Russian journalist Maria Vladimirova spent time in St. Louis this fall, and visited Chicago and Memphis. She recently sent in what she gleaned from Russian expatriates she met while in the United States. The following has been edited for space and clarity.
In St. Louis she talked with Igor Lisovsky, a world champion figure skater in pairs in the early 80s (YouTube), about moving to the United States. One comment he made may give insight to those watching the Olympics: “In Russia, figure skating always was a kind of intellectual sport – it is a mixture of sport, music and art… In the U.S. figure skating takes quite a low place in the popularity rank of sports … (But if an American child takes up figure skating), he will practice even more than Russians do, perfecting his skating program time and again. The difference between the Russian and the American figure skating? In Russia we tend more to “wave hands,” meaning a lot of attention is drawn to artistic elements and emotionality of performance. Americans pay much attention to technical skills, their skaters are more technically skilled, they express emotions by legs and skates, not by hands.”
Also in St. Louis she talked with Seman Ilyashov and his wife, Alla, who came from Minsk, Belarus, 34 years ago.
According to Seman Ilyashov, “In 1970s, the life in Belarus was quite hard (and others) started to mock our children as Jews at school. It all became unbearable and we decided to move.”
He was a watchmaker and started doing repairs for very low payment, but within two year he opened his first, very small antique shop. Now the family has two large shops.
Ilyashov says, “America gives you many opportunities – more than Belarus does. If you work hard and set yourself an aim – you’ll achieve it. We were diligent all those years and so now we live well.”
The interviews with Yuriy and Elena Pavlov, who live in suburban Chicago, reflect the view of America the others shared. The Pavlovs have been here 20 years, coming from Moscow because Elena was offered a job from AT&T Bell Labs to work on a multilingual text-to-speech (TTS) synthesizer that would include multiple language.
According to Yuriy Pavlov: “Elena was able to persuade the inviting party to take me as her “technical assistant” and get a visa for our 12-year-old son, Nikita. All we wanted was to stay for a few years in USA, obtain new professional experience, perhaps earn some money. And there we were, standing with two small suitcases and a backpack filled with Russian school books at JFK International Airport, looking anxiously for a ride, observing the unknown world called America.
“Despite many years of studying English, we had almost no practice speaking the language. We could not understand much and could verbalize less. We were very shy to ask questions. We did not know where to go to eat, where to shop for groceries, how to get to our new working place. Having come from a big city, we could not imagine a life without public transportation. But we found none.
“We learned one very important trick of survival in America: Don't hesitate to ask for assistance, especially from coworkers. After all, in USA there are plenty of nice friendly people who always gladly answer a question, help, show the right way. After a short time we rented a comfortable apartment, got driver licenses, bought our first car. In half a year, we were feeling completely confident.
“That project lasted three years; and at its end AT&T spun off four separate companies. I ended up as a system administrator of IT environment, and we moved to Illinois. The political and economical situation in Russia did not encourage a move back home, so the new job helped to prolong our stay in this country, and opened a legal way later to apply first for permanent residency and then for citizenship.”
Says Elena Pavlova: “It's very different from the life in a big metropolis like Moscow. We never felt lonely though. Here in Illinois during the first few years we mostly had gotten acquainted with Americans, even made some friends.
“Later we found out that Fermilab, in a neighboring town, employs many Russian families: physicists, engineers, who like us had come to work and decided to stay longer, or probably forever. Their children, like our son, graduated from American schools and colleges; and some of them have their own families, usually of mixed ethnicity. So now we jokingly consider ourselves to be living in ‘Russian America,’ e.g. surrounded by our native language and cultural habits, to certain extent, of course.
“We gather together regularly, celebrating birthdays, Orthodox Christian holidays as we did in the motherland. That does not mean though, that we live isolated life or ignore American holidays. We celebrate them as well, sometimes with our American friends, coworkers or neighbors.
“What we like about this country, first of all, its people: open, friendly, cordial, polite, they work a lot, love their country and are very proud of it. Their relation to nature, to the environment, is very appealing: there are not only very famous national parks in this country; but in every state, county, almost every town one can find an arboretum or reservation or a small park with trails and public rest areas. We like so much to travel throughout this country. Also Americans are very independent and self-sufficient, and they teach their children to be that way.
“On the other hand, sometimes they are too protective of their children. (She recalls chastising children and having parent show up at their door threatening to call the police.) Only after learning all the details did they calm down and even made their son apologize for his behavior.
“Have I changed since 20 years of living in U.S.? Hard to say.
“I consider myself Russian by language, culture and mentality. I am very grateful to this country. Though I consider my living here as turn of fate, this is not my motherland, not my native country.
“You start loving Russia differently from across the ocean: There is no exhaustion from everyday life and anxiety from little problems, only positive emotions. I follow Russian news, listen to internet radio, watch internet TV programs and shows. It's very beneficial that these days people never feel completely separated from their country at any place on this planet.”