Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Russian emigres.

Outside, one of Harvard University's grassy quadrangles is nearly deserted in the midsummer lull. Inside a brick dormitory building edging the quadrangle, resident tutor Misha Tsypkin and his wife, Elena, enjoy the quiet afternoon in their apartment while their 16-month-old son, Lyosha, takes a nap.

For the Tsypkins, who emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union seven years ago, life in this tranquil environment is a release from anti-Semitism and political constraints. But the bitter memory of life in Russia has not faded.

About these ads

''I couldn't stand living there anymore. I couldn't go into the street - I almost suffocated from rage,'' Mr. Tsypkin says. ''I still haven't forgotten. I wake up every morning and bless God I'm not there. Life there is life without dignity, without purpose.

''Most of the time I was unemployed or underemployed. Before we applied to leave we had to quit our jobs. My employer was taking a risk by hiring a Jew in the first place, and I didn't want to make his life more miserable. Half of our friends stopped saying 'hello' and would cross to the other side of the street, '' he recalls.

When the couple first arrived in Boston, Mr. Tsypkin worked in a bookstore for the first four months. Soon afterward he began taking political science courses. Now he tutors at Harvard and is earning his doctorate in government. Mrs. Tsypkin is a free-lance writer, but at present devotes most of her time to caring for their son.

''We would never have had children if we stayed there,'' says Mr. Tsypkin. ''We wouldn't breed into captivity.''

On a softer note he observes, ''People are kind here - they aren't afraid of each other. People in Russia can be kind, but only to a select few close friends and relatives.''

''In this country you have every chance,'' Mrs. Tsypkin adds. ''If you don't use it, it's your fault.''

The Tsypkins are among some 250,000 Soviet citizens who were allowed to emigrate from Russia during the decade ending in 1981. About 100,000 of those emigres, most of whom are Jewish, settled in the United States.

About these ads

Since 1979 the number of Soviet emigres to this country has fallen dramatically with the disintegration of detente. In some instances spouses or other close relatives hoping to join family members in the US are stranded in the Soviet Union indefinitely.

Twenty-eight-year-old Alla Golbert, who emigrated last September, waited four years to join her mother in New York City. She sympathizes with friends who are waiting to emigrate.

''They are in the same position I was in,'' she says. ''I led a very difficult life for four years. I understand their lives perfectly well.

''To be Jewish in Russia is not good for you. I left because I didn't feel like a normal human being there. They say everyone is equal, but that is not true. You always feel you are not secure. You always feel that something terrible may happen to you because you are Jewish.''

Still, she retains a warm feeling for her homeland.

''Russia is a good country. It might be very different under other conditions. Many people love Russia but they cannot live there.''

When she first arrived in the US, ''I was prepared for the worst,'' she says with a laugh. Initially she was aided by the New York Agency for New Americans (NYANA), one of the largest national resettlement agencies assisting Jewish and non-Jewish Soviet emigres in their initial adjustment to New York and the United States. She also received a great deal of support from the Jewish community.

''Coming to America, I feel like I've come home,'' says Miss Golbert, who has just completed a course in computer programming and is applying for jobs. ''I like life here; I like the people here. I will try to do my best to work for this country. I want to give.''

Professionally, some Soviet emigres find greater opportunities for advancement than were possible in the Soviet Union.

Mark Kuchment, a noted science historian, emigrated to this country in 1975 with his wife and four-year-old daughter to escape anti-Semitism and growing frustration with the Soviet regime. The move has proved to be a fruitful one for both Mr. Kuchment and his wife.

With his buoyant manner, Mr. Kuchment fits easily into his job teaching classes on modern Soviet society at Boston University. He also gives seminars around the country and is a fellow at the Russian Research Center at Harvard. A few years ago he received national press coverage when he pieced together clues revealing that an American engineer who had achieved remarkable success in Soviet military research was actually a high official in the Soviet military.

Mrs. Kuchment, a violinist, plays with the Harvard chamber orchestra and takes part in international competitions. She also teaches violin at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

Looking out over the Charles River from the Boston University campus, Mr. Kuchment compares the professional lives of Soviets and Americans.

''Russians may be more idealistic but more unreasonable than Americans, because they cannot achieve certain things you can in this country,'' he says. ''Things that were an impossible dream in Russia I could achieve here because my American friends show me how to do it. Here you can do certain things that would be impossible or illegal in Russia.''

For some emigres, though, career frustrations can contribute to a deep-running dissatisfaction with life in America.

''There is a great difference between those who can continue their profession to some degree, such as those in the so-called 'hard' sciences or technology, and those who cannot. Those who were in the humanities in Russia have a very difficult time (finding a comparable job) and may find life close to impossible, '' says Mr. Kuchment.

''Russian life is not very exciting - rather drab and dull. People invest a lot of energy in their profession,'' he explains. ''It's a disaster after emigration if they cannot continue their profession and have to change their whole life.''

According to Evelyn Cohen, director of family services at NYANA, ''Most Russian emigres find jobs, but at a lower level than they had in the Soviet Union. Writers, poets, painters, and musicians - if they are good - can carve out quite interesting careers for themselves. ''For (other) people in the performing arts it can be particularly difficult.

''Actresses and directors who may have performed at some exalted level in the Soviet Union have to learn to deal with a much less class-conscious society than the Soviet Union. That was surprising to us.''

At NYANA, incoming emigres are given furniture and living allowances according to need. English classes and vocational services are also available.

Generally, Ms. Cohen notes, Russian newcomers tend to stay in New York City and to congregate in areas such as Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

Coming from a society where information about the US is altered or unavailable, many emigres arrive in this country with unrealistic expectations. Further, says Ms. Cohen, ''Since there is no in-migration to Russia, Russians don't have a notion of what it means to be a newcomer to a society.''

Despite any disillusionment, most Russian emigres work hard to build new careers and lives in the US, according to Ms. Cohen. ''We're not trying to say all these people are heroes,'' she says, ''but very few sit around dreaming of the old country.''

For some Soviet Jews, emigration can mean a turning point in their religious lives.

Tamara and Abraham Ainbinder of New York City emigrated in 1976 seeking educational opportunities for their three children. In the Soviet Union there are severe restrictions on Soviet Jews entering universities.

''Our goal was a future for our children,'' says Mrs. Ainbinder, who works for American Express. ''We achieved that goal, but we also got more than we expected.''

Welcomed into the Jewish community, the Ainbinders learned how to practice their religion more fully.

''In Russia we didn't know who we were - we were deprived of our identity. It's very important to know your roots. If you don't have that you don't have strength, you are nobody,'' she says.

Educationally, their children have achieved remarkable success. Boris, 23, graduated with a PhD from Harvard and is a professor of mathematics at Tufts University. His twin brother, Joseph, is earning a doctorate at Columbia University. Galina, 19, is working for a PhD in computer science at Columbia.

To the Ainbinders, their children's achievements are secondary to their spiritual rebirth.

''The children have also become deeply religious,'' Mrs. Ainbinder says. ''When I see my son at morning prayers it is so delightful.

''I think it's wonderful we can live here,'' she says. ''Americans have so much respect for each other. You can't imagine what a difference it is from Russia.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.