Today, the latest Census figures show there are more than 3.1 million people living in America who identify themselves as Russian, all bound by a shared language, culture and history that have become part of the American melting pot. But over time, the memories of Soviet rule have faded and the motives that have historically drawn so many Russians to the land of their former enemy have begun to evolve in subtle ways.
Here, two women raised in Moscow 66 years apart, and both now living in the D.C. metropolitan area, share their reasons for migrating to America.
Forging a Path to America
Born shortly after the formation of the Soviet Union, Kurtsman lived with her parents and two sisters. Eventually she got married, started a family and got a job she cared passionately about. Together, she and her husband Efim explored the farthest corners of their homeland, but found neither the means nor the inclination to travel beyond the borders of the vast country.
So in 1993, when they left Russia at 70- and 81-years-old and moved to the United States to make a new home for themselves, it was the first time either had ever set foot on foreign soil.
They may not have realized it at the time, but they chose a path that was well traveled.
“The situation in Moscow was hard. We had sometimes maybe a piece of bread to live on, and (during World War II) we were afraid the Germans would take Moscow. It was cold, and there was very little money,” Kurtsman said.
She is quick to point out that while things may have been difficult, life was not bad.
“We were devoted to Russia, to the country, to the government, everything,” Kurtsman said, adding with pride that her husband worked in banking, and rose to high levels with the State Bank of Russia.
“Yes, sometimes things were hard,” she said, “but we were used to socialism.”
Lynette Jacobs is a social worker who handles caseloads for immigrants, like Kurtsman, who live at Hunters Woods Fellowship House, a government-assisted retirement home in Reston, Va.
Of the roughly 40 immigrant residents who came from Russia, Jacobs said many were highly educated doctors and scientists who escaped communist rule.
“I think roughly half of them show signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stemming from their days of living under the old regime,” Jacobs said.
“What makes it really challenging is that many of them are still reluctant to talk about it, like it’s so deeply ingrained that there’s still this fear of saying something against the government,” she added.
The couple left in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, not because they were fleeing oppression, said Kurtsman, but because they were following a daughter. They had a granddaughter who moved to America with friends, and their daughter made the decision that she, too, would go.
Efim Kurtsman died in 2004. He would have been 100 in 2013. Their daughter died three years later, and a granddaughter was killed in an accident.
Despite her losses, Lidiya Kurtsman says there has been a long list of kindnesses shown to her and the other residents, everything from recreational field trips to assistance with basic needs. There was even a recent trip to a Washington-area authentic Russian restaurant that made her eyes light up and brought a soft smile of dreamy delight to her face.
“Everybody loves the place they were born,” Kurtsman said. But overall she admitted, America was “not so bad.”
Seizing an Opportunity
Anna Bashkirova, 23, is too young to remember the pressures of Soviet rule, the financial struggles, or the collapse of the regime. What she knows, she has read in history books or learned from talking to those a generation before her.
“My parents lived through that. I did not. As far as everything I know, we had a good
life in Russia,” she said.