Emigration from the Soviet Union was akin to giving birth, with someone pushing a baby back into you! Every step of the way one had to contend with the government's resistance and people's prejudice. Our family's case was "lost" two times. Mother had to leave her job, claiming that she suddenly found out, she was three years older and eligible for retirement. Lera and I, both, tried to call it off, sick and tired of putting our lives on hold.
My friend, a band musician, found me a job as a director's assistant in a small theater. Moscow and Russia were full of the theater-folk, but the authorities didn't like the innovation coming from unsanctioned sources. The theater where I started working was performing - unheard of - the Rock Opera! The director was Armenian (another minus in the eyes of the chauvinistic powers-to-be).
From the moment, when I saw the actors - not even acting, but just opening the curtain on both sides of the stage - so in sync, so gracefully - I was mesmerized. This was something I could really appreciate and give my full commitment!
I found herself, an unlovely and unlovable, or so I believed, dilettante, amid a talented, attractive, graceful, crowd of people. I didn't have any real skills, couldn't even type fast. I dived in anyway. My life changed one hundred percent. The troupe didn't get paid until the
This is the skinniest I've ever been!
authorities approved it's work. When we had something to show, some, usually, middle-aged, critic in a wrinkled cheap suit would show up, watch the performance while chewing on a toothpick and, most of the time, declare it inconsistent with the ideals of the Marxist-Leninist society. The director would be told to prepare something else, and his people would go without pay for the next few months. Every day all they had to eat was, just some bread with butter - the cheapest food at that time, and a lot of tea. That was it. Now losing all interest in leaving Russia, I took my visa application back. The parents stopped supporting me. I would still steal some food from my house and share it with my friends.
At first, I thought that I found my idyll. It was a privilege and a pleasure to participate in a creative process, even as an administrator. I loved to watch the rehearsals and discuss theater and related things, sometimes, all night long. I came home only when there was no other place to go, exhausted, but filled with inspiration. Every time I encountered my mother, we had a fight. Once, she hit me in the face with a boot; once, I locked her in the bathroom and left the apartment. We were both off their rocker!
Lera was introduced to a suitable young man, who was interested not only to marry her but also to emigrate. To make sure, he was a little peculiar. On one of the first dates they went to a restaurant. The "nobodies" like them had to wait in a long line to get in, and then they had to share the table with other people. Such was life in the U.S.S.R.! Lera felt very uncomfortable, so after the meal was finished, she wanted to leave. Grisha, her intended, put a hand on her arm and said, primly: "There's still bread left!" He didn't move from the table until the last of their bread disappeared. He had a lot of phobias and strange habits, but was a decent fellow, and Lera was already twenty eight. Mom convinced her elder daughter that, a peculiar husband was better than no husband. And so they got married.
Wherever I went, on the street corners, on the dark stairwells, I saw men, who, interestingly enough, were almost alike looking! They read newspapers or searched the shop windows, but the realization finally donned: I was being watched. One morning, there was a knock on the door: "KGB!".
The agent took me walking to the police station nearby. My father, on a verge of a heart attack, followed us. The police and the KGB questioned me for close to two hours. They wanted to know, if there were any anti-Soviet activities going on in the theater, who there did what, why I would work there without pay and why I wouldn't, already, leave the country!. From sheer fright, I instinctively, appeared to be a naive fool, just practicing the virtues extolled by the Soviet books: the love of the country and a selfless commitment to a cause. Time to time, an interrogator would say: "You know, we could put you in jail!" They couldn't get anywhere with me and let me go. Dad cried, when he saw me come out of the police station.
The only way for me to convince my parents to leave me alone in Russia, was to get married. I went to my director and offered a deal: I'll fictitiously marry one of the actors, who didn't have a permission to stay in Moscow, provide him with that opportunity, and he'll help me deceive my parents that, I was in a stable marriage relationship.
When I brought a skinny, bearded Armenian(!) actor home (Jews were just as prejudiced as the rest of the country) to introduce to the parents, I thought, they would faint! Nevertheless, they set a table to welcome the guest. Like by magic, Lera appeared there too, and her squinty-eyed gaping added to the macabre nature of the evening. No-one believed that the proposed marriage was real, of course!
There is something to say for the conventional wisdom. They don't base novels or plays on it, but, unfortunately, most of the time, it rules the world. As predicted by the naysayers, with all the inspiration that I received from my work and association with actors and the theater, things began to fall apart. After days and nights spent in exciting, culturally charged atmosphere, I felt even lonelier coming home alone. Some of my friends left the troupe because they found the director to be a cult-like leader. Then he began to try and talk me into leaving Russia. I understood: my parents managed to bribe him. The idea of the fictitious marriage petered out and was abandoned.
It all seemed like a terrible tragedy. This time I gave all my heart and felt even more betrayed than ever before! I was constantly tortured by thoughts of loneliness and despair. Standing on the train platforms, I played with an idea of stepping in front of the train and ending all that misery.
I was, probably, a stupid, unrealistic fool, making a mountain out of a molehill, but that was all I knew how to be! Things looked very dark for me, with no hope in sight.
The same musician-friend who helped me find the job, came to my aid again. Some weeks before I realized, I was being played by the director, he told me - at a loud party, among the drinking and carousing: "If it will get too difficult for you, just talk to God!" I took it for one of his eccentricities, nodded and forgot all about it.
On a night that threatened to become my last on this Earth, I remembered the friend's words and, for the first time ever, poured my heart out in prayer to an unknown God. I knew: it was her last chance to survive the despair and confusion.
I fell asleep, finally, and dreamed I was running across a meadow. A sinister someone trapped me, and I called out to God for help. The voice said: "Draw the pictures of saints on the sand", and I became free. When I woke up, even before thinking about what happened the previous night, I felt completely different! The weight lifted off my shoulders, I felt elated, new, and clean, and sure, I should go with my family to the U.S! That morning Lera came to try and convince me to reapply for the exit visa, but I shocked her and our parents by readily agreeing to do so.
Nothing prepared me for this experience. Like all the generations of the Soviet people, I was raised as an atheist. We were taught to think of religion as a weapon, used by the corrupt governments and clerics to control people. I didn't know anything about and was distrustful of the Judaism. The only ideas about God and Christianity came from some classic Russian literature, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. All that didn't matter, because God would not be stopped by lies and misrepresentation! He rushed into my heart with tremendous love, forgiveness and acceptance. I still felt depressed a lot, but the prayer helped to withstand difficulties. No-one knew, though, about my newly found faith.
The family started to get everything in order to leave the country. All of them left their jobs (I still helped at the theater, though). According to the rules for the intending emigrants, dad had to re-paint the apartment, so he did, destroying the beautiful artistic work he's done on it earlier. Now the walls of the flat were covered by the papers with the English phrases. Lera and I could catch on to that language quite easily. Papa didn't even try. Mom attempted to learn and found herself so overcome by the unfamiliar sounds and rules of that tongue, she started yawning right in the teacher's face, after just a few minutes into a lesson!
About two weeks before we had to leave, the police revoked our exit visas! They announced, our family was under suspicion for the illegal activities, and until it could be proven otherwise, we had to postpone the emigration.
My exit visa.
The panic ensued. If we didn't leave on the arranged date, we wouldn't have money to buy new airplane tickets. There was nothing left for us in Russia,- no jobs or lives, because the stigma of the traitors would prevent us from establishing those things anew. Everyday, dad and Lera and I had to go to the police station to have a talk with a commissar - a representative of the Communist Party, or, actually, the KGB. The meetings went smoothly. Once he told us: "I want to go to America too!" Our startled expressions alerted him to his mistake: "As a tourist, of course!"
Lera and I found a Jewish police detective at that station and asked him to sign the paper, stating that there was no reason for detaining us in Russia. The man listened to us quietly, then signed the document right in the hallway, on his knee. We never knew his name or met him again, but he took a real chance to do this for us!
We flew out of Moscow on a dreary, late December night. The immigrant lore suggested that, we do certain things to be able to bring our property with us and have money, once we get to the West. One of those things was, to put all the expensive jewelry and clothes on to pass the Customs; another claimed, certain Russian products, like guitars, were in vogue in the West, and the immigrants could sell them there. As the result, I had five golden chains on my neck, and father ran around the airport, snug and toasty in three coats, with a guitar in his hand! The family didn't pack wisely. The Customs officers took papa aside and checked him bodily for valuables. After a while, a senior officer came out, sized up the situation and said, venomously: "Why aren't you through the Customs yet? The plane is about to leave. Now you'll have to stay!" Mama attempted to take the golden chains off my neck, as ordered by the authorities, but they were impossibly tangled. For a moment she looked like she would gladly strangle her wayward daughter with those things. Instead, she turned to the family and barked: "Leave everything, they didn't check yet!" And so, the family's treasured china and silver, our photo albums and other heirlooms were left behind with the relatives.
The queerest and most memorable moment of that evening for my parents and relatives came when the theater producer, who was charged by the troupe with seeing me off, suddenly stepped up to me and gave me a passionate kiss on the lips! Now my folks were convinced: all the rumors they heard of the
Two hours spent on make-up
before taking this picture really made a difference!
bohemian goings on at my job were true! Actually, I was the one most surprised by the kiss: he never said a private word to me before in my life!
We were free! Funny, but we didn't feel happy. Most of the people on the bus, carrying us to the plane, were crying. Some - for their country and the families, and all the familiar and dear things they've left behind. Some - because of the final humiliation they've suffered at the airport.
Good Bye, Mother Russia.