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 Today)

Former 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 medalist.

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 USA.

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 Russians.

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 and Taiwanese).

  • 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 Talent Search.

    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.

Rebuilding communities

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.

The 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

But 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 1940s.

    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.
    • South Florida attracts the millionaires of the fledgling Russian market economy.
    Entrepreneurs and entertainers are snapping up luxury condos in Sunny Isles Beach, a heavily Russian community of 15,000 north of Miami.

    The towers of Sunny Isles Beach also are favored by immigrant Russians who have succeeded in the USA after early penury.

    Lana Kushnir, 45, says that in 1979, she and her husband, Zory, had $500, two children and furniture scavenged from Brooklyn streets.

    Zory persevered 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 Isles Beach.

    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 investment banker.

    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 Victims Unit.

    "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.

    Only 12 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.

    "Not well-paying 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 a month.

    The average salary at home is $25 a month."

    Better-educated immigrants are learning English and earning professional credentials.

    Hundreds of Soviet-trained physicians who drove taxicabs for years now have U.S. practices.

    The 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, Ukraine.

    The Federal Aviation Administration certified the five-seat Aeros 40B as airworthy.

    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 blimp.

    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 professional accomplishment."

    Model behavior

    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.

    In 1998, 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 Management.

    "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 Khodaeva.

    "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 medication."

    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 Jewish Poverty.

    • 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 rules."