The bittersweet trip from Mother Russia to the US
Washington — Yuri Orlov would seem to have every reason for unbounded joy. He is the Soviet dissident who gained freedom in the West as the result of a complex, three-cornered ``swap'' involving convicted Soviet spy Gennady Zakharov and American journalist Nicholas Daniloff. So why are Dr. Orlov's emotions decidedly mixed?
His release was trumpeted as a victory for American diplomacy and a major concession by the Soviet Union. But Orlov's embrace of his new homeland has been hesitant and uncertain. Since his arrival Sunday, he has mused that he will miss his country -- despite years of imprisonment, exile, and harassment by Soviet authorities.
That attitude may be perplexing to his new American countrymen. But it illustrates the complex relationships between Russians and Russia -- a relationship that defies easy explantion, even by Russians themselves.
A number of experts -- including Russian 'emigr'es -- indicate that the transition to life in the United States is complicated and fraught with difficulty. There are a variety of organizations that seek to ease the process, but most depend on private donations and are strapped for resources.
Experts say it is important to keep in mind that there are distinct groups of Russian 'emigr'es, who come for varying reasons and with varying experiences back home. The observers say it is understandable that some arrivals -- like Orlov -- experience bittersweet feelings about life in a new land.
Mikhail Tsypkin, a Russian 'emigr'e who is Salvatori fellow for Soviet studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, says it is important to keep in mind that Orlov ``is a man who was thrown out of his country. No one asked his opinion about whether he wanted to come.''
Mr. Tsypkin adds that there is a big difference between dissidents -- those, like Orlov, who work to change the Soviet system -- and ``refusedniks,'' whose chief goal is not to change their country, but to leave it.
And even among those who want to leave, there are important distinctions. Some, such as Soviet Jews, want to escape discrimination. Others simply believe life for them will be better in the US. And defectors, who choose to leave for political and ideological reasons, often at great personal risk, face yet a different set of problems.
Many of the expatriates, however, face some common challenges. One is the sense of loss, the longing for the rodina, the Russian motherland.
It is based, in part, upon the sheer physical beauty of Russia, with its brooding birches, vast expanses of treeless plains, and solemnly powerful rivers. Moreover, American cities are far different from those of Russia or, for that matter, from those of Europe, which influenced Russian architects. As Tsypkin wryly notes, a quick stroll outside his Washington office is a reminder that, ``it's not Paris out there.''
``These people have favorite places to go, just like we do,'' says Ruth Newman, executive director of the Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry. ``The difference is, we can go back to these places; these people can't.''
Indeed, they cannot. The Soviet government repeatedly stresses that leaving is forever. 'Emigr'es are rarely, if ever, granted visas to return.
Soviet 'emigr'es also mourn the loss of contact with Russian culture and history. But there is something more than that, too -- an almost indefinable sense of a loss of kinship and friendship that is rarely recovered in the US. Orlov explained it by saying the thing he would miss most is ``my friends.''
``Their friendships have a lot of depth, and they always feel uprooted when they leave,'' says Ute DeFarb, program director of the Jamestown Foundation, which assists defectors in resettling in the US.
Andrei Bogolubov, who has worked with a number of 'emigr'es, and is now active in the Congress of Russian-Americans, says dissidents in the Soviet Union often patch together a network of like-minded people who give sympathy, encouragement, and support. ``That creates a sort of spiritual life around them, and here in the US, there's nothing to take the place of that.''
The Heritage Foundation's Tsypkin notes, moreover, that the things that make for fast friendships in the Soviet Union -- a willingness to share privations, hold dissenting political views, and keep mutual confidences from the Soviet secret police -- quickly become ``irrelevant'' in the US.
Moreover, he says, ``Americans are just so busy that they don't have the time for friendships'' that Russians in their homeland do. The pace, the sheer hurly-burly of American life, is, at first, daunting to many Russians. And many are burdened by excess emotional baggage, based on unrealistic expectations of what America is.
``Many of them think of America as a fantasyland. Or, on the contrary, as a place to fear,'' says Eugenia Zarechnak, an official of the Russian-American Information Center in Washington.
``It takes about a year,'' Ruth Newman says, ``to grasp the realities of this life.''
Over and over again, newly arrived Russians profess themselves dumbfounded -- and intimidated -- by the sheer variety of choice in the US. Choosing between competing products and brands is, after all, not often a problem in the Soviet Union.
``It's overwhelming at first,'' Ms. Newman says. ``The first visit to a supermarket is probably more traumatic than exciting. And a department store [in the US] might as well be the planet Mars in terms of the experiences they've had.''
But after the initial shock wears off, most -- though not all -- Russians seem to relish the opportunities and rewards of a free-wheeling, capitalistic way of doing things.
``I hear very few complaints,'' concludes Newman.