30 Years in America – Edition 2024

On the 30th Anniversary of my family's arrival in the United States from Soviet Russia, I reflect on my time here. After recounting the hard early days in a new country when I was "fresh off the boat", I offer perspective on how America has changed since I arrived. What I see now is, in some ways, more troubling than what I found all those years…

30 Years in America

This week, I am going to share with you two essays that I wrote a few years ago. I want you to see this country through the eyes of an immigrant. If you were born here, you have only seen prosperity, making it more likely for you to take what you have for granted. We tend to not appreciate what we have until we lose it.

30 Years in America

On December 4th, 1991, my family “got off the boat” from Russia – we landed at JFK, our stop on the way to Denver. I was 18. This was a new world to us. My first surprise was Denver’s shocking flatness. I learned about the United States mostly from American movies which, with the exception of Westerns, heavily biased coasts and skyscrapers. Denver was flat, sunny, and unusually warm. Just a few days before we were freezing our bones in Moscow in negative 30 degree weather. It was 65 degrees in Denver. People wore T-shirts in the middle of winter.

That was not the only surprise for us.

In Russia, every time we left the house, we paid close attention to how we dressed. Here nobody cared about their looks. This was liberating. I embraced this newfound freedom with all my heart. To this day I am the worst-dressed person in our 12-story office building, sporting mostly T-shirts and jeans.

We were picked up at the airport by half a dozen strangers, members of my aunt’s synagogue. There were six of us: my father, stepmother, brother Alex, stepbrother Igor, my 84-year-old grandma, and yours truly. We had brought all our life possessions with us – thirty duffle bags. These strangers, who were to our big surprise always smiling (I will address the topic of smiling in a second), picked us up and drove us to our fully furnished apartment. They had furnished an apartment for people they didn’t know! That was shocking to me. I had been brainwashed into believing that Americans – capitalist pigs – would sell their brothers to supersize their happy meals. (I’ll touch on this topic in a few pages, too). Now, these cold-hearted capitalists had taken their time and money to care for people they had never met. Capitalism was supposed to make people selfish and greedy, but these people were anything but.

Now, on the subject of smiling – Americans do it a lot. Let’s be honest; these smiles are manufactured. There is no way you are happy to see every stranger you meet on the street. Russians are stingy on smiles. They don’t give you frivolous smiles. When they smile they mean it. My thinking on this topic has changed a lot over the years. The pivotal moment was when I went back to Russia with my brother Alex in 2008. I realized that smiling faces had become a necessary and welcome part of the décor of my daily life. Today I walk in the park daily. I may be listening to an audio book or a podcast, but I try to give every person I meet a big smile. I do this intentionally for a selfish reason – you do this a dozen times in an hour and your facial muscles lighten and relax and your mood improves. Try it. It works.

Language was another surprise. George Bernard Shaw said, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Shaw was so right. I had studied (more like memorized) English in school. I had enough vocabulary to maybe buy milk. But that was British English. American English was a completely different animal. Americans garbled entire sentences into a single sound. I honestly could not tell when one word ended and another began. The only person I understood was James, a wonderful man who had recently moved to Denver from Dallas. James was one of those cold-blooded capitalists who volunteered his time to help us acclimate in our first few months in the US. Unlike non-Texan Americans, James spoke with a slow Texan drawl. I could understand every word he said!

I think it took me six months to be able to understand spoken American English. I remember that day – my father was driving me to school and we were listening to classical music on the radio. A commercial came on, and I could understand it! That was a big day for me.

It is going to be very difficult for me to say what I am about to say without sounding like a complete idiot. But I must preface it by explaining that in Soviet Russia everyone (for the most part) was equally poor. My family, despite my father’s high salary (he had a PhD, which boosted his pay), lived from paycheck to paycheck. Going to a restaurant was a big event for us. Our understanding of money, especially mine, was very limited – we never had any.

My father’s younger sister Anna had moved to the United States in 1979. She got divorced and remarried, to a rabbi, Nathan, who headed a small congregation in Denver. I remember one day Nathan pointed out to me one of his congregants and said, “He is a millionaire.” I still remember the thought that ran through my head – there must be something special about that person. After a few weeks of intense observation of this fellow, I came to the conclusion that having millions of dollars in the bank did not make him extra special. He drove a fancier car. He probably had a bigger house. But he dressed worse than me (which is hard to do) and he ate the same hamburgers and ice cream as everyone else.

Over the years I have learned that money and power reveal. They often unmask a person. Sometimes you like what is revealed; many times you don’t. In fact, thirty years on, as an occupational hazard (I run an investment firm), I’ve spent some time around quite a few very wealthy people. I haven’t observed any extra dose of happiness in them. Money solves money problems. It doesn’t make people love you; your actions do. Money, just like education, is supposed to buy you choices. It should provide security. The first few years in the US, my parents worried how we were going to pay for groceries and rent. We don’t have that worry today – and that is liberating. (I wrote an in-depth essay on this subject. You can read it here.)

As I was reflecting on the last thirty years, I realized that the US has kept its promise. The poem on the Statute of Liberty reads:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The US has always presented itself as a country of opportunity. A country where you can achieve anything if you work hard. The only job that is off limits to an immigrant is becoming the President of the US. I’d say that is a feature, not a bug, of being an immigrant.

After we arrived, 1991 quickly turned into 1992. I spent a few months that year knocking on the doors of every business establishment within walking distance of our apartment and saying, “I’d like to fill out an application.” (My American aunt taught me to say this.) I did not realize it at the time, but the country was in a recession. Getting a job was very difficult. Every member of my family needed to work. I was rejected by both Taco Bell and McDonalds on multiple occasions. I still hold a little grudge against those two specific establishments when I drive by them.

My first job in the US was folding towels at an athletic club. I was fired a few months later for reasons still unknown to me. The manager called me into his office and gave me a long speech (I was a bit confused because he was smiling while he was firing me). Unfortunately, because he was not Texan, I didn’t understand much of what he said. I did understand that I was fired.

My next job was bussing tables at the Village Inn restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights. When I say night, I don’t mean evening, I really mean night. My shift started at 9pm and ended at 5am. At 2am, once the bar closed, the restaurant was flooded with folks looking for burgers and fries.

Everything I earned at the Village Inn, down to the last penny (including tips), I gave to my parents. This money went for food and rent. It was the least I could do. My stepmother, who was a doctor in Russia, was now cleaning rooms in a hotel. So, despite having a job, I had no money of my own. Once I went on a date with a girl to a Chinese restaurant. She ordered kung pao chicken, I ordered water. It was an embarrassing experience. I had to postpone dating for a while.

Those were difficult years, but I would not trade them for anything. Those years taught me to work harder than anyone else. I don’t know if I was driven by hunger for success, fear of failure, or by seeing the contrast of what this country had to offer versus my life in the Soviet Union. Probably all of the above.

Yes, this country has kept its promise. But as I reflect on spending the bulk of my adult life here, I realize I understand this country less today than I did 30 years ago.

If you want to keep feeling uplifted about the US, stop reading here. Seriously, my essays are usually a happy place, and the happy place is about to end.

Over the last decade something has changed. This change probably started at the turn of the century, but over the last ten years it became very noticeable. The country turned tribal.

Tribalism is benign when it comes to certain parts of our lives, like sports. You love your local high school or college or pro football team and (peacefully) hate other teams. We accept a certain amount of irrationality in belonging to a football tribe. I live in Colorado and thus supposedly belong to the Broncos and CU Buffs tribes. Even if you are a Green Bay Packers or Nebraska Cornhuskers fan, you don’t hate me for that (or if you do, it’s just for a few hours a year).

But tribalism is dangerous in other parts of our lives. We outsource our thinking to the mother ship of the tribe. Other tribes become our nemesis, and most importantly we lose nuance. Early in our lives our parents presented the world to us in binary terms. Honesty is good, lying is bad. They were trying to instill values that were black and white (right or wrong). But the world around is anything but. It is full of nuances. When I discuss politics or economics with my kids, they instinctively want to look at everything in binary terms. I try very hard to explain to them the complexities of the issues. These complexities are completely lost in tribal thinking. (I wrote about the dangers of tribalism in investing here).

Tribalism in the US has become so strong that it has started to impact our freedom of speech. No, the government is not going to send you to the gulag for your political thoughts. We do it to ourselves by cancelling each other.

Let me give you this very recent example. Chris Cuomo was fired by CNN for helping his brother Andrew Cuomo deal with sexual harassment allegations. I was going to tweet something along the lines that CNN is a private enterprise and can do what it wants. But I don’t think any less of Chris Cuomo for choosing his brother over his job. This is the value I instill in my kids – I tell my son and two daughters that the three of them are the most important people to each other in the world (even more important than their future spouses). They have to take care of each other for the rest of their lives. If one of my brothers got in trouble, I’d do anything I could to help him, even if it meant losing my job. I think there is a Taco Bell or McDonalds out there, still waiting to fix the mistake it made in passing on me 30 years ago.

I was going to tweet this about Chris Cuomo, but then I caught myself self-censoring. The thought that kept me from tweeting was, “People have been cancelled for less.” So much for free speech, for feeling you can voice an opinion you know people will disagree with. On the surface my self-censored opinion is irrelevant. But this is not about me. How many of us now find ourselves afraid of being cancelled, or just don’t want to get into mindless, vitriolic debates with tribal drones (people who just repeat the talking points of their tribes). The more we self-censor, the less free we become.

As nuance is lost, we lose pragmatism and resilience, and we follow the paths of all empires – they get too rich, overextended, think they are better than others, and then fail. (I wrote about our fiscal situation in this essay, so I won’t repeat myself on that topic).

I see much the same thing happening on the corporate level. As great companies triumph, they lose a healthy sense of paranoia and perspective, their culture stiffens, and they start thinking that success is a God-given right. Hubris creates an opening for the competition to slide in. At first the competitors are content with breadcrumbs, but eventually they eat your lunch and dinner. IBM, GE, Xerox, Kodak, Polaroid – they used to be the hallmarks of this country and now they are the sorry old shadows of themselves.

It pains me to see the younger generation romanticizing about socialism. When you tell them that every country that tried it failed, they answer that they’ll do it better. I have unique insights into this topic, both as a person who lived under Soviet socialism and as an investor. Socialism fails not because of the quality of people involved – nobody thinks that Russia or Venezuela would have succeeded if only they had better bureaucrats. Even if we had lent them out our most distinguished DMV or postal service workers, that would not have saved them. Socialism simply runs counter to our genetic programming. The alignment of incentives is paramount to the success of any enterprise. The incentives of government bureaucrats are aligned not with the success of the country but with their keeping their jobs.

You want a corporate example? Compare the innovation of SpaceX, a company run by an ambitious founder, to the space program run by the US government in league with our traditional defense contractors. Capitalism is far from perfect, but it is the best system we’ve got. (Full disclosure: We do have a position in defense contractors. The specter of Chinese dominance motivated us to buy them, and I wrote about that here.)

Yes, I know that this not what you were expecting to read from me. I am as surprised as you. But I felt it was my civic duty to share these thoughts.

I am still optimistic about the US. The wise words of Winston Churchill come to mind here: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” I still would not want my kids or my (future) grandkids to live anywhere else. But we should not take our success for granted and, just like immigrants fresh off the boat, we should be a bit hungry and appreciate that what we have here is very special. We should be very careful about our freedoms.

I was going to end this with a traditional “God bless America.” Sure. But I think relying on divine intervention is not enough; we should all make small decisions every day to improve the country. My writing this, even if it means losing half of my readers, is my first step.

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24 thoughts on “30 Years in America – Edition 2024”

  1. Vitaliy,
    As always, excellent article. And you are correct that the tribalism seems to have gotten worse over the last 10 years, but it was decades in the making. Remember the Fairness Doctrine? Most people have never heard of It and it was abolished before you came to America, so I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. However, it’s importance cannot be overemphasized. In a nutshell, it required media companies that use the public airwaves (broadcast TV and radio) to cover controversial topics and offer viewpoints from both sides. By 1987 though, politicians had enough of it and since then the media has become more and more biased because it is more profitable to do so. And this bias has grown in lockstep with partisanship. Correlation is not necessarily causation, but it’s pretty clear that most people like to live in their feelgood echo chambers only consuming the media they agree with. Fast forward nearly 40 years and now you have the majority of Americans doing nothing but parroting what they just read on some biased website, not realizing that they don’t know the full story. Absent censorship (which I am not advocating), I think there’s only one cure for this disease – mandatory media bias and profitability classes in high school and college. At least then, people would understand that they are merely pawns in the big media profitability game. Thanks for your time, Sean Butson

    Reply
  2. Vitaliy, I couldn’t agree with you more. Self-cancelling is robbing us of our freedom of speech. I only talk politics or economics with like minded folks. Too many folks think that “free stuff” is somehow better. They don’t realize they are the product or their soul has been bought and paid for.

    The student debt thing is just robbery of the rest of us. We covered our three son’s schooling costs. Why are we having to pony up for others? I didn’t tell someone to spend big bucks for a useless degree. I think someone didn’t get the basic finances course, or they missed the class on ROI.

    PS: Even if I never get to be a client, I so enjoy your newsletters, stories, struggles and overcomings. Keep up the faith and the good work!

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  3. Great essay Vitaly. Your observations are spot on, although I like to be optimistic and would like to believe that the USA can come through this time period stronger than before like we did in the 1960s.

    I always try to listen to and read opinions that are different from my own to make sure I don’t end up in an echo chamber. I wish more other people did the same, rather than recoil when they hear someone that disagrees with them.

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  4. I loved your comment about tribal drones. “How many of us now find ourselves afraid of being cancelled, or just don’t want to get into mindless, vitriolic debates with tribal drones (people who just repeat the talking points of their tribes).” I have been trying to communicate with people who are just that – tribal drones – people who just repeat the talking points of their tribes. It is mind numbingly difficult to reason with these people.

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  5. Agree with your sentiments. There is hope though as evidenced by the slow but growing cancellation of DEI policies at Harvard and other places, including corporations. I’d love to hear more from you about whether corporations are really
    getting back to regular business instead of pandering to wokist exhortations.

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  6. Great thoughts!

    I arrived in the U.S. in September 1946 from Germany.

    My mother was a U.S. citizen. She had married my Dad and chose to live in Germany. In 1946, my father was an ex-German soldier who had lost one leg in Russia and almost died. He was well-educated and had operated a substantial business. We were wealthy before Hitler turned our world upside down.

    My Dad had lost everything because Hitler had confiscated his business. The state needed the business. We were pennyless. No one wanted to hire a German. He finally got a job as a bookeeper. My mother was a hospital administrator. Both worked long hours with NO complaints. My Dad loved this country and in time he worked his way into much more demanding jobs.

    Our kids today seem to live in a world of entitlement. They believe in free stuff. They demand equity while not understanding the value of equal opportunity. I started working seriously at age 14 (W2) and worked every year thereafter until age 75. I earned my way through college by working while on campus. I worked 15 to 20 hours every week.

    We are in danger of losing something special!

    Exceptionalism is receding rapidly as an attribute.

    I am sad about this and wonder what it might take to have people think about what Kennedy said —- “ask not what your country can do for you ——–“!

    Reply
  7. I worked & lived in Russia in 1996 & 97. Being politically conservative & a capitalist, I had doubts about accepting this position. However, I thought if I could assist the Russian people in any way towards freedom, I would. I was fortunate to travel throughout the country throughout Siberia & all the way to Kamchatka Peninsula. The country is beautiful. I found it difficult to forge relationships with my fellow workers (I’d like to think because of language), but once I did, I found the bond between us was sincere.
    My young interpreter, a 21 year old woman, was exceptionally talented. We worked in a technological field. I was stunned by her ability to interpret & translate with such accuracy in such a field & at such a young age. She is Jewish & has moved with her mother & son to Israel. I was shocked by her passport which stated that she was Jewish, rather than Russian. We, in America, are identified as US citizens, not by our religion.
    Unfortunately, the Russian ruble collapsed & I left Russia. My next assignment was England. While the language was much easier, I found that developing relationships was much more difficult.

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  8. Vitaly, Really enjoyed this letter. So sad to think that you would lose readers because of the content. I had the opportunity to spend the summer of ’81 as a college student in the USSR ( 3 weeks in Moscow, 3 in Leningrad and a week in the Baltics). This was just at the beginning of the Reagan Administration and the Cold War was catching on again. When I returned home and tried to share my experiences with classmates one of the most difficult concepts for them to grasp was the total absence of a consumer society. So different that ours. The people didn’t have much.

    You might totally disagree with me on this and that’s OK but I see more and more things going on in the US now ( and this has been the case for at least the past 10 years) that remind me of the USSR just before the fall: geriatric leadership, propaganda galore… most of our corporate media now reminds me of Pravda… just echoing government narratives, neighborhoods hollowed out by drug usage( seeing people in Moscow riding the Metro all day long just medicating themselves with alcohol until they were blitzed was so sad) and military escapades that aren’t going well and sapping resources. I’m certainly hoping we don’t suffer the same fate but I’m worried.

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  9. I really think that the advent of the clickbait social media has vastly increased the amount of tribalism and silo thinking that is so prevalent today. A recent post by Freeman’s Perspective was called “Social Media Hijacks the Subconscious Mind”. I’m still ruminating on that, but the demise of long-form journalism, the quick-cut edits that are all the rage in the blockbuster movies, the ability of AI to give you a summary of anything in your inbox or any document that you open in Adobe Acrobat — all of these militate away from a thoughtful consideration of an issue and toward a predigested answer that aligns with the predispositions that the “algorithm” has identified as driving your clicks.
    The lack of friction in forwarding emails has certainly driven up the volume of reading materials in my inbox, and little of it contributes at all to my understanding of issues, and even less of it shows me a different slant on an issue to force me to examine my opinions. The effort that it takes to seek out and read thoughtful, legitimate analyses of issues that are different from my usual subscriptions is substantial.

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  10. I love your essay 30 years in America, mine is 55 years arriving as a physician needing training in specialty of Hematology. It wasn’t easy since they require you to start from scratch, ie internship and residency, passing State Boards for licensing, then when deciding to stay, applying for a Green Card, needed a sponsor, which my employer (Medical School) did by the Dean so I can continue a career in Academia. Waiting another 8 years to be processed since the legal way had lots of restrictions and obstacles such as limits per country. But America was so much different in the 70’s and 80’s, more accepting and we reaped the benefits of a true democracy with friendly people although we had some racist experience but mild.

    My children were born here so they do not know what we escaped from, martial law in the Philippines, a dictatorship which they had to rebel in a nonviolent manner to get rid of the dictator. Now his son has taken over the presidency using the coffers stolen from the country. This cycle was not unexpected. But America has gone the same direction what you call tribalism which I refer to as polarization has divided this country by its own version of a would-be-dictator, now running for re-election despite becoming a certified felon.

    I sent a copy of your essay to my children to remind them of what America was once was and to be careful this is not lost for the coming generation. One has to speak up and being quiet makes one complicit in the outcome so here is my voice as well.
    We speak for the younger and future generations with which we leave this once wonderful country. God bless its future.

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  11. Vitaly, this is the first time ever that i am commenting on your letter. First, i must say, i have always been fascinated by the Jews ! Irrespective of where they are domiciled. I admire how tenacious, creative and hard working most are and the resolve to stick together is so vital at any point in time ! Hailing from tiny Sri Lanka (have you hard of us…HAHA) we don’t have may jews but nevertheless being a christian and also reading about them in commerce, medicine, architecture , law, et cetera .. tells me so much and, your values, and perceptions epitomise this so much ..Thank you

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  12. I’m always a little surprised when I read about the tribalism in America being a recent concern or “worse than it has ever been” . I remember the 1960’s when the country was split by divisions along racial and political lines, the anti and pro war movements, the hippies and the straights, etc. The difference then was “the lefties” were the minority and pushing for things to change. One result a landslide election of a corrupt Republican President (Watergate, et al) and the murder of three progressive leaders…Now it is “the righties” that are in the minority and they push for things to “be like they were” with insurrections (violent protests), claims of a rigged election that removed a corrupt Republican President for power…It is different now, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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  13. A thoughtful and insightful piece of modern thought on America, provided by an immigrant who has a broader perspective on our society than most of us. Coming from Soviet culture, Vitaly has this perspective, whereas most of us have had a privileged upbringing. I think his views of our current trend toward tribalism are on target: we are on the path toward creating a new Europe, with our divisions being political, economic, and social, rather than geographic. My hope is that this trend will be only another phase of the American evolution.

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  14. Wonderful essay From the heart

    Loving your brother first Is that not tribalism?
    and Canada and Denmark : very successful countries and socialist too

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  15. This is the best description of what’s happening in the country that I have found. The situation is dangerous, sad, and depressing and I wonder if it will ever change. The saddest part is that I also self-censor due to the barrage of negativity that will follow.

    The lack of acceptance of other speakers’ opinions in the educational arena is the worst, as they should value the free exchange of ideas the most! I find myself going down the “oh whatever” path which is something I’ve never done.

    Thanks for finding a way to clearly express this most difficult environment we find ourselves in – I”m going to reference this article when I find myself getting frustrated in what are supposed to be open discussions.

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  16. Vitaliy said “But we should not take our success for granted and, just like immigrants fresh off the boat, we should be a bit hungry and appreciate that what we have here is very special. We should be very careful about our freedoms.” He wrote this very tentatively perhaps in fear of being criticized, or canceled. He also wrote about tribes, and division. Again very gently. But I think he is sounding a warning note. Keep writing, Vitaliy.

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  17. I think that Americans smiling on first meeting strangers is not phony or put-on. It doesn’t mean that we are pretending to be friends already when we do not yet know each other; it means that we are open to possibility of becoming friends with this new acquaintance. We mean to start that learning process with a little free sample of our personal warmth and self-confidence. Please see my smile as an invitation, not a lie.

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  18. Always a pleasure to read your thoughts Vitaliy. It was one of the reasons I invest with you. You have real life experience on top of the academic smarts to give your readers wisdom.

    Reply

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