TV Show Looks at Successful Russians in US
American society is rich but unforgiving, immigrants tell countrymen at home
BOSTON — SINCE the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, thousands of Russians have emigrated to the United States, driven by fear of persecution or lured by the promise of free enterprise. Many thrive in America's market economy and stay on; others take their newfound expertise back to Russia, and some return home broke and disillusioned.
Their experiences are the subject of a six-part television series filmed in the US by a Russian television crew from Ostankino TV in Moscow.
The series' host, Vladimir Sukhoi, spoke to the Monitor as he concluded filming. He says Russians adjust well, but they need at least a month to acclimate.
``Many of these people still think in Russian categories,'' he says. ``Sometimes if they fail they start blaming Americans, because they are not similar to us. I don't agree with people who say Americans and Russians are very similar. We're different.''
Mr. Sukhoi, a former New York correspondent for Pravda, says that beyond their universal admiration for American technology, Russians are most impressed by the rhythm of everyday life here.
``[Americans] are disciplined,'' he says. ``They don't go on red lights, and the businessmen don't add water to the gasoline. People stroll through the malls and just buy and buy and buy - this is unusual for Russians, because we are so used to standing in lines.''
Russians, he adds, often bring with them a skewed stereotype of successful capitalists. ``Russians are surprised that there are some very wealthy people who are quite modest in their clothes and in their manner of speaking. They think that all wealthy people wear bow ties, never wear jeans, and ride around in big limos.''
Sukhoi interviewed a group of engineers on an exchange program in Ohio. They were ``very impressed with the president of the company,'' he says. ``He would come in, and everybody would just say, `Hi, Jack.' ''
On the other hand, Sukhoi says, Russians find American society cruel. ``If you don't have mortgages, you don't have loans, you don't have medical insurance, sometimes you cannot survive,'' he says. One of Sukhoi's intended interview subjects left the US because he needed dental work and couldn't afford medical insurance. ``The Russian way of life is not so cold,'' he says.
The TV series, partially funded by East-West Television of Newton, Mass., is scheduled to air in Russia late this month.
The director of East-West Television, William Obermayer, says he proposed the idea to Sukhoi in 1992 out of concern that Russian President Boris Yeltsin's top-down approach to free-market reforms was not working.
Mr. Obermayer says he was drawn to television because the medium is even more powerful in Russia than it is in the West. Look at the October conflict between the Russian military and hardliners in the Parliament, he says: Russian troops allowed an anti-reform mob to storm Moscow City Hall, but started shooting when it headed for the TV studios.
``The last show [Sukhoi] hosted was a retrospective of President Clinton's first 100 days,'' Obermayer says. ``It was watched by 60 percent of the population in and around Moscow. That's phenomenal.''
Since 90 percent of Russian households now have television, Obermayer says that Sukhoi's show, ``Panorama,'' may have one of the largest television audiences in the world.
Sukhoi says he hopes his show will help change many Russians' negative impressions of Yeltsin's economic reforms, and counter the xenophobic impulses that led many to vote for nationalists like Vladimir Zhirinovsky. ``Because of propaganda ploys,'' Sukhoi says, ``Russians believe that a market economy is just buying some bottles of beer in the center of Moscow, taking them to Vladimir - 60 miles from Moscow - and selling them for twice the price. I wish all Russians could visit America or some other Western country just for one day, and see what a market economy is all about. Then they would not vote for somebody like Zhirinovsky.''
Russian emigration to the US is a valuable trend, Sukhoi says, not only because many emigres return to Russia with free-market know-how, but also because it fosters understanding between long-estranged populations. ``I would like people to understand that we Russians and you Americans are just people,'' he says. ``Maybe it's high time to make people-to-people diplomacy.''