“Begunok” – a Travel Guide for Refugees

“We were dreaming of far off seas and oceans,
We were aiming  to go straight to Hawaii”

Alexander Galich, the official bard of the Soviet emigration

My ancestors, the shtetl-dwellers

Chaim Somin, the youngest son of Berko Somin, wanted to become a provisor (an old-fashioned term for pharmacist) since his earliest childhood in Nevel, a shtetl on the edge of the Pale of Settlement prescribed for Jews in the Russian Empire. Every time he entered a pharmacy two blocks down the street, the shelves of bottles and boxes with fancy Latin labels spelled magic and sorcery, while the white-haired pharmacist seemed wiser than even the rebbe at the cheder. The childhood dream remained just that – a dream and when the time came to start his own adult life, even a fair size town like Nevel was not big enough for a second flatware store to compete with the one his older brother was running. This gregarious big brother, Beynus, helped Chaim to find a nice sensible girl for him in the big city – Vitebsk – and also helped him move there and start his own store. The year was 1895. Thus was founded the Vitebsk branch of the Somin “dynasty.”

Fruma Sivoshinskaya was a daughter of “privilege.” Her father, a Jewish military chaplain, had the rare right to reside in the imperial capital, St. Petersburg, outside of the Pale of Settlement. But it was not the coveted residency permit that attracted Isaak Yuzvinsky, a young self-educated Jew from Bessarabia. It was Fruma’s beautiful eyes (as related in his diaries). They met in Crimea, married in Simferopol, and settled in St. Petersburg. 1906 was not a good year for Jews with revolutionary sympathies. After the fiasco of the Revolution of 1905, Fruma’s sister, Rachel, left for Paris to continue the struggle for the bright socialist future. A memorial plaque at the Hôpital Rothschild lists nurse Rachel Wilinski among those who perished in the Holocaust. A September 1942 report from an Untersturmführer SS in charge of logistics to Obersturmbahnführer Eichmann confirms the departure of a transport train carrying her from Pithiviers, near Paris, in Richtung Auschwitz. The Yuzvinsky family stayed in Russia.

Ber Somin, the youngest son of Chaim, followed his big brother from Vitebsk to Leningrad in 1924. He was fascinated by crystals the first time he saw them under the microscope. That led to the next 55 years of his working life as a materials scientist and inventor.

Pesya Yuzvinskaya, Isaak and Fruma’s daughter, was finishing her final year in college, when Hitler, the erstwhile buddy of the Great Leader of all the Soviets, struck a “treacherous” blow at her native city. Her two brothers and father perished in the war, but she survived what the omniscient Guinness Books terms the most devastating siege in history – the Blockade of Leningrad.

Ber and Pesya met after the war, in 1948. On August 20th, 1949, the “jubilant” citizens of the Hungarian Peoples Republic celebrated their newly adopted communist constitution, blissfully unaware that this was only the beginning of their 40-year long ordeal. In a completely unrelated development, the Snegirev Maternity Clinic, later to produce such prominent personalities as Sofya Firun (the future Mrs. Sofya Somin) and Vladimir Putin, witnessed the birth of the author of these memories.

Growing up – a brief chronology of three decades


“What is a ‘zhid’?” I ask my mother.

“Why” she says, “where did you hear it?”

“A boy on the street pointed at me and shouted ‘Zhid, zhid, runs on the rope’” [it rhymes in Russian and means “kike”]

I was amazed to learn from my mother that this word is even more shameful to utter than the bad enough simple “evrey” (a Jew).

1960 (4th grade)

“Hey, Somin, are you glad that you are a ‘zhid’?” asks my classmate Oleg, his happy smirk signaling how glad he is to have come up with such a trick question.

An all-systems-go right hook wipes out his smirk, at least for that once.


Time flies. College is coming to an end. I am camping overnight on the steps of the official Palace of Weddings on the shores of the frozen Neva River, to be the first in line to grab a choice slot for the ceremony to come in May. My father’s illness would later require postponing it. The clerk informs me that Mrs. Patricia Nixon is expected to visit the palace on that day, and who knows, to bring a gift for the lucky couple whose wedding ceremony she attends. We manage without a gift from the First Lady.


We travel abroad only through the TV program “The Club of Cinema Travelers.” One time we fly over the jungle of Yucatan and spot the great Chichen Itza pyramid in a clearing. Next we are on a double-decker London bus. Here is Vienna (our future first stop after crossing the Styx – but who knew), and here are the moai of Easter Island. As the famous comedian Mikhail Zhvanetsky said: “a small band of courageous correspondents selflessly travels the world all so that we, the millions, could see them eating oysters in Istanbul without so much as rising from our TV couch.”  Was there a man on the moon? Wrong question. Is there a moon, or a London, or for that matter anything beyond the line so capably patrolled by our vigilant border guards?  Or is it a nationwide Truman Show? (Yes, I know, it’s an anachronism, but a good one).


Suddenly everybody knows somebody who “moved away” (that means to the West) or intends to “move away.” Suddenly, letters from “over there” are shared by friends and relatives. Suddenly, the cage we are all in seems to have a little cat-size hole for those nimble enough to squeeze through. If you procure an “invitation” from “relatives” you can petition to be “reunited” with them in your “historic homeland” the State of Israel. Unless you are refused, that is. It’s futile for us to even think about it. We have four strikes against us: the presumably “secret” jobs of both of us, as well as those of our fathers.

We had grown up with the knowledge that lies about everything around us were the norm, that you were not supposed to contradict the official version of events, except in private with trusted friends; that anti-Semitism was an unavoidable fact of life, just like leaves falling in autumn or being sent to a collective farm to harvest potatoes. We listened to the radio “voices” from the West telling us about those lies, but the stories of the other life somehow did not sound very real. Now, people we had known wrote back about simple and mundane things that were very different from our notion of normal. Seemingly unimportant tidbits made a big impact. For example, a friend who was about to depart told me that there were 1000 indoor tennis courts in New York compared to only three in Leningrad. It struck me as something fantastic, if believable, given the trustworthy source. Instead of just knowing that the Soviets lied, we were now getting glimpses of the truth. Thus began the erosion of our stay-in-one-place-forever mentality.

1977 – How it all began

I hadn’t thought of moving. I moved only once in the first 30 years of my life. People didn’t move around very much. Some did, to be sure, but it was nothing much to talk about. Once upon a time at a vacation spot outside the city… I got up in the morning, fetched a bucket of water from a nearby hydrant, emptied the slop-bucket into our back-yard pit, and finally settled down for a glass of tea and sandwiches.”Feels great to have no one around to bitch at you,” said my wife.”Yeah, it sure does on a fine morning like this and Saturday to boot,” I agreed.”Why don’t we ‘move away’“, she suddenly suggested.”It’s not for us,” I said, “and you must know that.””Why, it does not have to come through tomorrow. We can wait, can’t we?””How long?””Now we are talking! Let’s calculate: first we sit it out for…””… 5 years, then apply and then sit for another 7…””Nothing doing, we’ll be just over 40 by then – a whole life still ahead.””Sounds convincing,” I had to admit, “we should give it a try.”And sitting in the kitchen of a summer cabin rented on our parents’ money, we started pondering the steps we should take. Eventually we came up with the following list:1) I had to find a new job, good to “sit it out” if we get refused2) we had to master English3) we had to obtain driver’s licenses!4) it was necessary most urgently to find out how to go about “moving away”. We could see through the window our 4-year old son, Ilya, happily rolling in the mud, and we decided not to tell him about our plans. The same went for our parents for the time being.Riding back to the city in an overcrowded suburban train I thought that finding a cozy job for me would be easy. Through a college professor of mine I had gotten in touch with a bespectacled crook who was playing a big-time entrepreneur, American-style. The crook talked about taking the best of the crawfish, cockroaches, and computers, stirring the blend thoroughly and using it as the ticket to big science. He seemed to like me. Now, it was time to return his affection. A quiet call on Monday morning assured me that the crook’s place still had an opening for me. I had to tell my boss now that I was quitting.This presented a bit of a problem. My boss, who headed a department of some 60 people, did not have an office of his own. His desk was in the most visible corner of a big room shared with him by approximately 30 of his subordinates. All the other desks faced that corner. The only local telephone in the room was sitting on his desk.  Since most of the time the boss was out at meetings, he enjoyed the services of 30 secretaries.I did not know how to go about resigning – this had been my first and only job after all – so I decided to place a note face down on my boss’s desk.Having returned from another meeting, my boss glanced at the note and motioned me to step out for a smoke. I don’t smoke but I would join people for a smoke to keep company. You can’t stay the whole day in one room with 30 other people especially if you often have nothing to do. You have to get out every once in a while.”You must be kidding, Fima,” the boss said lighting a cigarette, “tell me it’s a joke.” He was a regular guy, my boss, or rather he had been until meetings started eating up all his time. He even said once during a smoke break in a Jewish company: “Cheer up, guys, Jimmy Carter will help you out.””I am serious, Boris Andreevich, I am resigning,” I said. “But this is ridiculous,” he cried out in a whisper, “you are sure to be finally accepted to the Ph.D. program this year or maybe next. What got into you? It’s crazy! Where are you going?””No grudges, Boris Andreevich, everything was fine here. I just wanted something new and I found a place that suits me. I would like to keep it secret for now.”I expected him to go on trying to convince me to reconsider, but, I guess, he understood something, since he said only, “Well, as you wish,” and we parted. And so the ball started rolling… 

Exit strategy

Next in importance was finding an expert in “exit affairs”. A friend of mine, who was about to leave the country, put me in touch with an “old” refusenik, the bearer of secret wisdom. A couple of days later I got off a trolleybus near the designated spot of our rendezvous. Turning right into a short lane I saw the outline of a domed church against the dusk skies. The church was set in the middle of a small square. A stockade of huge vertically placed gun barrels, taken from Turkey two centuries earlier, surrounded the church. My conspiratorial excitement was building up. The next moment one of the barrels separated from the stockade and stepped forward to greet me. He was in his early twenties, wore mustache a la Peter the Great, and was tall and skinny as a gun barrel.He told me of the mysterious “Joint” in Vienna, with mighty hand delivering homeless refugees to the Promised Land; of the anonymous benefactors sending a pair of blue jeans to every soul who as much as dreams of leaving; of the dark alleys and hidden tunnels which lead through endless caverns and swamps to the Golden Gate of escape.His own story was far less exciting. Alex had been kicked out of college a year earlier for applying and then refused the permission to leave. What dark alleys he had to walk to stay afloat I did not ask. I did not really care. When you buy a lottery ticket you think you’ll win or else why waste money?I did not have much time to spare that night, for two blocks away was my next destination – the State Courses of Foreign Languages – where I had to take a test to determine my language ability level.My knowledge of English had been derived primarily from, God knows how and where obtained xerox copies of American computer manuals. Sentences like “We’ll come tomorrow if the weather is good” were not normally found there. Tomorrow is tomorrow, I decided, and scribbled down: “We’ll come tomorrow if the weather will be good.”If only she will!

In search of lingua franca

I was accepted to the second year of the language program, and soon my English class started. It was an evening class held in a high school building. The classroom was filled with old-fashioned two-seat desks with folding tops. I didn’t know anybody in the room, so I picked the only vacant desk in the back. All the others in the group had studied together the year before, and they were busy now exchanging their summer stories. The teacher’s presence could already be felt in the doorway when another student squeezed in and rushed for cover. He had no choice but to take the seat next to me. The lesson began.”Hullo, comrades. Tonight we shall repeat some topics we studied last year. You will also tell me how you spent your summer holidays. Comrade Helen, begin, please”I was delighted to be able to understand almost every word the teacher was saying in what I thought was Oxford English.Comrade Helen, a long-haired redhead at the front desk, eagerly stood up and started rattling away.”I spend my summer holidays on Black sea. I bathe and sunbathe. I played volley-ball. I did my morning exercises every day. I went sightseeing in the mountains. I met with many interesting persons. My summer holidays was very interesting.””Very well, comrade Helen, sit down, please. Your report was very good.  Comrade Ostrovsky, please, tell us about your summer holidays.”A man from a middle row rose hesitantly.”I have good holidays…,” he said slowly and then paused. ” … I cannot to tell.””You have forgotten much of the last year’s material, comrade Ostrovsky, you must study very hard this semester. Sit down, comrade Ostrovsky. We have some new students this year. You, comrade,” she pointed at my deskmate, “it’s your turn now.”My neighbor was tall, slender and blond. He spoke smoothly and confidently, but his accent sounded very strange. I could hardly understand him. One of the words he used struck me as weird. I figured out by the context that “movie” meant “film.””You speak fluent English, comrade… eh… Rosenblum, but you use too many slang expressions,” admonished the teacher.”And now, comrades, we shall study new words. You must know them by heart and use properly.””The first word I want you to know is ‘available’.”“This word is used when you can have something or something is present somewhere. For example, you don’t say, ‘good boots are at the boot store,’ you say, ‘good boots are available at the boot store’. “ (Muffled giggles in the audience.)”Please, sit still, comrades. One more example, ‘tickets are available at the box office’. (Another round of giggling.) Give me more examples, comrades.””Available” turned out to be one of Raisa Borisovna’s pet words. She insisted on sticking it in every other sentence. She had other favorites, too, but this one was the clear champ. I guess, she simply liked it when things were “available”, and there was no equivalent translation.

While the lesson was proceeding I kept looking around. I wanted to figure out why all the others were there. What had brought to this place Alex Rosenblum with his idiomatic American English? How come comrade Ostrovsky was not getting much out of it and still stayed, or what breed of comrades comrade Helen belonged to? I was especially curious to know how many of them were there for the same reason as me. I was reluctant to ask questions, though. Don’t ask, lest you be asked. The “golden silence” rule reigned supreme in my land and was beginning to reveal new depths to me.

Comrade, can you spare a job?

Finding work from which I could apply for emigration and not get fired was quite another matter. The crook I initially counted on was not an option, I had learned, as he was sure to kick me out the moment I would try to apply. I decided to get really well organized this time. I felt every adventure had to be carefully planned and thought through in advance. No wonder my high school literature teacher branded me as a typical German mind. In addition to the regular items like names, addresses and telephone numbers, I would write down dates and times of conversations and what was said as accurately as I could remember. I needed to keep my story straight, but on the other hand, I had to be flexible enough to adjust to the specifics of a particular place. The first step was to pick out all the names with the words “institute”, “design office”, or “computer center” in them from the telephone directory. I selected about a hundred, for starters. Next, I would call the place and ask for the personnel department. No “human relations representatives” existed over there, just simple “cadre inspectors.” To my straightforward question, “Do you need programmers?”, the answer was yes in one out of three cases. I was usually directed to the line manager after that. That’s when all the fun began. My professional background was good enough most of the time. When the guy was about to make an appointment, I would say:”Before you and I waste any time on it, I want to tell you that I do have a background problem after all. Are you still interested?”Normally the guy would say, “I am sorry but this problem would be too difficult for us to handle,” and hang up. For the especially thick-headed I had to explain about my Jewish “nationality”. In one case the man was so upset, I felt I had ruined his whole day.”But I purposely asked about your last name,” he cried out, “and now you are telling me this. It can’t be true, it doesn’t make sense.” [My last name does not come across in Russian as obviously Jewish]As much as I wished to comfort the poor fellow, 1 had to dash his hopes of attaining Sherlock Holmes’ fame, as well as hiring a decent programmer. Some people were embarrassed to tell me to buzz off explicitly. They would mumble something about its being an “inopportune time” to handle my glaring drawback and suggested keeping in touch. Yet there were a few who were actually willing to meet me face to face and try to go from there. The road from there was usually pretty short. It led nowhere. I was into the third month of my search, when a strange telephone conversation occurred. After the usual technical talk I asked my usual “go – no go” question and got in response, “This is none of my business, talk to the personnel.””I talked to the manager, and he seemed interested, but I have a background flaw,” started I my usual tune after they connected me back to the personnel.”Wait a minute, don’t give me this stuff,” a typical voice of a retired commissar-colonel roared in the receiver, “what is it, your flaw? Have you served a term in prison?”The direct approach amused me, but I couldn’t afford to sit back and enjoy.”Not exactly,” I tried to be diplomatic, “I have never been sentenced, but I still have a problem and it’s with my nationality.””Cut it out, just tell me what you are up to.”This degree of “ignorance” in a personnel guy was amazing. I had no choice but to say, “I am Jewish, you see.” To utter this word was always an embarrassment. I expected a long pause at this point. It didn’t materialize. The “colonel” charged right ahead.”What kind of crap are you talking about? Just come out here and have an interview.” I was baffled and perplexed.  Was the guy not of this world, was he simply dumb, was he overplaying his righteousness, or what?  At last I decided I had nothing to lose and went to visit the place. It was located in a part of the city that had been known for decades as a thieves’ nest. Tales were told and songs sung about its daring inhabitants, sleazy taverns, dangerous alleys. It was also the district where my mother took me frequently when I was a preschooler. She was a teacher at a high school for evening students there, having been fired from her research job during Stalin’s purges of “rootless cosmopolitans,” a code expression for Jews. She would set me up in the science lab to read amidst clever contraptions designed to prove the existence of electricity, while she taught her class. I wandered around and once bumped into a glass tank with a strange mound in the middle. In the dusk light it seemed that the mound was full of eyes. When my vision adjusted to semi-darkness, I could discern that indeed they were eyes: the mound was a pile of toads. Screaming with disgust I zipped out of the room faster than my own scream.The neighborhood had changed a lot since then. Not only the thieves’ den but also the toad kingdom of my childhood was gone. A modern design concrete bridge spanned the high banks of the canal that gave its name to the district. My destination was a new building in a street of renovated turn of the century rental properties. Its facade was quite respectable and so was the lobby. My interview proceeded uneventfully and finally I was taken to be introduced to the colonel. He was exactly what I expected him to be. All in all no freakishness observed, I was beginning to believe I had made another one of those futile visits. “We’ll get back to you,” was the final word as I prepared to take my leave. The man was not completely crazy after all, at least with respect to his hiring powers. Within two weeks I started my new job like just another normal employee. The excessive attachment to normalcy by my new management was later to cause some unexpected frictions.   

Looking for exit, or full speed into limbo


A year had passed since the clock started ticking. The time had come to apply for an exit visa and thus reveal ourselves. The first thing required by the state for an exit application was an affidavit from the place of employment certifying the absence of any “material claims or liens.” People without jobs did not need that, which was of course the goal of the requirement. The “colonel” was taken aback when I entered his office and asked for an affidavit. No way would he give me anything until I quit, was his simple answer.

I was prepared. By 1978, grizzled old refuseniks had accumulated many man-years of experience fighting every level of hostile bureaucracy. They developed user-friendly guides to life as applicants and refuseniks, called “begunki.” A “begunok” (a “run-around” cheat sheet) contained lists of action items for all kinds of problems and eventualities, including such serious situations as interrogation by the KGB. Foreshadowing the Wikis of the 21st century, each user was also expected to contribute his own wisdom and pass that information to those who came after. A begunok thus directed me to the district committee of the Communist Party for an audience with the functionary in charge of such affairs.

The reception was cordial. The man professed to be a buddy of my personnel apparatchik. He assured me that getting the needed paper would be no problem whatsoever and put me in a good mood… for the duration of his pause, after which he added: “Naturally, you would have to quit your job first. Otherwise, you will scamper off to your Europes-Americas (yes, yes, we know this Israel thing is just a smoke-screen) and we will never recover whatever you swipe from your company’s office supplies.”   

The next stop was the Leningrad City Committee of the Communist Party located at the first headquarters of the Bolsheviks during that famed Red October takeover of 1917. My assault ended quickly: they simply did not let me in. The last remaining begunok commandment was to seek justice at the office of the regional procurator (roughly, district attorney) of the city of Leningrad. I did not come empty-handed. The fastidious begunok provided a template of a complaint letter to the supreme chief of all the Soviets, Comrade Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev himself. The letter complained of the ignorant and sloppy local officials who, contrary to the Helsinki Agreement signed by Comrade Brezhnev, caused unwarranted problems on the way to reuniting families, and thus were blackening the shining image of the great Soviet nation in the eyes of the western imperialists. I handed a copy of just such a letter to a low-ranking flunky, while stating that the actual letter had already been sent to the actual Comrade Brezhnev. With that the appointment was over.

In a deliciously ironic twist, my son Ilya, by then a law professor heading a delegation of American law students was received at that same office 25 years later, and was greeted with an official speech by the procurator of St. Petersburg attired in the full dress-uniform of the Ministry of Justice.

Meanwhile, back at my office… the “cadre” guy did his utmost to pretend that everything was completely normal. Not only was I not fired, nobody, except the higher management was the wiser about it. I even continued to attend the obligatory political “enlightenment” sessions, making my contributions as requested. When my turn came, I chose to present a magazine article on the errors of the misguided and dogmatic Chinese communists – something about which I could heartily agree with the bosses. A case like mine, however, could not be completely covered up: as it turned out, most of the attendees were aware of my situation. I could feel silent waves of irony and cynicism swishing around me during my presentation.

It was not all such exquisite fun. As I learned later, some female coworkers were scheming behind my back. “People’s Militia” (narodnye druzhiny) was a program to send “volunteers” to help the police control petty crime, mostly hauling drunks off to the drunk tank. An evening patrol shift with the group was rewarded by a complimentary day off. Since the management pretended that I was normal, I could also go and earn the time bonus. With my constant Kafkaesque chores of battling the emigration bureaucracy, extra time came in very handy. Given the purported need to handle criminals, males had a preference in signing up for patrol shifts. The outraged women were furious that a “traitor to the motherland” would be given such a privilege instead of upstanding female patriots like themselves. But apparently the “hush-hush” policy adopted by the administration combined with the typical male chauvinism of the “most equal society in the world” trumped all else.

By contrast, my wife had to undergo a public humiliation session at her work. Being loudly branded a traitor by the most zealously stupid of her coworkers was unpleasant. Fortunately, Stalin’s time was in the past and Mao’s place was far away. Hence, such denunciations were not followed by more serious harm. Indeed, the same zealots proceeded to include her in the office potluck celebration of the Red October holiday a few days later.

How to pack light

The times were strange. Suddenly, we were given the needed papers (was it thanks to Comrade Brezhnev or Mr. Carter, as my old boss had prophesized?) and were able to apply. And then an even bigger miracle a month later – a call from the dreaded OVIR (the foreign travel visa office), a sleepless night wondering about the fate already prescribed for us but not yet known, an appointment at which we heard the overwhelming verdict: “Exit allowed.” Probably the power of sports, we thought. They wanted to clean up unreliable elements and avoid any trouble before the whole world comes visiting for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Afghanistan and the Olympic boycott were still a year away. 

A whirlwind of gathering more papers, including a trip to Moscow to obtain Israeli (at the Dutch Embassy) and Austrian (intermediate destination) visas. A spree of buying, procuring, hunting and begging for a myriad of little and not so little things that according to the next batch of “begunki” are absolutely indispensable on the way or at the final destination. Yet, only five pieces of luggage are allowed for the three of us. Yes, we could also pack a few crates with heavier things, but those are for slow delivery and not expected to arrive until years later.

Some people tried to ship all their possessions including furniture. We have none of that, and don’t really care. Yet we find enough for two crates: half a china service (it had to be split with a stranger at the point of purchase, or rather of a successful hunt – too many pieces and too expensive to buy just for us), kitchen utensils, warm underclothes. Having the crates made and properly lined takes a lot of effort and money, half of which is bribes. It’s similar to burial arrangements where you have to agree to almost any demand by the trade mafia, or else it’s a no-go. These mafia guys are right in a way: it is a one-way transition from one world to another.

All this needs to go through the customs in advance. A week before our scheduled plane flight, I show up at a hangar-like structure on the outskirts of the city. The customs czars schedule two people at a time. My crates are lined up on the left while on the right I see somebody else’s. That somebody is our onetime college professor who had taught us advanced calculus! He is very short, bold, and has a nose custom made for run-of-the-mill anti-Semitic hate literature. His baggage is more sophisticated than ours but the ogres of the inspection are not inclined to show deference. The little professor is not easily cowed, though. “These are valuable recordings,” he squeals, pointing to a collection of vinyl discs, “you need to handle them with care!” The bears are more amused than provoked. They start dropping every other disc on the concrete floor and compete with each other at inventing more mischievous pranks. Their feisty quarry keeps objecting – to no avail. Some of his belongings finally make it through the inspection. Both the participants and the observers (me) are so absorbed by this spectacle that my crates pass through untouched and almost unnoticed.

Note from the future. Our professor has overcome any damage that I witnessed, and surely any other hardships he faced later on and has been successfully teaching mathematics at a Midwestern university for many years.    

From memoirs of a young man

Grade 3 composition (1981-82)[spelling and punctuation preserved]

I Remember, From USSR to USA 

It was the year 1979 as I was standing near our apartment building – for the last time. A taxi arrived to take us to Pulkovo Airport. As we went by Moscovsky Avenue 1 saw some statues. They were monuments to the many Leningraders who died in the siege of Leningrad. Soon we were on the plane. In several hours we landed in East Germany.  For several hours we were there.  During that time dad talked to the men in German or Russian, it didn’t matter for my dad spoke Spanish English French Russian and German. When it was time to go we went to one of the planes and launched. In the evening we arrived in Vienna, Austria. There we stayed 9 days and then we went by train to Italy there we stayed 3 months. Then we flew across the Atlantic and landed at Kennedy Airport in New York after almost a year of hardships.          

By Ilya Somin, Professor of Constitutional Law,

George Mason University School of Law

Baroque and Gothic in Vienna

“Hotel Mozart” – what an elegant name. Out of all the hotels in the glorious city of Vienna it had snagged the right to be named after its most famous resident. You may have guessed the punch line by now – it’s a dump. Otherwise it would not be used for stateless transients. (In fairness, it was in a much better condition when we stopped by 25 years later while touring our personal emigration history trail.). Everything was just as the begunok and Alex had said. Both the HIAS and the Joint turned out to be real. We waited in day-long lines in various offices, went to the farmers market for cheap food, fretted about the lack of money, tried to sell knickknacks to pad our scarce cash reserves (much more of this commerce lay ahead in Italy).

Finally, it’s departure day. The families are waiting at the hotel for vans to take them to the train station. I have my own business to take care of and leave several hours early. My rendezvous takes place at Margareten Gürtel. I get two plastic tokens from a man on the sidewalk next to a parked car. Then I have to cross a busy wide road with streetcar tracks in the middle and enter the South Station – Südbahnhof. I try to walk straight, with a purposeful unwavering gaze, but my peripheral vision delivers a jolt of anxiety every time I spot a uniform. I hand in the tokens at the stored luggage counter and pick up two buttoned-up oilcloth bags left in storage on our arrival at the airport a week earlier. Then I retrace my steps on even stiffer legs. Across the street, my handler is waiting for me. The trunk of the small car opens. I hand over one bag, then the other. Cartons of Dunhill 100 cigarettes bought at East Berlin’s Schoenefeld airport pour out and the lid is promptly shut.  We step into a nearby doorway and I find a pile of schillings in my hand. Back to the station and the currency exchange window to get greenbacks. My profit is $40. Now I am an international smuggler!   

It’s 9pm – time to board the trains. The dimly-lit platform is empty except for an evenly spaced line of soldiers with submachine guns at the ready. Although the guards are German-speaking, it’s a Schindler’s List scene in reverse: this train’s destination is to freedom. The families are now allowed to enter the platform and quickly climb into the train, but one person per family, usually a man, is required to stay behind. Next, luggage carts are wheeled in. Bags and suitcases are to be lifted and quickly inserted into the cars through open windows. In minutes the platform is clear of people and belongings. Only the immobile guards are still standing there. The government of Austria won’t take any chances with terrorists. There are two families in our compartment – six people including our 5-year old who is sick with a cold now. We improvise sleeping arrangements giving preference to the youngest and the oldest. The train has imperceptibly taken off.

Ciao Italia!                                   

It’s morning. The Alps are behind us, the submachine-gun toting Germanic guards on the platform of the Südbahnhof are still vivid in memory but quickly fade under the bright sun over the plains of Padania. The first Italian greeting is looking at us from the blue Italian sky. It’s painted on the side of a silverish torpedo-like object floating in the air and it says: “Good Year!” We hope it will indeed be a good one.

Our destination is not Rome but a whistle stop in the middle of nowhere – presumably for security. The stop lasts for only five minutes and we need to toss our suitcases out of the windows in a hurry. It’s faster than pushing them into the windows the night before. There are guards around again, these ones non-uniformed and less conspicuously armed. They say it’s mafia. We don’t know and don’t care. Chartered buses are waiting to take us to the small seaside town of Ladispoli north of Rome. There we need to quickly find a place to stay, probably for several months, while our immigration cases slowly move through the bureaucracy.

Signor Baciucchi could substitute for Marcello Mastroianni in a pinch, at least for Roman poise and self-importance. He is tall, dark, and handsome. His beautifully tailored suit and shoes are – what else – Italian. He works for a bank in Rome (something like assistant vice-president of a branch, as I find out later, that is, the senior helper of a junior janitor – to use a colorful Russian putdown). He is sitting across the table from me and a handsome, dark, young woman from Ukraine. The woman, I say, is my cugina, and we would like to rent his two-room apartment for our two families – one room, one kid, one family. Signor Baciucchi likes the fact that we are cugini. He does not want to have unrelated people rent from him. He is not indifferent to the charms of my “cugina” and behaves like the real cavaliere he is. Espresso is served and I translate his compliments.  The deal is struck, and for a mere 220 thousand lire a month the whole appartamento is ours. Our address now is “Via Torre Perla, 55, Interno 6, Presso Baciucchi.” Two days later my cugini move out to stay with some Kiev friends of theirs, stiffing us with the rent. I scour flophouses near Stazione Termini in Rome to find a family from Leningrad we had barely met at the customs. They are happy to move in with us. To Baciucchi, it’s just another set of cugini.

Baciucchi has gone to his Roman abode. The summer apartment with a tile floor is stone-cold at night. It’s the middle of March, and it’s easier to freeze in sunny Italy than in the St.Petersburg of Dostoevsky. The only contact I have is the milk woman on Via Giovanni Ruspoli, around the block. Her husband delivers supplies for gas heaters. The Italian name of that heating contraption is bombola. When it’s turned on, it’s covered with blue flames – just as terrifying as the name suggests. We decide to do without. The next problem to solve is in the bathroom. I go to the milk woman again. This time, the only remedy is to call Baciucchi directly. Thanks to the milk woman, I learn my first practical Italian expression that I still remember well: agua in tazza non scarica, va dietro (the water in the bowl won’t drain but overflows). For a phone conversation where I cannot use my hands to communicate, this knowledge is invaluable. Armed with a gettone, a phone token, I go to a bar on Piazza Domitilla and call Baciucchi in Rome. He understands me right away – a problem solved!

The clothing store owner on Viale Italia does good business with the alien stranieri who have suddenly swarmed over the town. He could do even better with an Italian-speaking commesso russo, couldn’t he? Yes, he could use me. The pay makes me laugh. I could earn more just delivering notices for HIAS on Via Palermo. Plus, there is a bike in the hallway of Interno 6. It’s broken but I make an investment and have it fixed for 7000 lire. This is the price Antonio from De Sica’s classic movie The Bicycle Thieves paid for the whole bicycle. But 30 years of Italian inflation have made their mark. By the way, I am just borrowing the bike, although I don’t know from whom: Baciucchi is not the kind of guy to use a bike like that. It’s time for me to learn to ride a bike after all – this is the first ever bicycle of my own! The freedom is overwhelming. I could get from Torre Perla to the HIAS office in just 10 minutes. And I will make sure nobody steals my bicicletta.

John Paul and me

I am waiting for a train to Rome at Ladispoli’s Stazione Ferroviaria. I need to buy cheap provisions and take care of some paperwork at the central HIAS office. The platform is empty, save for a railroad employee in his military style uniform. What can pass for small talk if you really want to practice Italian? It’s easy. I ask how he likes the new pope, John Paul II. The pope is OK, says the guy, but he really does not care very much about the pope: he himself is a cristiano vangelico – an evangelical Protestant.  What he does care about, is the ingathering of the Jews in the state of Israel. It’s very important. The proper end of the world depends on it. Unfortunately, some of the Russian Jews in Ladispoli do not understand this holy mission and misbehave. They ride the train and, horror of horrors, don’t buy tickets! This is a shame, he tells me. I am in fact one of those law-breakers. What does he expect me to do – pay 1500 lire every time? I keep my argument to myself, however. With all due respect to the chosen people, the railroad official continues, he had to take measures. Just the other day, two of them were caught in the act, and they sono stati portati alle caserme dei carabinieri (were taken to the post of the carabinieri). What an unforgettable turn of phrase! But my attempt to discuss the first Slavic pope with an Italian flops.

Yet I soon “meet” the pope himself, in a manner of speaking. I am in Rome another time for similar chores with my apartment neighbor. A strange poster with the headline “Via Crucis” and a silhouette of the Coliseum pops up on almost every corner. Curious, I ask a passer-by about it. It’s Good Friday and the poster announces an evening procession with the cross carried by the pope himself. We decide to risk missing our return train and go to Piazza del Colosseo.  The piazza is still almost empty, but already everyone entering it is given a little white handbook with a medieval miniature of the crucifixion on the front cover and the Vatican coat of arms on the back. It contains texts in Latin and Italian and more miniatures. There is a roped-off path from the Coliseum to the Palatine hill and we come right up to the rope. The dusk is descending, a huge cross lights up on the Arch of Constantine. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the epicenter of a growing crowd. A man in white is walking slowly towards us, followed by a few dozen others in cassocks. His progress is punctuated by frequent stops, when the invisible narrator delivers another piece of the story in Italian, followed by a Latin prayer chant from the crowd, now spreading over the natural amphitheater of the surrounding hills. Thousands of candles flicker as far as the eye can see. The man in white is John Paul II. He is a vigorous 59. Having finished the walk he climbs the stairs and speaks. The main theme I catch is about oppression. Although ancient Rome is long gone, he says, there are still places in the world where people are persecuted for their beliefs. I know exactly what this pope from behind the Iron Curtain is talking about. His first papal trip to Poland is still ahead, as is his remarkable fight against communism and his monumental effort to build bridges to Jews. Twenty six years later I find myself in the town of his birth, Wadowice, halfway between Cracow and Auschwitz. The pope died just a month earlier and his town is part of my pilgrimage, as is the nearby death camp where my French great aunt Rachel perished. He understood about that place well.

We spend three months in Italy. By the end of May, the HIAS office in Rome informs us that our new home will be in a little town nobody had heard about – Westport, Connecticut. This is a drastic change from the city of five million where we grew up. We learn later, that a set of stringent selection criteria was applied to us. To be hosted in Westport a family had to be young and easily employable, with good English and school-age children. We fit the bill.

Huddled masses in Westport

Ilya Somin, the good law professor was only eight when he wrote his 3d grade composition included above, hence, his time calculus was a bit off. But he got the trajectory mainly right. We landed at JFK, and what a landing it was – on the 35th anniversary of the D-Day, no less. The future legal scholar was clutching his frog-green plastic toy gun while we collected all five suitcases we were allowed to bring with us to start a new life. Outside, in the bright summer sun, the waiting crowd consisted mostly of bearded men in black hats and long black coats. Even more amazing were their cars – station-wagons wide enough to sleep across with the length to match. They were not our expected hosts, however. Instead, three women in shorts and tank tops greeted us and helped put our luggage in the back of a car – another gigantic station-wagon. With all our possessions loaded, barely a corner of the trunk was filled. There was still enough room for three more families like ours.

Zip through the leafy Merritt Parkway and we are in Westport, Connecticut. We stop in the circular driveway of a stunning contemporary house. Inside, a cocktail table of polished granite sits in front of a huge – by 1979 standards – TV screen. Behind the screen, a glass wall from the carpeted floor to the cathedral ceiling reveals dark woods. We are invited to sit down, have a drink and watch baseball on TV, while the man of the house attempts to explain to us the rules of the game in three minutes or less. He is a vice-president of a major corporation, but he still fails in this clearly impossible task. We also have not slept for almost 24 hours. Our first day in the New World has ground to an end.

This mansion was to be our home for the first two weeks of our new life, until the rental procured by the welcoming committee of Temple Israel became available.  A few days later, while treating us to a leisurely Sunday brunch in his yard, our host, Mike, said pointing around: “We have done well. Not everybody has done so well.” We had no idea what he meant. Westport was all we had seen so far in America, and were to see for some time to come.


Art and Nat were the temple volunteers assigned to help with my job search. They looked over my resume and then asked whether I preferred a small or a big company. Nat was an executive at a big corporation, while Art owned a small business. I preferred a place that would pay money. For the rest I did not give a hoot and had no idea if I should. “I am pretty open,” I said. The times were ridiculously “hot” for software geeks. Several interviews came up almost instantaneously. As one of the interviewers told me, “any warm body would do.” He was very happy to meet a “body” like mine and confessed that it contrasted favorably with the “jerks” he had been accustomed to seeing lately. Interviewing also enriched my English. Apart from the juicy “jerks” and “geeks,” I was surprised by seemingly simple expressions like “quite a few.” That adding “quite” to a small number would make it suddenly a big number (I guessed that) boggled my mind. I heard it first during an interview at a recently founded outfit with a strange name:  “NASDAQ.”

I was hired by the “warm body”- loving guy, even after asking for more money than he offered. Contrary to all job-hunting rules, I argued that besides wife and children I had literally nothing (I did not mention the suitcases) and could not survive in Westport on so little (a good guess). I had the luck of a tyro – and the offer was increased.

As a bonus I could get to my work without a car. A local mini-bus, a posh amenity of a ritzy town, could take me to the train station, and after a brief ride I could walk right into the office door. On the first day I took no chances and got in 40 minutes before the start of the workday. That evening, studying the train schedule I figured I could safely take another train half an hour later.

The stretch from Westport to East Norwalk is only three miles and we are almost there, but I don’t feel we are slowing down. My little office, next door to the fascinating Factory Store, streaks by. Nor do we stop at Norwalk’s main station. Worried, I ask a passing conductor: “what’s the next stop – Stamford?” “New York City” is the answer.

The train arrives at the Grand Central. This is my first time in New York. I check the next train back – it does stop in Stamford – and frantically run upstairs to take a look at Manhattan. It’s full of people and cars (what a surprise) but I have time for only one furtive glance and rush back down. On the platform at Stamford, I find a phone booth and call work. Somebody will pick me up soon, I am told. The rush hour is over by now and after a brief wait I see a lonely car approaching. It’s a boxy, mile-long, super luxurious Lincoln-Continental. It is driven by the owner of my small company! He is extremely friendly, and I finally relax. He keeps the conversation going during the ride. I learn that he has just sold his company to a big corporation. He is probably bored biding his time, so picking me up is a diversion. Years later I find a similar immigrant story with wrong trains in Nabokov’s Pnin.

Out of the cage

What else sticks to mind from the first days, weeks and months in America, besides the proverbial fainting at the supermarket at the sight of so many different products and so many brands? We did not quite faint, but the problem of choice was prominent and daunting. What summer camp to choose for the child? What bank for the checking account? (You need to learn how to write checks, too.) What car to buy when the time came? Years later an American-born musician friend related to me an anecdote told to him once by Vladimir Ashkenazi, a famous Russian pianist and conductor. When Ashkenazi decided to stay in London rather than return to Russia, his most pressing need was finding an apartment. A full day of search and decision making was so overwhelming even with the help of a real-estate agent that exhausted and frustrated he simply could not help crying in the evening.

As for the summer camp, we chose a day camp located at a golf club within a mile of the house we rented. (There were no apartments in Westport, and unlike Ashkenazi we thankfully did not have to look for a rental – our hosts had found it for us.) Without a car for some time, I rode the bus and train to work, having abandoned any experiments with the timetable. My wife would walk our now 6-year old son to the camp in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon. The road in the beach area was beautiful, if a bit hot in the July sun. But apparently the sight of somebody walking was so unusual that almost every other car would stop and the driver, usually a stay-at-home mom, would inquire if everything was alright and whether a lift was needed.

And then the newspapers. One feature surprised me and another puzzled. Every single article on any government authority in newspapers of any size was mostly critical in a very direct way. I expected a difference from Pravda, but come on, is every government official always so bad? To be sure, I came to appreciate this approach more as time went by. They also wrote about elections and candidates and their positions in great detail every day. Sometimes they ended such an exhaustive analysis by stating that the voters did not know a particular candidate. This assessment would later be repeated many times. It made no sense to me as even a single piece like that should make a candidate well known, I thought. In time, I figured out this puzzle as well.

25 years later

As we waited at the immigration control checkpoint of Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport, we felt like the Soviet cosmonaut launched into orbit before 1991 and returning to Earth when the empire that had sent him was gone. The ostensible reason for our trip 25 years after emigration was to show the “old country” to our American-born son, Ben. His brother Ilya, the only member of the family to have already visited the new Russia, also decided to join.

Much had changed, especially outwardly. For example, the billboards with exhortations to speed up the victory of communism by forming a tighter circle around the Leninist Central Committee of the dear Communist Party were replaced with the new ones proclaiming the possibility of an immediate paradise through regular visits to TGI Fridays, spelled in Cyrillic. But we had heard about this type of change. Other things remained the same. It was enlightening to discover which was which. We found that the habit of controlling people’s behavior, of giving orders by no matter how petty an authority, and not tolerating any questions in return was alive and well. But we also found that it was sometimes possible to argue and even prevail, especially when western-style establishments were concerned.

More importantly, we found that we ourselves had changed more than the country and more than our old friends who stayed behind. We still saw a tendency to think that there was just one right way, even in the absence of a single recognized authority to point to it. We no longer fit that mold. But the greatest revelation awaited us on the flight back. Unbeknownst to us and independently of each other, our sons expected to make a judgment on the emigration decision of their parents that determined their lives (although it should be noted that for the older son Ilya this would be more of a confirmation of the conclusions from his previous trips to Russia). They were attracted to and fascinated by the rich culture of their “historic homeland” (an ironic reversal of terminology we once used to get out of Russia). They were impressed by our preserved bonds to the old friends and places. Yet much in the cultural style and mentality was hard for them to reconcile with. The relative lack of internal freedom struck them, not to mention the already noted hierarchical habits. They, especially the American-born son Ben, also characterized the typical Russian style as sour, rigid and abrasive. And last but not least, was the Jewish angle. While the public discussion of such topics was not taboo anymore, the ugly side of it was brought out in the open as well.

Their verdict was unanimous and unambiguous – we had done the right thing.