’s success. Could the children be the collateral victims?
“The streets weren’t paved with gold — I mean, I didn’t think they ever were. A lot of people say that as a metaphor, but mom, dad and [my sister] Dana are happy,” Bannikova said. “I’m really happy too.”
Though she’s exaggerating when she suggests her dad would kick her out for failing to achieve perfect scores, Bannikova feels the pressure of finding a good job and moving out quickly, to get her own place. Getting therapy helped, she said – and an older co-worker also advocated on her behalf to her parents.
Anna Kolke, a teacher at the daycare center, was also born in Uzbekistan. Her adult children have graduated from college, and are now living on their own.
Kolke is Bannikova’s mentor, ally and friend.
“I get it. I was that parent who didn’t listen to her kids, Kolke said. “I know I pushed my daughter hard to go to medical school. Let’s just say, she’s not in medical school.
“She’s happy and okay now, but it wasn’t until she was completely losing it, every day, that I was like — maybe we should see someone,” Kolke said. “That’s why with Nika, I just want her to be happy; she’s a good kid and she’ll be okay.”
Despite her protests, Bannikova thinks she’s successfully managing her family’s expectations for her future, while also putting her mental health first. She finds solace in the fact that other children of Soviet parents are experiencing similar parental pressure.
“I studied English at school back in Tashkent, but it wasn’t anything like I thought it would be when we got here,” Bannikova said. “Making friends was hard at first, but then I found people like Vika who understand me.”
Victoria “Vika” Fayfman has dealt with similar issues. Her family hails from Kyiv, though she’s never visited Ukraine. The family left Ukraine in 1995, about 11 years before she was born, and she learned Russian from her parents at home.
In fact, the two girls have many Russian-speaking friends; almost all of them speak the language of their parents. Bannikova is the outlier.
Fayfman was in sixth grade social studies class when she heard a girl with a familiar accent asking their teacher for help. Later she spotted Bannikova on the lunch line.
“I go, ‘I’m Vika’ in Russian, and she turned around, so surprised.
“I thought she was saying my name!” Bannikova said, laughing. “I said, I’m Nika too! And she said ‘no, it’s Vika.’ We laughed at how our names are so similar, and we’ve been friends since then.”