PHOTO: Yakov Smirnoff, top left (AP); Lenny
Krayzelburg, bottom left (USA Today); Sergei Fedorov, center (AP);
Anna Kournikova, top right (AFP); Oksana Baiul, bottom right (USA
Soviets make mark on USA
By Martin Kasindorf, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — Touring 34 U.S. cities with the Champions on Ice show in
May, figure skater Oksana Baiul thought at times that she was back in
Dnepropetrovsk, her hometown in Ukraine.
In Portland, Ore., Russian-speaking fans threw roses. In Detroit, a
friend from the old days invited her to dinner.
In Minneapolis and
Sacramento, she could find a pretty decent bowl of borscht. "Everywhere,
so many Russians," says Baiul, 22, the 1994 Winter Olympics gold
Prava. True. Hollywood's Cold War movie, The Russians Are
Coming, The Russians Are Coming, has a real-life sequel: The Russians
are here. Baiul, who enjoys a Hudson River view from her Cliffside Park,
N.J., condominium, is one of 763,000 former nationals of the Soviet Union
who have moved to the USA.
Their numbers doubling since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991,
these immigrants have become one of the largest foreign-born groups in the
They outnumber the 605,000 Korean settlers and nearly match
the figures from Vietnam and India, the Census Bureau estimates. (Most
numerous of all are the 7.2 million born in Mexico, the 1.1 million
Filipinos and the 1.1 million Chinese.)
Some of the Soviet-born have come as famous athletes, others as
religiously persecuted refugees, Web-order brides or "New Russian"
capitalists commuting between Miami and Moscow. Many resent being called
The immigrants represent 20 ethnic groups, including
Ukrainians, Chechens and Uzbeks.
Diverse as they are, the newcomers are having an impact on American
culture, sports and technology far beyond what Czar Alexander II could
have imagined when he sold Russia's big piece of the North American
continent -- Alaska -- to the United States in 1867.
Rita Simon, a sociologist at American University, says that compared
with other immigrant groups, the generally well-educated former Soviets
"have been more successful, faster":
- The sports world looks increasingly Eastern European. Eighty former
stars of Soviet ice hockey play for National Hockey League teams.
Arvydas Sabonis, a 7-foot-tall Lithuanian, dominates the low post for
the National Basketball Association's Portland Trail Blazers. Anna
Kournikova, 19, ranks 15th in women's tennis but monopolizes endorsement
money with her good looks.
St. Petersburg-born Svetlana Abrosimova, 19, is the key to the
University of Connecticut's NCAA-champion women's basketball team. Lenny
Krayzelburg, 24, whose family emigrated in 1989, holds the world records
in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke and will swim for the USA at the 2000
Olympics in Sydney in September.
Anna Kozlova, 27, who finished fourth at the 1992 Olympics representing
Russia in synchronized swimming, will also swim for the USA. Now living in
California, she's a new citizen.
(The Immigration and Naturalization Service says 70% of émigrés from
ex-Soviet lands become U.S. citizens, a rate exceeded only by Vietnamese
- The FBI has its hands full with the gulag-hardened Russian
mafiya, a violent clique whose schemes have evolved from
blackmailing Russian hockey players to sophisticated fraud. Plots
featuring the mafiya regularly fill episodes of NYPD Blue
and Law and Order.
- Students from the 15 former Soviet republics are boosting U.S.
science and engineering brainpower as visibly as dancer Mikhail
Baryshnikov and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich have boosted American
arts. Eugene Simuni, 19, a senior at Midwood High School in Brooklyn
whose family came from St. Petersburg two years ago, won a $25,000
scholarship in May by placing fifth in the prestigious Intel Science
He says he's looking forward to starting at
Harvard this fall because he'll have to speak more English. "All my
friends are Russians, and that's not the way to become part of the
American community," he says.
You can't get more American than Branson, Mo., the family-entertainment
mecca in the Ozarks. Andy Williams, the Osmonds and Mickey Gilley own and
appear in theaters there. So does émigré comic Yakov Smirnoff, 49. As
Smirnoff says in his comic routines: What a country.
On cruise ships, Smirnoff says, he encounters many affluent Russian
émigrés as passengers. "They have the funds, and they are choosing to
embrace the American lifestyle instead of sticking together in small
areas," he says.
Assimilation took some time. Soviet refugees stuck together in New York
for years after Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev yielded to U.S. trade
pressures in 1972 and allowed the first Jewish refuseniks — those
who had long been denied exit visas — to finally leave. Brooklyn's fading
Brighton Beach district was revived as 50,000 refugees flocked in over 10
years, the salt air reminding them of Odessa.
Brighton Beach then "was a dirty hole, like falling apart," recalls
Zina Krigsfeld, 49, who came in 1978 from Ukraine and now manages St.
Petersburg Books on Brighton Beach Avenue. "You couldn't even get through
on the sidewalks with a baby carriage, there were so many boxes around.
Russian refugees brought a lot of life in here."
By 1984, New York was Moscow on the Hudson, the title of a
bittersweet movie starring Robin Williams as a defecting Moscow musician.
New York is still home to 300,000 Russian-speaking immigrants, the largest
concentration in the USA.
Brighton Beach Avenue, a half-mile of
shops with Cyrillic-alphabet signs in the shadow of the elevated D and Q
subway tracks, is the nexus of former-Soviet immigrant life.
In the red-brick apartment neighborhoods of Rego Park and Forest Hills
in the New York City borough of Queens, Bukharian Jews from central Asia
stage concerts of their native music "at the drop of a hat," says Lana
Harlow of the Queens Arts Council.
The community of 50,000 fled anti-Semitism in Bukhara and other ancient
Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
Bukharians are beginning to prosper as small-business owners after early
years of disorientation and family conflict.
"I like New York like crazy," says Rafael Nektalov, 44, a jazz-loving
Bukharian musicologist. "Before, you might be Uzbek or Tajik or Kazakh.
Here, you are American."
From coast to coast
Moscow isn't only on the Hudson these days.
Churches in Seattle,
Portland, Ore., and Sacramento have sponsored refugee resettlement there
for nearly 150,000 evangelical Baptists and Pentecostals from towns in
Russia and Ukraine. Often more conservative than their American neighbors,
they have transformed working-class neighborhoods by renovating old
churches and opening Russian restaurants.
Elena Rubens, 40, not a refugee, moved to Portland in May to marry an
American she met in Chelyabinsk, Russia. First impressions: Americans
smile more, and TV is nyekulturny, uncultured.
"One show I dislike is very rude, very expressive, nothing but a lot of
problems which people should settle between each other," she says. She
means Jerry Springer. She does love Oprah. "It was my
favorite program in Russia," she says.
- Blocks in West Hollywood, Calif., resemble Brighton Beach: Shops
include Svetlana Deli and Tbilisi & Yerevan Bakery. Every May 9, aging
men and women wear their old Red Army uniforms and medals and recount
wartime hardships in V-E Day celebrations at Plummer Park.
- Los Angeles County is home to 300,000 Armenian-Americans. In the
1990s, Armenia, formerly in the Soviet Union, fought a war with Azerbaijan
that swelled the ranks of the Armenians who had been coming since the
In a nationally watched political battle, Rep. James Rogan,
R-Calif., and his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Adam Schiff, are
assiduously competing for the votes of the Armenians who make up 30
percent of Glendale's population of 204,000.
Entrepreneurs and entertainers are snapping up
luxury condos in Sunny Isles Beach, a heavily Russian community of 15,000
north of Miami.
- South Florida attracts the millionaires of the fledgling Russian
The towers of Sunny Isles Beach also are favored by immigrant Russians
who have succeeded in the USA after early penury.
45, says that in 1979, she and her husband, Zory, had $500, two children
and furniture scavenged from Brooklyn streets.
through the traditional, blue-collar immigrant jobs — driving delivery
trucks, painting houses -- until his English improved.
Now the Kushnirs live at The Pinnacle, the fanciest high-rise in Sunny
Two years ago, Zory, a businessman who has owned
restaurants, a travel agency and a jewelry store, invested in a profitable
sausage factory in Russia.
Their son, Alec, is a Wall Street
Their daughter, Snezhana, is an actress. She
has played a Russian prostitute on NBC's Law and Order and a
mafiya-connected cabaret singer on Law and Order: Special
"Life is kharasho, good," Lana Kushnir says.
A changing tide
The tide of former Soviet immigration has been ebbing. U.S. visa
policies have tightened, and the "chain migration" fostered by new
residents who bring in close relatives is near an end, INS officials say.
The peak for immigration from the 15 republics was 1993-94, when
63,420 were admitted. In 1997-98, arrivals fell to 30,163.
Those coming now are different from the first refugees.
percent of current immigrants are Jews, INS figures show.
Every year, about 100 Muslim women travel from Kyrgyzstan to New York
to work as babysitters and hotel chambermaids.
jobs, but it's quite enough for their families in Kyrgyzstan to survive,"
says Seit Ubukeev, Kyrgyzstan consul in New York. "They can send back $400
The average salary at home is $25 a month."
Better-educated immigrants are learning English and earning
Hundreds of Soviet-trained physicians
who drove taxicabs for years now have U.S. practices.
first-rate Soviet education in engineering enabled a rush by thousands of
immigrants into tech jobs.
Vadim Paretsky, 37, works at ground zero of the new economy. As a
programmer for Intel on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., "I make
sure that Microsoft software runs on the latest Intel processors."
He arrived in the USA in 1990, just in time for months of
recession unemployment. Now, he says, "I'm probably doing OK, average for
the Seattle area."
Igor Pasternak, 36, designs and builds advanced-technology blimps in
Chatsworth, Calif. June 23 was a triumphant day for the shaggy-haired
engineer's Worldwide Aeros, which he transplanted in 1993 from Lviv,
The Federal Aviation Administration certified the five-seat Aeros 40B
Pasternak has orders for six of the $2.2-million
craft. He dreams of a 1,000-foot, transoceanic cargo blimp.
But confirmation of his concepts has come at a high price: In January,
his sister, Marina, 32, and an engineer were fatally smothered inside a
One sphere in which the immigrants are underrepresented is politics.
They've simply been working too hard.
"I see no sign, even in areas of high concentration, that they're into
running for public office," says Simon. "That might take a while longer.
They've been very much focused on making it in socioeconomic status or
A few women scouted by Western modeling agencies have realized dreams
of U.S. fashion careers. Carmen Kass, a tall, blond Estonian, earns a
reported $3 million a year as a New York supermodel.
Siberian-born Irina Pantaeva appeared in the Super Bowl of modeling, the
Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
Often, though, would-be models become model underachievers.
"Every Russian girl we've brought here that's beautiful has become
extremely overweight," says Frances Grill, president of Click Model
"They like to eat and like to go on dates with
American men. They all come to the United States thinking the streets are
paved with gold, and they want some of the gold."
Some appear to be digging for it.
A tight set of club-hopping
onetime models, femmes fatales with eyes on prize businessmen,
supplies the New York tabloids with regular fodder.
Latvian-born Ines Misan made headlines when investment banker John
Lattanzio sued her for the return of a $289,000 diamond engagement ring;
she gave up other gifts but kept the ring.
Inga Banasewycz sued the rich, married Orhan Sadik-Khan for millions
after they broke up.
He settled by paying an undisclosed amount.
In September, Jack Rosen, the married owner of Hazel Bishop
cosmetics, stopped fighting a paternity claim by former model Natalia
"These girls are taking capitalism to an extreme," says Inna de Silva,
a public relations consultant for trendy nightclubs, who knows many of the
ex-models. "They have a mystique that American men want to be around. It's
some sort of a drug. You just have to be able to afford the
At lower prices, up to $4,000, American men who say they're looking for
women with "traditional values" can click on 275 matchmaking Internet
sites, such as arussianprincess.com.
The Ukrainian girls really knock them out.
A 1999 INS report
suggested that Web romances with women in the former Soviet Union result
in 2,000 marriages a year.
After suspecting marriage fraud, the
INS has concluded that Internet matchmaking is "basically legit," agency
spokesman Bill Strassberger says.
Craig Rich, 46, a Boonton, N.J., psychotherapist, met his wife, Arina ,
22, of Togliatti, Russia, through a Web site. "I was an older guy who'd
never been married, and I was dealing with the New York City market," Rich
says. The outcome was so positive that he and Arina founded their own
Internet site, volgagirl.com.
A darker side
Coming to America doesn't guarantee happiness. Life has been troubled
for some immigrants:
- About 58,000 Russian Jews in New York, mostly seniors struggling
with high rents on Social Security assistance, live in want, says
William Rapfogel of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on
- In Glendale and Hollywood, Armenian youths have formed gangs that
feud with Latino gangs. On May 5, police say, Raul Aguirre, 17, a senior
at Glendale's Herbert Hoover High School, was killed by three Armenian
boys and a girl while trying to break up a gang fight. Aram Goulian, 18,
was shot and wounded days later, allegedly by a retaliating Latino.
"Some social issues we need to deal with, and it's not necessarily a
quick fix," says Glendale City Councilman Rafi Manoukian, an
Armenian-American leader in peacemaking efforts.
- Mikail Markhasev fell in with L.A. Latino gangs as a teenage émigré
from Ukraine. At 20, he was convicted in 1998 and sentenced to life in
prison for the slaying of Ennis Cosby, entertainer Bill Cosby's son,
during a robbery attempt.
- Even Baiul has had problems. In 1997, she was charged with drunken
driving after running her Mercedes off a road in Connecticut; she and a
friend were injured in the crash. The charge was dropped when she
completed court-ordered alcohol-education classes. Two years ago, she
checked herself into an alcohol rehab clinic for three months.
She says she doesn't drink now. Steering her new Mercedes sedan slowly
through midtown Manhattan, she says, "I live in America, and I follow the