Alexander Dolitsky: A political refugee reflects on significance of the American flag



Through history, people have used rock drawings, language, a smile or handshakes, music, songs, legends, national flags, and national anthems to communicate ideas, cultural values, national ideals and norms of behavior.

Culture is passed down by intentional teaching these symbolic systems and shared values. As one generation imparts these ideas and values to the next, faith, ideals, moral values and local customs continue from one era to the next.

Culture is an ongoing process which changes gradually. It is important to remember that culture evolves through time not as a biological process, but through learned behavior and inherited practice. 

We receive biological and physical characteristics from our ancestors: the color of our hair, our blood type, the shape of our face and body. However, there is no gene for speaking English or Native languages, making baskets, hunting caribou, kinship terminology, or fishing for salmon. Yet, generation after generation does these things by learning them through a process that is separate from biology.

Language, religion, education, economics, technology, social organization, art, and political structure are few of many categories that fall under culture. 

In traditional society, the youth show their respect to the elder generation and generally inherit that generation’s skills, behavior, faith, philosophy, knowledge, and imperative symbols, such as national flags and anthems.

As a political refugee who arrived to the United States from the Soviet Union, a country with its entirely different socio-economic and political system, I had to learn about American culture and traditions through observation, participation and daily exposure to the American way of life, its traditions, customs, and symbols.

For me, as for other immigrants in a foreign land, cross-cultural miscommunications and misunderstandings were unfortunate and unavoidable, especially in understanding uniquely American cultural symbols.

I learned a memorable lesson in the early 1980s, when I was a PhD student in the Anthropology Department at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. At Bryn Mawr, the academic scholarship and stipend could cover only my immediate necessities. So, to supplement my $400 per month stipend, I worked as a security officer in the nearby Saint Joseph’s University, situated along the City Line Avenue of Philadelphia. 

Then, Saint Joseph’s was a medium-size private Catholic school, well-known for its basketball program, competing in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The school was also known for its Saturday night students’ parties on campus, followed by Sunday Mass and confession by most students at the Saint Joseph’s University Chapel. To my recollection, some 120 to 140 Catholic priests on the campus provided counseling to students and faculty members.

About 15–20 unarmed security officers, including myself, were employed by the University and were on duty 24/7 during different shifts. Among the officers were five supervisors—two sergeants, lieutenant, captain, and a big boss—the chief of security. He was a retired high-ranking Philadelphia police officer. Most officers were black, but there was one Filipino and four or five Caucasians. I appreciated a multi-cultural environment of the group and I learned a great deal about race and America’s ethnic diversity from this group.

One night, I was assigned to lower an American flag at the central location of the campus and bring it to headquarters. As I was performing my duty, the chief of security walked by, suddenly stopped, looked at me like an eagle at its prey, and commanded me to follow him to headquarters. I was lost in my thoughts of what I had done wrong. Once at headquarters, he ordered all officers on duty to report there, immediately. 

When everyone arrived, he pointed his index finger at me and firmly commanded, “ I want this officer to never ever touch the American flag again. Do I make myself clear?” and he marched out of headquarters without further instructions and clarifications.

The room was silent. I was absolutely confused, puzzled and embarrassed by the scene, questioning myself—”Why me? What have I done? Will I be fired?”

The officers were confused about the incident, too. They quietly approached me one by one, friendly clapping on my shoulders and expressing the empathy with concerned faces. That day, I mentally wanted to go back to my former country—the Soviet Union. There, I at least knew what was culturally acceptable and what was not.  And I questioned myself, “Is freedom worth all of this humiliation and prejudice?”

The next day, when dust had settled, the lieutenant called me to his office and explained the nature of my mistake.

“You know, when you lowered the flag, it touched the ground,” he said.  “And it is a big no, no in our country. The chief is a Korean vet—he is a proud American.”

My ignorance about the treatment and respect of the essential U.S. symbol—the American Flag—was a critical experience for my understanding of its cultural significance. No grudges, no excuses, no going back to my former country.

Lesson learned, lesson appreciated, and lesson respected.

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1977; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.

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Read: Duke Ellington and the effects of Cold War in Soviet Union on intellectual curiosity


  1. The chief was a jerk. All he had to do is tell the guy right then and there then see if he followed instructions. Then if he let it touch the ground again, then he should not let him touch it again.

  2. What should we choose to follow? Tradition? Or truth? The fact is, flags are symbols–graven images–nothing more. They were invented along with coats of arms for military purposes…. to enable fortifications, armies, ships, aircraft, etc to be identified properly.

    Our country is not defined by our flag, or its land borders. Rather, it is defined by our constitution….which can be modified by due process. Treating a symbol with respect is fine to a reasonable degree. Doing so obsessively is an abomination unto Yahweh. Would the offended officer be similarly offended if I allowed an historic 13-star replica flag to touch the ground? Or how about one of those motif flags such as with green stripes? What if I touched the ground with a modified flag having 14-stripes? Obsessing about a cloth symbol is a slippery slope and obviously a fool’s errand. American soldiers did not die for our flag; rather they died to protect our God-given birthrights delineated in our constitution.
    Think about it, most people pledge allegiance to a cloth symbol. I don’t. Rather, I utter the following; “I pledge allegiance to the constitution of the Unites States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
    Are you following tradition or truth?

  3. To Wayne D Coogan: Very intelligent narrative!! I am following traditions, facts and truth.

  4. Apparently a college-educated professional, with teaching experience in the secondary schools of the Soviet Union, later a PhD student in the Anthropology Department at Bryn Mawr College, took offense at a Korean War veteran calling him to account for disrespecting America’s flag.
    One might conclude from Alexander’s narrative that the college-educated professional, etc., lacked the courage, chutzpah, to ask his boss, a Korean War veteran, what he did wrong and what he had to do to make it right.
    Seems worth “reflecting”: what would have happened if Alexander had disrespected the flag of the Soviet Union in similar fashion.

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