Alexander Dolitsky: Assimilation and acculturation takes time, and understanding



I was a presenter at the Juneau–Gastineau Rotary Club in January, 2020, speaking on “Several sanctioned avenues for immigration to the United States.” At the end of my presentation, an attendee asked a question: “Alexander, what was the most difficult area of your acculturation and assimilation in the United States?” 

“My behavior,” I said without any hesitation. As I answered the question, I instantly observed by the reaction of the audience; they expected a different, perhaps more obvious response, such as food, language, customs, economics, politics, appearance, etc.

True, for a newcomer’s adaptation, these socio-economic categories are essential for survival in a foreign environment. Nevertheless, people’s behavior (e.g., temperament, manners, demeanor, gestures, conducts, actions, bearing, comportment, preferences, motivation, ambition, etc.) is the most critical obstacle for acculturation and assimilation to new cultural traditions.

According to prominent American sociologist Joseph Elton, “Acculturation is the adoption of cultural traits, norms and customs by one society from another… There is no clear line [that] can be drawn between acculturation and assimilation processes. Assimilation is the end–product of a process of acculturation, in which an individual has changed so much as to become dissociated from the value system of his group, or in which the entire group disappears as an autonomously functioning social system.”

All of us live within a culture. Most cultural descriptions have labels such as “middle class,” “American,” or “Yupik and Inupiat.” These labels often become associated in our minds with certain habitual features. One such attribute for “middle-class Americans,” for example, might be typical foods — hamburgers, hot dogs and Coca Cola. Of course, this is a very broad and superficial understanding of culture. 

Culture is learned behavior passing from one generation to another—an ongoing process that changes gradually over time as a learned means of survival. In contrast, all animals adapt to their environment through biological evolution. If an animal was well adapted to its physical environment, it prospered. If it was not, it either evolved or became extinct. 

As a result of biological evolution and adaptation to the northern environment, for example, the polar bear developed a thick coat and layers of fat to protect it from the arctic cold. But the Yupik and Inupiat do not possess fur. They wear warm clothing, and in the past, made sod houses to protect themselves from the harsh environment. Their ancient tools and dwellings were part of their culture—their adaptive system that coincides with the polar bear’s fur.

In short, language, religion, education, economics, technology, social organization, art and political structure are typical categories of culture. Culture is a uniquely human system of habits, moral values and customs carried by the society from one’s distant past to the present.

Acculturation and assimilation to a culture by newcomers is a personal and self-determined process—the right to make one’s own decisions without interference from others. No one can force a newly–arrived legal immigrant to accept the cultural traditions, lifestyle, and customs of his new country. The newcomer himself must see a socio–economic necessity and benefit in accepting new traditions and values in order ultimately to embrace and accept his new culture without external influence.

I first visited Alaska in 1981, while participating in archaeological field research for graduate school at Brown University. Then, I was one of few, if not the only, Soviet–born people in Alaska since 1945 (Russian Old Believers arrived in Alaska in the 1960s from Oregon and South America).

In fact, from 1946 to 1986, or during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, travel to Alaska was officially closed to Soviet citizens, just as Siberia was closed for American citizens. There was an exception for select scientists, visiting both places for research–related purposes under the auspices of the International Research Exchange Board. In 1981, I already was a permanent resident of the United States, with a green light for traveling to Alaska.

Then, as a recent political refugee from the Soviet Union, my behavior was still typically Russian—direct, impulsive, critical, opinionated and emotional (certainly, very general stereotype of the Russian character). Fortunately, my sponsors and hosts in Alaska, Charles Holmes from Anchorage and Glenn Bacon from Fairbanks, were trained and professional anthropologists; they cross-culturally were able to understand my behavior and occasional awkward expressions and guide me through rough waters and unfamiliar landscapes.

After 40 years, Charles and Glenn are still my good and loyal friends. From the mid-1980s and on, Bill Ruddy, Robert Price, Wallace Olson and Tom Hanley of Juneau played a similar role in my life.

On one occasion, a humorous cross-cultural incident took place in Fairbanks in the summer of 1981. Glenn’s in-laws invited me to their house for dinner. To experience Russian cuisine, they asked me to cook some traditional Russian meal. So, I managed to cook a borshch (cabbage soup) and authentic Salad Olivye (boiled potatoes cut in cubes, green peas, boiled eggs, cooked carrots cut into cubes, cubed ham, olives, onion, large pickles cut into cubes, and ½ cup of mayonnaise—all mixed together).

After a dinner, I played a guitar and performed several Russian songs for everyone. At some point, Glenn’s mother-in-law approached me and confessed, “I had always envisioned Russians as tall, dark, with shaking hands. But you are different.” I only smiled in my response, and took her description of a “Russian man” without offense. After all, I was the first Russian she had ever met, except for the demonic Russian characters portraited in Hollywood.

Indeed, the process of acculturation and assimilation can be long and turbulent for many legal newcomers. It is critical, therefore, for American society to be inclusive, tolerant and educated in cross–cultural communication in order to welcome legal newcomers to our diverse and exceptional country.

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 1976; 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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  1. We don’t have the luxury of time anymore. Biden and the Chamber of Commerce saw to that.

    Was it Khrushchev who said the Soviets would being us down without firing a shot?

    • Yes, and the current Russian government is supporting our (USA) self-destruction. I was on a coordinating counsel of the Russian Federation from 2006 to 2010 for the compatriots in the USA. I resigned in 2010. I know this for certain.

    • Masked Avenger – The Soviet Boogey Man hasn’t been around for over 30 years now. Russia is very similar to the USA, as they also practice crony capitalism!

  2. Thank you, Alexander.

    Curious. Buckminster Fuller stated once, ” “Don’t attempt to reform man. An adequately organized environment will permit humanity’s original, innate capabilities to become successful”. Over the years of my life and until the last 40 or so, I’ve noticed a change in our methodology in acculturation and assimilation. This has been fostered by a relinquishment of immigration policy as well as an abandonment of civics, history, math, science and the English language in education. Historically, perhaps the most productive era for America resulted during the late 19th century and the early 20th century where “an adequately organized environment” was left to local communities but later replaced by an ambient attempt at human reform resulting in a corporatist society. What are your thoughts?

    • To Michael: I have never expected, when I arrived to the United States on February 1 of 1978, as a political refugee from a socialist country, that our country (USA) will attempt to destroy itself from within, with this CRT, etc. ideological madness and neo-Marxist ideology. I certainly did not expect that our State of Alaska Representative (former history teacher in Juneau) will have a “brain” to state on the House floor that Nazi’s experiments on Jews during the war somehow benefited science (i.e. humanity—my word and interpretation). My grandfather Roman Umansky was brutally killed by Nazi in 1941 in Kiev (I never met my grandfather and many of my uncles and aunts), nearly twenty-five percent of my family were executed by Nazi’s experiments, and 6 million Jews (fifty percent of Jewish nation) were executed by Nazi in 6 years of the war. How a former history teacher could say something like this? You tell me, because I am absolutely lost.

      I will respond to your question about evolution of assimilation and acculturation in our country a little later. I need to think about this subject.

      • And she even got the history part totally wrong, though that isn’t surprising for today’s “teachers.” I worked for ASD in the mid-70s; even then you couldn’t buy an intelligent conversation in a faculty lounge, and today’s crop is two generations dumber.

        • And why Jewish communities in Alaska are silent and don’t condemn Sara Hannan’s ridiculous statement?

          Sara took my course (Russian History) at the Islands Community College in Sitka (today UAS) in 1985. She was an absolutely disoriented student. In fact, it took her 10 years to get BA in Liberal Arts and, of course, she was hired to teach history in the JDHS in Juneau right away.

    • To Michael: Assimilation and acculturation are primarily an individual effort toward an ultimate success in adopting to a new social environment. Some social environments and immigrant-seeking countries are friendly for a newcomer (e.g., Canada, USA, Australia) and some are not (e.g., France, Italy and other traditional West European countries). I lived in Italy and Austria for one year prior to coming to the United States. I know.

      For a newcomer to succeed in his/her assimilation, it is more important for an immigrant-seeking country/society to give a hand, not a handout. Also, a newcomer must have a personal drive, motivation and responsibility to succeed in a new environment. Collective responsibility, collective consciousness and collective representation always will suppress an individual responsibility. In our country, from the mid-1960s and on, an individual responsibility and a decision-making process have been gradually replaced by the collective policies and handouts. This is my observation and answer to your question.

      • Thank you again, Alexander. You have pointed out the obvious which in my mind is the single most important fact. I saw yesterday, I believe, that Anchorage will be receiving 50 to 100 Afghan “refugees”. The challenge with radical Islam is that this is a perfect opportunity for planting a cell or two into a community that has lost its mind in regards to security and safety while with ambient rhetoric pronouncing liberty as not necessary in America. Regarding Rep Hannan, she represents Juneau promoting the pandemic of Marxism. Oi Vey!

        • In 1973, when I was 20 years old and a young student of history, I was a participant of the Khorezm Archaeological Project in Turkmenistan (Kara Kum Desert) about 100 km north of Afghanistan. It was like suddenly “diving” into the 17th century. Western society will never, or with great difficulties, understand their mind set, cultural complexity and social dynamic. So, good luck with the Afghans settlers in Anchorage.

          As for Sara, not at all surprising, given that she is a Democrat politician. Same goes on at the national level with Jewish leaders and the Democrats. Yes, Oy Vay, indeed!

  3. One wonders what effect the radical Left’s almost successful assault on America’s borders, language, and culture has on immigrant acculturation and assimilation.
    How might legitimate acculturation and assimilation be subverted by forcing states and localities to accept and accommodate literally hordes of destitute, unvetted illegal aliens who’ve no reason to perceive America other than a place where one’s tribe gets free stuff and does anything it wants?
    We use “legitimate” to define assimilation evolving unconstrained by tribal, gang, theocratic, or otherwise artificially imposed boundaries.
    Seems reasonable to expect that, without reasonably ordered acculturation and assimilation, cultural chaos ensues, leading to partial, possibly complete, cultural breakdown, resulting in proliferation of geo-centric tribes, no-go zones, in other words, the end of e pluribus unum as Americans know it.
    So… is the Great American free surface effect underway?
    If so, what might a future cultural anthropologist, yet unborn, define as America’s last reversible tipping point?

  4. Thanks for the recipe too. I’ll give it a try. I like pirok quite a bit also. Thanks telling us about acculturation. I don’t believe I have done this yet. It’s on my to do list tho.

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