Diana Markosian Tells Her Post-Soviet Immigration Story Through a Soap Opera Lens

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Diana Markosian, 'The Arrival,' from 'Santa Barbara,' 2019. (Courtesy the artist and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

The micro-generation born during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union is now in our late 20s and early 30s. We arrived at the brink of an uncertain future, just as the USSR splintered into 15 independent nations and left a dust cloud of political upheaval, bread lines and other scarcity in its wake.

In the early 1990s, our formerly insular, authoritarian homeland entered a new era of globalized capitalism. Closed borders opened, along with new opportunities, and hundreds of thousands of us came to the United States as children. Like all young immigrants, we assimilated while keeping one foot rooted in our language and culture. Houses of worship, cultural centers, after-school programs, bakeries and bookstores in Russian-speaking hubs like San Francisco’s Richmond District and New York’s Brighton Beach were the original social networks that helped us stay connected.

Though there are millions of Russian speakers living in the U.S., former Soviet Union immigrants have rarely been represented in American media. That is, little beyond the lazy portrayals of us as spies, mobsters and other bad guys—usually American actors reciting lines in unrecognizably broken Russian.

But a rising tide of post-Soviet artists in the U.S. are now reflecting our experiences through painting, comedy, dance, music and literature. These expressions have thrived on a small scale in local scenes and online, and Diana Markosian’s photography and video exhibition Santa Barbara at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art marks our micro-generation’s arrival onto a larger stage.

Diana Markosian, 'A New Life,' from 'Santa Barbara,' 2019; San Francisco Museum of
Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. (Courtesy the artist and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

Markosian’s family, like my own, left everything they knew in search of better opportunities in California in the mid-to-late ’90s. In a deeply personal reflection of that time in her life, Markosian uses her camera, actors and sets to recreate scenes from her childhood in Moscow and her arrival in the U.S.

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“I’ve never really been at home,” says Markosian, whose experience is only the latest chapter of her family’s migration story. Her parents both arrived in Russia from Armenia as graduate students. “It’s really hard to navigate as an immigrant where home is, what home is supposed to be. I think that expectation of naturally finding a home or naturally fitting into a city or country is so foreign to me. I’ve had to really search for that. And I don’t think I’ve always found it, and I don’t think any of my family have.”

In Santa Barbara, which she shot in 2019 and originally released as a book, Markosian stages scenes that depict her last days in Russia before her mother, Svetlana, woke her and her brother up to go to the airport without saying goodbye to their father, whom she would not see for 15 years. When they arrived in California, an older man named Eli, who would become Markosian’s stepfather, picked them up and took them to their new home in Santa Barbara.

Though Santa Barbara is autobiographical, Markosian uses a clever storytelling device that gives the body of work a broader relatability to its post-Soviet audience. The show gets its name from an ’80s soap opera that was the first American series to be shown, dubbed, on Russian television in the early ’90s. Though I was too young to understand the romantic intrigues of its blond, wealthy protagonists, Santa Barbara’s monumental importance in my family life is forever imprinted in my early childhood memories, an experience I share with my Russian-speaking friends who immigrated at around the same age.

Diana Markosian, 'The Disapointment,' from 'Santa Barbara,' 2019. (Courtesy the artist and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

Santa Barbara might capture something essential to the post-Soviet immigrant zeitgeist, but that wasn’t necessarily Markosian’s intention. “I think what I tried to do with this project was challenge myself to reach a form of truth that would help me heal,” she says.

In an ultimate full-circle moment, Lynda Myles, one of the screenwriters of the Santa Barbara soap opera, helped Markosian dramatize her family story for the short film that accompanies her photography at SFMOMA. Details like these, as well as the casting photos displayed alongside the documentary-style ones, feel like a wink at the audience, reminding us that we’re seeing a fictionalized version of the family drama just as we get engrossed in Svetlana’s emotional world.

A glowing image of the American dream, Santa Barbara inspired Markosian’s mother to start a new life in California; she connected with Eli when he replied to her personal ad in a newspaper. “Mail-order bride” stereotypes continue to dog Russian-speaking women to this day, which is perhaps why Svetlana kept that story hidden from her daughter until the artist was in her late 20s.

For Markosian, who documented her reunion with her father in Armenia in another series called Mornings (With You), Santa Barbara was a chance to understand her mother’s decisions from an adult perspective.

“My mom will never understand what it felt like for me to enter a class full of students who didn’t dress like me and didn’t speak the same language as me,” Markosian says. “She won’t ever understand how uncomfortable it felt for me to have been just placed and planted in this other world. And the other side of this is I’ll never understand her reality. And I think what’s been really beautiful with this project is I’ve had a chance to get a glimpse of it.”

Diana Markosian, 'Lifeline,' from 'Santa Barbara', 2019; San Francisco Museum of Modern
Art, Gift of the artist. (Courtesy the artist and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

Markosian recreates her parents’ Russian apartment—the rotary phone with yellowed plastic, the full ashtray and the floral wallpaper—with a nostalgic realism that makes the work feel like documentary, or maybe like archival snapshots typical of Russian family albums from the ’90s. But there’s a cinematic quality to the exhibition too, in the way that she captures the fictional Svetlana’s despondent gaze with chiaroscuro lighting. Svetlana stares into the distance, and we feel her unease and loss of control as she starts a new life with a man with whom she has very little in common, sacrificing parts of herself to give her children a better life.

“I was too traumatized when I came, from everything what happened,” we hear the real Svetlana say in the short film. “I didn’t see a difference between thankfulness and love.”

The idea of immigrants coming here for a better life is a romanticized notion in the U.S., as if the act of arrival fixes everything. But Markosian’s Santa Barbara so eloquently captures the underlying alienation of leaving your culture, language and community—not because you wanted to, but because everything has fallen apart. “I feel betrayed by my country and then I feel betrayed by my husband. I was by myself. I didn’t feel I had any future,” the real Svetlana says in the video.

A piece from the show called The Arrival illustrates the family on the precipice of uncertainty. Figures portraying Svetlana, Diana and her brother David stand on the edge of a red carpet unfurled in a vast, arid desert, with no clear direction of where to go next.

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‘Diana Markosian: Santa Barbara’ is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Dec. 12, 2021. Details here.