Alexandra, Elena and Sergei Shokarev are among the newest students at Kozminski Community Academy, 936 E. 54th St. The siblings – aged 5, 7 and 14 – are, with their parents, the first Russian refugees to arrive in Hyde Park due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The oldest of the three, Sergei speaks the best English and is so far the happiest at school. So say his parents, who welcomed the Herald last week to the bright and cozy apartment prepared for them by local volunteers.
The namesake of his father, historian Sergei Shokarev, teenaged Sergei wants to become an engineer and build helicopters. But he’s a chip off the old block when it comes to talking about history and politics, and he’s delighted to be able to discuss things at school that weren’t allowed back in Russia. Rather than shushing him, his teacher has encouraged this speech. Young Sergei says that, as soon as he gets comfortable enough with English, he will give a presentation to his classmates about the history and current events in his native country.
The youngest child, Sasha, arrived home from school ebullient and bouncy. Her mother, Alina Shokareva, explained that after a long day of linguistic puzzlement, Sasha was glad to be able to speak Russian and be understood. A further stimulus, her mother added, was the presence of a visitor, who was served many cupcakes and bonked repeatedly with a soft stuffed toy.
The grown-ups were sitting at the dining-room table, which Shokareva had draped in a colorful tablecloth of Russian design, purchased online from Target. Sweets and tea were on offer, and both parents seemed quite relaxed and eager to share their experiences. Shokareva speaks English fluently, while her husband is just beginning to learn. He had just finished a session with a volunteer tutor from the Hyde Park Refugee Project.
“I can breathe normally now,” she said. After Russia’s autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin, ordered the invasion of Ukraine in late February of this year. Shokarev, who would frequently participate in anti-war protests, had been arrested for carrying a sign that read “No War”; it was his third such arrest. By the start of March, Shokareva was having trouble sleeping, tormented both by the tragedy of the war and by anxieties about what would happen next in Russia.
“I was so frightened,” she said. “I thought maybe now Putin could do anything.” She feared the Russian president might put all dissenters in prison. “He (imprisoned) a lot, and not only the leaders. Many left the country.”
“I knew that Sergei would not stop writing (criticism of Putin) on Facebook, or speaking in lectures,” she continued. “I knew he could not be silent.”
A historian herself, Shokareva got on the internet and began searching for Americans in her field who might lead her to a job in the U.S. Her specialty is 19th century Russia and its royal family, while her husband’s is medieval Russian history. Her fluent English allowed her, with the help of faculty members at the University of Chicago, to secure a yearlong teaching position here with a potential for renewal.
Many urban Russians own a dacha, a vacation home away from the city. The Shokarevs couldn’t afford a dacha near Moscow, so years ago they purchased one in Bulgaria. The family was able to leave Russia and remain there with their cat, Katzik, while arrangements were made for Shokareva’s new job and the move to Chicago.
“We were so happy that we had that little flat by the sea,” she said. “It was the perfect place to spend the summer.”
Early in October, the five of them, plus Katzik, made for an airport in Turkey and boarded a nonstop flight to Chicago. Within a short time, Shokareva was teaching a Russian history survey course to undergraduates.
At the U. of C., she found her students strikingly keen, especially since the course was optional for most: “These are future doctors, economists, computer programmers. Yet after just a few lectures, they can discuss very serious problems in Russian history,” she said.
Her husband had been teaching at Russian State University for the Humanities since 1998. He has written more than ten books about medieval Russian history, mostly for general audiences. Hot off the press is a children’s book which leads young readers on an architectural expedition around Moscow, examining images of lions and unicorns and other emblems of the old czars. With a little help from his wife, Shokarev explained that he’s eager to get his English up to speed, so that he can begin teaching about life under Putin and about the historical reasons for Russian aggression, going back to the 15th century.
For the Shokarevs, the hardest thing about emigration was leaving all four of their children’s grandparents behind. “The children miss them,” their mother said, “and of course they want to have the whole family together.”
It was comforting to receive such a warm welcome in Hyde Park, she continued: “I was surprised at the friendliness. In my country it is not like this. Here people are more smiling, trying to make everyone happier. Everyone tries to help me.” At school, “teachers make the atmosphere friendly, calm, relaxed. They want to make pupils enjoy learning. Teachers in Russia are more strict, maybe more aggressive.”
The first time Shokarev was arrested for protesting, several years ago, he was jailed overnight. He said he didn’t mind because he was “in good company.” The second and third arrests occurred earlier this year, though he was allowed to go home after only a few hours. In all three cases, judges waived the potential 15-day jail sentence and simply fined him and his protester friends.
Shokareva took a similar risk, joining a demonstration shortly after the invasion. Passing through the Moscow neighborhoods, she recalled, the protesters encountered little support. “We met a lot of people who didn’t understand what we were talking about.”
“Even to call it a war is forbidden” she noted. “On television the invasion is called a ‘special army operation,’ not a war.”
Will the Shokarevs ever go back to Russia? “Sometimes we want to return, sometimes no,” said Shokareva, “We love Russia, but we don’t love Putin and all that.”
Shokarev spoke of his duty as a historian to continue contributing to political and scholarly dialogue in Russia. Both agreed that it might be nice, under different conditions, to split their time between Russia and the U.S.