New Generation of Russians Finds Its Own Reasons for Coming to America

3 years ago by in 2013

By Maria Young

For the first 70 years of her life, Lidiya Kurtsman was busy — going to school, falling in love, raising a daughter — never imagining she would one day be at the forefront of an international trend.

But in 1993 she moved from Moscow to the Washington, D.C., area, the iconic seat of power for a nation once locked in Cold War tensions with the former Soviet Union.

Today, Kurtsman is one of 11,877 Russians who live in the D.C. metropolitan region, according the US Census Bureau.

Russians migrated here one-by-one or in small groups, leaving behind friends, family and the lives they knew, for deeply personal and vastly different reasons. Some were pushed out by oppression and struggle, others were drawn in for jobs or school.

A group of Russian-American athletes is working to spread the word and share their enthusiasm about the upcoming Winter Games in Russia, a project they call the Road to Sochi 2014. They gathered at the base of the Washington monument on Saturday, March 16, 2013 shortly before Washington’s Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon kicked off. (American Observer/ Maria Young)

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.

Anna Bashkirova and her boyfriend, Scott Kaptur, snapped a self-portrait during a trip to Virginia beach in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Scott Kaptur)

Both of her parents had good jobs, she said, her stepfather with the government and her mother as a journalist. She attended good schools, graduated with a master’s degree from Moscow University when she was 21, and was old enough to know there were some world-class nightclubs in Moscow.

When her stepfather was granted a green card that would allow him and his family to work in the United States, he moved to America with Bashkirova’s mother and sister. A year later, she followed the family.

“My decision-making process was very simple,” she said. “My parents are in the U.S. I have a green card and I can work. I have a master’s degree from a good university. Why don’t I try and see how it goes?”

Both of her parents have been able to find new jobs in America, and Bashkirova is also employed, working as an office manager for a small D.C. firm.

She is keenly aware that her experience in America is vastly different from that of former Russian citizens who were fleeing oppression.

“It’s a huge difference. It wasn’t related to any negative experience I had in my country because I had none,” she said. “Some Russians now, when they talk about Russia, you can tell they don’t really like their country. I’m not one of those.”

About This Story:

I went into this story thinking I knew what to expect.  I was, after all, a long-time journalist, a veteran, as they say, who currently works for a Russian-American news company. I am relatively well versed in the rigors of Soviet rule and the many citizens who fled to this country and others as the Iron Curtain came down. It was the first thing that came to mind as my master’s class discussed a project on immigrants. I had contacts, because of my work, and with a sense that Russians are often an invisible part of the U.S. population, I was eager to include Russia in the mix of stories.

The elderly woman who came to the US in the early 1990s and agreed to talk with me was one more of those stories, I figured. With any luck, it would take 30 minutes plus time to snap a few photos. Instead, as I honed in on the focus of my interview, she grew increasingly uncomfortable with the questions. At the two-hour mark she was all but arguing with me about the point of the story, anxiously pointing to my notes and demanding that I scratch out certain details: “I think is not interesting, I come to America, nobody cares.” No amount of comforting reassurance would suffice (“But you haven’t said anything critical.” Or, more desperately, “This is a student project. Really, no one but my professor and my mom will ever read it.”) A valiant effort, to no avail. 

At one point as I blithely persisted I thought I saw a hint of tears, and realized she seemed almost panicked. “My family, I think they will not like that I have talked with you,” she moaned. Clearly, it was past time to back off and make of this story what I could. There would be no photos.

As every journalist knows, there are deadlines, and a certain reluctance to tell the editor your story fell through. I did what I would almost certainly have been expected to do in a professional setting: I filed the story I found, and tried to do it in a way that was both accurate and fair. Compassionate, even. But I am struck by the fact that a good portion of this story — whatever it is — remains untold, because it wasn’t told to me.

In the end, I hope I did it justice.

Maria Young

National Correspondent at RIA Global News
Award-winning journalist with a background in network television news and online media. Experienced as a web producer and digital video editor. Strong writing skills with solid news judgment and understanding of emerging media technologies. Able to quickly turn a list of facts into a compelling story. Wife to a pretty great guy and stepmom to two pretty cool kids. Surrogate parent to two annoying felines.