Born in the former Soviet Union, Sophia Sobko (she/they) immigrated with their family to the U.S. in 1991 on a Jewish refugee visa. Sobko was five at the time. 

Now a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Education, Sobko’s research explores the experiences of queer, Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union as a case study for understanding how race and racialization shift across different locations and time periods. 

“The recent process of de-assimilating started with understanding my immigration story. The political context I came from and the story of how I got here are erased through how I present—white,” says Sobko.

The political narratives, justifications, and global tensions running underneath Sobko’s immigration story are also a part of what she studies. 

Baba Yaga saying “Don’t assimilate!” by Sophia Sobko

“My family got to immigrate and have all this resettlement support when so many other immigrants did not and still do not,” said Sobko. “We were imagined as European, as white, and came with high levels of formal education. Ultimately, we were used to help the United States look like the benevolent savior in the context of the Cold War: ‘These people want to escape communism and find solace in capitalism!” 

“Also, the Jewish lobbies that supported our migration—that was not not neutral money. That financial support came from inclusion into whiteness, which is based on the dispossession of Black people, Native people, and people of color. So, before we even set foot on U.S. soil, we were already complicit.” 

A former high school teacher, artist, and educator Sobko has always been interested in people learning together and, particularly, how they make sense of their lives together through art. Recently, her creative energy has shifted towards collaborating with people with whom she shares political identities.

“Up until three years ago, I was doing a lot of work—documentaries, story-telling projects— with groups I wasn’t a part of.” said Sobko. “My whiteness and access to education put me in a position of power in those instances. I heard respected friends and scholars of color telling me—go work with your own people.“ 

Dear (American) Jews, Especially Ashkenazi Jews, by Sophia Sobko, Kolektiv’s first zine, May 2019

In 2019, Sobko founded Kolektiv Goluboy Vagon, a virtual collective of queer, trans, and gender-marginalized post-Soviet Jewish immigrant-settlers who live in the U.S. and Canada and who are committed to grounding themselves in their individual histories and shared positionalities, and working toward collective liberation. Together, they process family conflict, including being queer and radical in their Soviet Jewish families, host political education workshops, organize film screenings, practice Russian, and watch Soviet cartoons. 

As religion was prohibited in the former Soviet Union, many members of the Kolektiv are in the process of reclaiming their Jewish religious identity. The group had their first Hanukkah, first High Holidays, first Novy God (Russian New Year), first Passover, and collectively produced a 76-page zine, raising funds for Black-led justice organizations. The third and most recent season of the group was organized by a seven person stewarding committee, which has made the laborious work more sustainable. 

For Sobko though, the most difficult part of the Kolektiv’s work has been finding the balance between healing and focusing on culture and creating more material ways to be in solidarity towards collective liberation. 

“The questions are, how do you engage with people’s deep traumas and also the violence of our complicity in these systems? How do you keep showing up to it, and treat each other with care?” says Sobko. 

Like many American Jews, Sobko and members within the Kolektiv negotiate a relationship with Israel and Palestine. Kolektiv Goluboy Vagon members are actively invested in centering Palestinan voices and asks in their justice work. However, this commitment has not proved easy, with so many financial resources within the American Jewish community tied to unwavering support of the state of Israel. 

“For example, if I say Israel is a settler-colonial nation state, and I am quoted saying that, there’s loads of Jewish organizations that won’t publish me or support me” says Sobko.  “Even if that is literally what Israel’s founder, Theodor Herzl described it as— and it was clearly funded by Western European empires—Jews coming there certainly didn’t have the resources to start a nation-state on their own.” 

Growing up in Zionist family, Sobko has seen first-hand how the anti-semitic trauma her father endured during his life in the former Soviet Union has been weaponized and made to perpetuate an unshakeable sense of of Jewish victimhood. 

Selection of pages from Kolektiv’s zine, which can be ordered from their website:

Ultimately, in both their personal and professional life, Sobko identifies that the continued work lies showing up again and again to both their personal and professional relationships with care.

Sobko leans into the ideas of non-disposability, or the conviction that, through the recognition of shared humanity, there exist non-punitive ways of relating with each other throughout conflict; it is an idea that has been discussed by organizers of color, and especially abolitionist organizers.

The next steps for Sobko and Kolektiv Goluboy Vagon are towards coalition building—potentially with other immigrant groups in proximity to whiteness, Jewish marginalized groups, such as Black Jews, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews, and Jews of color, and/or Cuban Americans also coming from a Communist context.

“To the extent people are interested, let’s get together and talk about our differences, our shared goals, and our strategies,” finishes Sobko. “Let’s figure out how we’re being used, let’s dream together, let’s create some art, and let’s figure out what we want to do about it all.”