Stolar's saga: an American in Russia who can't go home
Abe Stolar, a Chicagoan trapped in Moscow for 50 years, knew full well he shouldn't have gotten his hopes up when the Soviets hinted five months ago that they might let him go.
The same thing had happened in 1975. Even worse. They turned him back, along with his wife and their teen-age son, at the passport control counter in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, even after family visas had been granted - and after virtually everything they owned had been sold.
This past March, almost 46 years after his father was taken away during one of Stalin's purges - Abe Stolar got the official reply to his latest exit request: ''Refused.''
In a sparely furnished apartment on the fringe of Moscow he met with two American reporters. Mr. Stolar speaks fluent, if sometimes overly formal, American English. His thinning white hair is neatly combed, straight back. He is a compact, stocky man with an easy smile and a thin mustache.
Beside him sat his son, Michael, now 23 years old. The father spoke for two hours. He grinned sometimes as the memories came and went. Much more rarely did he sound bitter.
''I'm used to shocks. I've had 50 years of them here,'' he began. Then he told his story:
''We arrived from Chicago, my home town, in 1931, my father, my mother, and me. I was 19. Both my parents were born in Russia. They left in 1909.
''We were a family of idealists. We thought we could help, be of use here. And we were of use. We worked on the (English-language Soviet newspaper) Moscow Daily News, and we made it a good newspaper.
''But when I came, I never planned to stay. I figured I was good for two years maybe. Then I'd go home.
''I'd been earning only $11 a week as an apprentice photoengraver before coming here. But I figured I could get along. And I really wanted to see America. . . . I'd have been 21 years of age. I had an uncle in Chicago, and some friends. I would have done fine.
''Then, a few weeks after we arrived here, . . . we arrived on May 4, just after the (May Day) holiday, we had to hand in our American passports, when we were getting our apartment, and trade them for Russian identity papers.
''I thought at the time: 'What difference does it make?' I knew I was still an American. I didn't know that without our passports, we were being locked up.
''Then I found out from listening to friends a little later that I couldn't leave. They said if I did very well at work, I could get permission to travel abroad.
''Both my mother and father were idealists. My mother got disillusioned almost overnight. My father remained an idealist to the end.
''And you know . . . '' Mr. Stolar smiles at the memory. ''It really was an exciting time. Moscow was mostly mud, only a few paved streets. The paved streets were mostly cobblestones. . . . A new nation was being built. It was an exciting idea to be in on. . . . I went to art school in Moscow. Then I worked in the print room at the Moscow Daily News. Foreigners, then, were treated like royalty, with special stores with cheaper prices, a special club, everything. It was great.''
Then came the realization of being trapped, and the late 1930s, and Stalin's purges.
''My father was one of the first arrested. It was March 1937. They came for him one evening; we never saw him again.
''They told my mother he was given 10 years without the right to correspond with the outside. . . . People who seemed to know said that meant he was shot.''
Mr. Stolar smiles: ''He could be even more hot tempered at times than I get with lies - and with people who tell them. I guess that's something that stuck with me from my youth in America. My wife got so she wouldn't let me do the talking for us with officials here. I couldn't hide the way I felt when I was being lied to. . . .
''My father was the most fair and honest man I ever knew. I think about it sometimes. I figure they probably accused him of all sorts of crimes, and he just couldn't take it calmly, and then they shot him.
''In early 1938 my sister's husband was taken away. She was pregnant at the time. He was a linotypist. He corresponded from the camp for about five years. Then my sister got a letter from the camp saying he had died.
''It was tough finding work after that, if you were the relative of someone arrested. And we were naive. We saw no reason to hide the fact. . . . Finally, . . . my sister got a job by not mentioning my father or her husband. She got a job teaching English at a Moscow film institute.
''In 1951 she was arrested for who knows what. She was taken away from 1951 to 1956. . . . By then Stalin was gone. Khrushchev was here already and things were different. She went back to her old job. They liked her there.''
Two decades passed, by earlier standards, rather uneventfully.
''I made good money as an English typist and doing a bit of poster and art work and other jobs. . . . My wife worked at a chemical institute. Together we made an average 700 rubles [roughly $1,000 at current official exchange rates]. We were rich. We lived comfortably.''
But Stolar and his wife also wanted to leave.
''In November 1974 we decided to try. It took preparation. We had to buy things, sell things, arrange to send things. We decided to go to Israel. I am not terribly religious, but we are Jewish. And at my age and with my qualifications, we figured it would be harder to make a living in Chicago than in Israel. . . .
''And in May 1975 we got permission. We got the visas. It was the 27th of May. In order to get visas, you have to relinquish Soviet citizenship. Instead you get the visa. That's your official identity, in a way. At the top of the visa it said you were 'stateless.' The wording has changed since, maybe, I think , because we made such an issue of that.
''We had the visas for three weeks. We shipped off our whole apartment to Israel. . . . Because, you know, you can only take out 90 rubles in currency.
''Everything went fine. We got to the airport, went through customs. They barely checked anything, even things they should have checked. Only Michael's stamp collection. They even put all the luggage on the plane. Though afterwards, I remember recalling that people around me were asking, in Russian, 'Is that Stolar?' and things like that.
''Then at passport control they kept us waiting,'' Abe Stolar continues. ''I remember my wife got nervous. But I tried to calm her down: 'We have to wait a bit, that's all,' I explained to her.
''First, 10 minutes. Then another 10 minutes. Then I asked the supervisor. He said just to wait. But then he said into a walky-talky: 'Get the luggage off the plane. All of it.' As it happened, not all of it got off the plane. Some went to Vienna. And we didn't get any of it back for about eight months. . . .
''They told us it was just a mix-up with the visa and that we should book again for the next day and go see the visa authorities.''
''The woman at the visa office the next day said she saw nothing wrong with the visa. We were sent to another woman, beautiful and sweet, but nasty underneath. . . .
''Have you heard the name 'Elsa Koch,' the woman in the Nazi camp? The visa woman reminded me of what they say about Elsa Koch. A beautiful woman. Nice skin. But terrible.
''Anyway she told us that the Geology Ministry, which was in charge of the institute my wife worked at, had written a letter the night before ruling that we shouldn't be allowed to go for two years. For reasons of 'secrets.'
''But the people at the institute itself had raised no objections at all. . . . She wasn't doing any secret work.
''We didn't get this information immediately. It took 10 or 11 days. Elsa Koch kept saying there was some committee deciding . . . and that we'd see them and straighten this out.
''In the end, we were called into some committee: three men, one a senior police officer, . . . and the head of the visa authority. My wife had prepared a long, careful, factual statement.
''But after five or six lines, they stopped her and simply read a decision. The ministry said we couldn't go for two more years. . . .''
The Stolars were stateless, having refused the authorities' proposal that they reclaim Soviet citizenship and go on with life as usual. . . .
Desperate and ''fearing the Americans wanted no part of anyone who'd spent all these years with the Soviets,'' Abe Stolar went to the US Embassy.
''I didn't believe it. They treated me so well. Like a prodigal son, almost. They issued me an American passport and one for my son. Under American law, my wife, a Russian, couldn't get one. . . . But Israel has sent her citizenship papers.
''We were virtually broke. They (the authorities) told us to move back into our apartment. We did, but we couldn't ever hope to raise the 6,000 rubles to pay for it. . . . We told them that. The apartment building's council knew that. But they told the council the money would be taken care of.
''We have been able to live here. But no one has taken care of the 6,000 rubles. The council even sued us. They should have won the case, of course, but they didn't.
''We were living on charity. . . . People would send us things, and we'd sell them. Under Soviet law we had rights to a pension, but that was also, under law, delayed for some time after we were turned back. Now we get about 235 rubles, which is not enough.
''In the early months, people we didn't even know would come to help us. Russians. Parents of Michael's friends at school, people like that. They would bring us bread, or canned goods and other food.
''Till this day we live on charity. Although we've managed to put aside enough so that we can keep clothes that are sent to us, whereas at first we had to sell them. . . . We dressed like bums. We had nothing. It felt terrible. And it felt terrible to sell things we were given.
''My life changed. . . . I found myself being asked to interpret for other refuseniks (would-be emigrants refused visas) and sometimes dissidents. I began to move around in the refusenik community. Me, an American hostage for all practical purposes, became a person of some interest separately.
''I think, sometimes, maybe that's the reason they won't let us go: I've never shown I was scared of them. And I did what I could to help my friends.
''And that is pretty much the way things went. After two years we were refused again. . . . I wrote literally hundreds of letters during that time, and after.''
Stolar grins again: ''There is absolutely no one I haven't written to. I even used to write Brezhnev on his birthday. We have the same birthday.
''All the letters ended up in the visa office. We had a file four inches thick. We never got any replies to my letters. They didn't say, 'Give me a visa, ' but challenged this idea of secrecy.''
In November 1982 Leonid Brezhnev died. Yuri Andropov, longtime head of the KGB, became the new Communist Party leader.
''I wrote him.''
And in late December suddenly the visa office phoned Abe Stolar and recommended he reapply to emigrate. ''I don't think this was in reply to my letter to Andropov. There wasn't enough time. It seemed in reply to our normal six-monthly reminder of the request for a visa.
''They [the authorities] were incredibly nice from that point on. . . . I told them we didn't have Soviet passports. They checked . . . and said, 'Use your American ones for the application,' even though they'd never recognized them as valid.
''On the application form, the first line begins: 'Soviet citizen,' and then you fill in the name. I explained again I wasn't a Soviet citizen. They checked and said don't worry, cross out that part, or bracket it.
''Everyone we knew said it seemed sure we'd get out this time - our friends, people at the American Embassy, the American ambassador, too. Everyone seemed certain.
''Me, I hoped for the best and expected the worst. . . . But it really did seem this time that something had been decided, something had changed.
''On March 6 or 7, or thereabouts, we got the post card from the visa office. It said to report to the directorship in Room 22. This was the standard form, we knew from others, for refusal.
''But even then, there was something different. For the first time they asked to see me, even though my wife had been handling things. I thought maybe it was possible they wanted more information or something.
''So I went. I met the visa person. He began by asking for my Soviet passport.''
'I don't have a Soviet passport. . . . And if you don't know that already, you haven't even read my file.
''' 'Where is your Soviet passport?
''' 'You've had it here for eight years,' I answered. He looked genuinely puzzled. Then he opened my folder. It wasn't four inches thick anymore, just a centimeter. Just our applications and the like. And he read from a piece of paper:
'' 'We have decided. . . .'
'' 'Did you participate in the decision?' I asked.
'' 'It has been decided,' he began over, 'to refuse permission for you to leave for the same reasons of state security as in the beginning.
'''Then he handed me the paper and asked me to sign it.
'' 'I don't sign papers like this,' I said, and I handed it back to him. He seemed really angry then. He said goodbye. I didn't even say goodbye. I just turned and left.''
Now, life is back to normal for Abe Stolar.
''I spend a lot of time writing letters, especially to friends. Maybe 50 a month. I go shopping. I wait in lines. I go to the cleaners. I read.
''Once a month, maybe, I go to a (Soviet) movie.
''And I try to go to as many of the movies as I can that the American Embassy shows.''
Abe Stolar smiles:
''You know, they're showing a Marx Brothers film soon! That's one I don't want to miss. . . . I was a real film buff back in Chicago as a kid.
''The last time I saw the Marx Brothers, I loved it. It was back in Chicago. I saw two of their films, I think. One was 'Coconuts' and the other 'Animal Crackers.' ''