Ukraine, TikTokers
Content creators portray post-Soviet Russian parenting quirks on TikTok. Photo credit: TikTok screenshots
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Wrapped in an ornate kerchief that’s stereotypical of Soviet-era babushkas, TikToker Kateryna Fylypchuk portrays a frustrated Russian mother confronting her depressed child: “Are you not normal? Do you purposely want to upset me? When you were little you brought me only joy and now you make my heart hurt,” she says in deliberate, exasperated Russian, punctuated by a disdainful, cold glare. “That’s enough. Go fix your mood, then come back asking for forgiveness.”

As of July 21, Fylypchuk’s monologue — one of her several hundred comedic TikTok clips about being raised by post-Soviet parents — received over 123,600 views and hundreds of comments from her fans: “Literally any Slavic mother ever”; “this is exactly my Russian mum”; “no love like Balkan mums’ gaslighting”; and “В точку,” Russian for “on point.” 

Twenty-three year old Fylypchuk, who goes by @katteryyna on TikTok, lives in Toronto, but was born in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine, 50 miles outside of Kyiv. The willowy blonde emigrated with her parents to Canada in 2009, when Fylypchuk was in middle school. Over the years, she became friends with her Canadian peers and took note of both the stark and the subtle differences between Western and Soviet parenting styles. 

Kateryna Fylypchuk, Russian Mom

TikToker Kateryna Fylypchuk plays a Russian mom who’s mad at her child for being depressed. Photo credit: Kateryna Fylypchuk / TikTok

After graduating college during the pandemic, she quarantined with her parents in what she tells me is their “very culturally Russian” household, complete with nesting dolls, old-country carpets, white lace curtains galore, and Eastern European cuisine like buckwheat and fermented mushrooms that seemed strange to some of her Canadian childhood friends. Today, the familial quirks that once embarrassed her serve as fodder for more than 1.2 million fans on TikTok, where authenticity, self-deprecation, and roasts of immigrant parenting are saluted.

Fylypchuk is one of a cadre of TikTokers who blend knowing, “I-said-what-I-said” internet aplomb with relatable, comedic experiences of a childhood shaped by the darker elements of post-Soviet parenting. It’s content for a specific audience: former Soviets now living in the West. The content runs the gamut from translating funny curse words to poking fun at Russian tropes like owning a pet bear and binge-drinking vodka. The most poignant videos, though, focus on family life, often comparing an idealized American parent who offers unconditional love, encouragement, and respect for personhood against a harsh Russian parent who’s usually depicted as unreasonably strict, critical, and overbearing.

Alyssa Lyssa: Moms, Russian vs. American

TikToker Alyssa Lyssa demonstrates her version of the Russian parenting style. Photo credit: Alyssa Lyssa / TikTok Currently Unavailable

TikToker Alyssa Lyssa plays with this juxtaposition in videos comparing American and Russian caricatures of motherhood. 

“Okay, kids, I want to hear everyone’s opinion because our house is a democracy and every voice matters,” she says in character as a baseball cap and flannel shirt-clad perky American mom. She then switches to her Russian mom persona: “закрыть рот” (“Close your mouth!”) This is no Disneyland for you, your opinion does not matter. We are not equal. This is totalitarian regime and I am the dictator. I own you.”

Although some of the TikTokers and their parents weren’t born in Russia, they frequently refer to their parents as “Russian” because they’re from former Soviet Republics like Ukraine and Belarus that were dominated by the Russian Empire’s language and culture during the 20th century. Collectively, Gen Z and millennial TikTokers like @Nickbglpv, @Eduard_Martirosyan, @Meravkho, @Itssmeog, @Goprussian, plus one Boomer, @Crazyrussiandad, have garnered over 500 million likes on the platform.

As a child of Ukrainian immigrants who fled from the former Soviet Union, I feel a cathartic kind of voyeurism in these videos. Their comedy captures an intractable miscommunication between me and some of my well-meaning post-Soviet elders, who regard children with a dismissive attitude that, even years after childhood, still leaves me with a frustration to which my American friends can’t relate. 

In fact, I’ve found that the cultural norm of deference to power, whether to parental figures or the state, is a heavy burden that most Western media missed in its early coverage of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, whether it suggested that a military coup was feasible or that grieving Russian mothers might end the war. It took a Russian American journalist like Julia Ioffe to explain how a learned helplessness and compliance with the government’s party agenda makes revolt against a dictatorship highly implausible. 

To understand the internal conflicts of the war, look no further than TikTok. In the microcosm of post-Soviet family dynamics, it’s apparent how growing up in an authoritarian state can cloud the lens through which many families from the former USSR continue to navigate the world and raise their children, even after living in Western countries for decades. 

“My parents moved us here to give us better opportunities in life, but my mom really doesn’t like what she views as Western debauchery.” — Kateryna Fylypchuk

“Russian parents are perfect for raising kids in a Soviet collectivist society, but they may be less skilled at raising kids in the West,” said Dina Birman, who has a doctorate in clinical and community psychology and is a professor at the University of Miami. She’s worked with and researched the US post-Soviet emigré population for decades. 

Birman has empathy for both the children of immigrants and their parents. She said that former Soviets who move to “free” countries tend to be wary of the unknown and fear that their children will succumb to Western decadences like “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” 

Fylypchuk agrees. “My parents moved us here to give us better opportunities in life, but my mom really doesn’t like what she views as Western ра́звра̄т (debauchery),” she said. 

To counteract potential subversions, Soviet immigrants tend to enforce strict rules and project high expectations that may appear comical or even abusive by Western norms. These scenarios are parodied in, for example, clips that show elementary-school-aged children crying while parents yell at them for being bad at math, a subject considered essential by those post-Soviets who view STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers as the most reliable path to middle-class security.

Birman commends TikTokers at the nexus of two cultures for their creative takes, but she’s also wary of the ways in which immigrants are represented as somehow deficient in Western society.

“Kids of Soviet parents might look at families in the US and think ‘I wish I had it like them,’ and it’s easy to have a deficit-oriented outlook, but not every American parent is cushy, not every Russian parent is flawed,” she said. “I’d want to help kids of immigrants appreciate their parents a bit more.”

“It’s not that you have to be afraid of your parents, but you need to really respect them.” — Simona Davydov

Content creator Simona Davydov both reveres and ridicules post-Soviet parents on her TikTok account, @Itssmeog. “It’s not that you have to be afraid of your parents, but you need to really respect them, and I don’t think that that’s a bad thing,” said Davydov. “There’s definitely a hierarchy.”

Born to Jewish-Ukrainian immigrants in New York, Davydov considers her content a celebration of her heritage. In videos like “Getting ready to head out? Not until the KGB interrogates you,” her schtick captures the nuance of a traditional post-Soviet Jewish mom who’s loving, but can’t help being nosy, paranoid, dramatic, and bossy — “for your own good,” of course. 

Davydov says that she has sympathy for immigrants from the former Soviet Union because they come by their worldview honestly. “It all stems from how they grew up with fear under Communism,” she said. “They want us to be good kids, to stay vigilant and be prepared for anything, whether that’s famine or war, so if you’re doing well, they won’t always say ‘МОЛОДЕЦ’ (attagirl or attaboy) because they’ll want to avoid jinxing it, so that you don’t get too satisfied with yourself and stop working hard.”

Davydov’s representation of Russian parents reads like a satirical Soviet parenting manual: a tradition of outlandish expectations tinged with a shrill, life-or-death urgency that Russian’s children have mocked for nearly a century. 

“Do not trust people. Do not have friends. Do not lend them money. Do not give them your heart!” — “You Must Know Everything,” Isaac Babel

In 1924, Isaac Babel captured this distinct paranoia and pressure in “You Must Know Everything,” a short story published in his book Odessa Stories, when his city was part of the Russian Empire at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution. 

In the piece, Babel describes an afternoon of music and French and Hebrew lessons chaperoned by his despotic grandmother who wants the very best for her only grandchild. She offers him her own foreboding lesson: “Study and you will have everything. Wealth and fame. You must know everything. The whole world will fall at your feet and grovel before you. Everybody must envy you. Do not trust people. Do not have friends. Do not lend them money. Do not give them your heart!” 

An inherent mistrust of outsiders may be the logical outcome of life in Russia and under Communism — a regime that promoted “mutual surveillance,” or spying within families, and punished suspected traitors with labor-camp sentences or death. Babel himself was tried for fabricated anti-Soviet activities and executed in 1939, just after Joseph Stalin formed a temporary alliance with Nazi Germany.

“Refugee immigrants don’t typically have therapy as a norm. How do you bring mental health services to people who don’t want them?” — Dina Birman

Birman was witness to this mistrust firsthand. In the 1990s, she worked as a commissioned officer for the US Public Health Service and Office for Refugee Resettlement. She and her team offered counseling to religious refugees, but most rejected help from clinicians. 

“There’s something about coming from an authoritarian society that can come into play because they grew up with a lot of fear,” she said. “Refugee immigrants don’t typically have therapy as a norm. … How do you bring mental health services to people who don’t want them?” 

These dangers, or the perception of them, certainly continue today. Take a close look at @GopRussian’s video “American versus Russian dad: Childhood Depression.” In the video, a progressive American dad offers to take his son to a therapist, while a macho Russian dad holding a shot glass says, “Oh, you have a depression, then I have my belt here,” and swats at his son. Notice how the creator’s face is always covered?

GopRussian, dad, childhood depression

An American dad versus a Russian dad on childhood depression. Photo credit: GopRussian / TikTok

Unlike some of the other “Soviet parent” TikTokers, 25-year-old @GopRussian still lives in Russia. A longtime critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime, and now of the war in Ukraine, he wears masks in all of his TikTok videos due to the government’s crackdown on dissent. He agreed to be quoted because he wants people to know that “the opposition is still alive even if we aren’t in the streets, and I want people to know that we’re not all the same.” (Some of his other videos speak more directly to this experience.)

GopRussian, Mask, sign

TikToker GopRussian protests Russia’s war in Ukraine. Photo credit: GopRussian / TikTok

He’s never visited the US, and he knows not all American dads are like his fictionalized ideal. He built the character based on an amalgamation of traits and stories gathered from his friends in the West, his study of psychology, and good old Hollywood pop culture. 

“If you live in Russia and you have a psychological issue, you’re more likely to see a gypsy than a psychologist,” he told me over an encrypted Telegram call. 

According to @GopRussian, who studied psychology for years, the distaste for help from psychiatrists or psychologists is common among Slavs. 

When @GopRussian misbehaved as a toddler, he says his parents took him to a psychic who “removed the curse” with a chant and then gave him some cognac. Did it help? His parents told him that he became a well-behaved boy afterward. 

“I think that Americans go to therapists, and Russians turn to friends, family, and vodka to make things better, which might make things worse,” he said. “It’s a major milestone for someone from the USSR to go and seek help from a professional.” While he’s self-aware enough to admit his own lingering feelings of childhood inadequacy, he’s also Russian enough to forgo therapy. 

“Posting these videos for each other is something that, for us, almost looks like therapy.” — @GopRussian

As regards therapy, the TikTokers may not be that different from their forebears. Like many of the former Soviet refugees who declined help from Birman’s team in the 1990s, both Fylypchuk and Davydov also say they don’t plan to do therapy. “I know that I shouldn’t feel so responsible for my mom’s feelings, and maybe it’s very Russian, but I feel like I should be able to solve my own problems,” Fylypchuk says. 

In Russia today, @GopRussian says that the principles of psychology are acknowledged, but the practice is derided as a last resort for the weakest or craziest people with no one to turn to. 

Birman notes that traditional Russian upbringing has demanded for generations that children be obedient and unconditionally loyal to their parents as well as the state. She says that criticism of the motherland or Родина мать (a Soviet-era slogan that’s figuratively a reminder that “your place of birth is your mother”) is considered completely unacceptable. 

“You’re a patriot no matter what [the Russian motherland] does,” she says. “It’s fatalistic.” And because a similar fidelity is expected by parents, any form of psychotherapy, which tends to start by analyzing issues created by parents and one’s family of origin, is considered a betrayal. 

In that sense, the TikTokers’ videos are a brave attempt to publicly, loudly wrestle with issues that their parents and grandparents were unwilling — or just unable? — to address, even privately. 

“So a lot of people are just stuck,” @GopRussian said. “But posting these videos for each other is something that, for us, almost looks like therapy.”


Author

  • Valerie Demicheva is a Bay Area-based journalist and photographer who covers culture, technology, media, and food. Her work has appeared on the covers of the San Francisco Chronicle, SOMA Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, and Silicon Valley Magazine.