A Leap of Faith Helped Soviet Émigrés

 

Watching the news coverage of refugees fleeing Ukraine during the Russian invasion brought me back to 1980, when a leap of faith helped a family to emigrate from the USSR. Here is how it all began.

A middle-aged, well-dressed man approached us outside of a Tbilisi museum in February 1980. We were wary as he said, “Hello,” in English.

My first husband and I were in Tbilisi, Georgia as part of the 1979-80 USSR academic exchange sponsored by IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board), an international nonprofit organization specializing in global education and development.

During our stay, the unexpected happened: the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, 1979. In January 1980, President Carter set a deadline for the Soviet Union to pull out of Afghanistan or face the consequences, including a United States boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in the USSR.  Georgians typically are very hospitable, but some people now were fearful of being seen with Americans.

In contrast, this mysterious gentleman (Misha, a pseudonym to protect privacy) unabashedly asked us why we were in Tbilisi and became acquainted with us that day. We agreed to meet Misha several times after he offered to serve as tour guide to many of Tbilisi’s outstanding art and ethnographic museums. At first we wondered if he were a KGB agent, but we gradually began to trust his intentions.

After several meetings, Misha asked if we needed more rubles (Soviet currency).

Misha then revealed his motivation:  Misha was Jewish and had asked the government for permission for him and his family, including his elderly mother, to join his relatives in the United States permanently. Shortly after he made this request, he was stripped of his job as the director of a large research institute.  Faced with poverty, he sold most of his possessions to give him and his family enough cash. Soviet émigrés were allowed to bring only a small amount of rubles with them when they left the USSR.


Misha’s plan called for him to give us several hundred rubles to last the rest of our stay. In exchange, Misha asked that we send the equivalent amount in American dollars to his sister in New York City. He asked several other Americans if they would do the same thing.

Diane with “Misha” and family. Faces are blurred to protect identities.

After some serious thought, we agreed to the plan. Like most Georgians, Misha kept his rubles underneath his bed. Georgians did not trust putting their hard-earned money in a bank. We visited Misha at his home and met his family when we picked up the rubles. Their warmth and hospitality were palpable as they generously shared food, drink and friendship.

We were sad when we met Misha for the last time. We truly enjoyed his company. He gave us his sister’s American contact information and trusted that we would send the money to her when we returned home.

We carefully looked up the exchange rate of rubles to dollars and mailed a check to Misha’s sister. The check was cashed, but we did not hear any news for several months. We fervently hoped that Misha and his family would get permission to leave the USSR safely. We were ecstatic when we received a phone call from Misha’s sister in the spring of 1981 with the good news that Misha and his family had settled in New York City. We took a short train ride from New Haven, Connecticut to New York City, and were thrilled to be reunited with Misha and his family. They all looked so relieved and happy to be settled in their new country.

Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky, separated by an unidentified bearded man, at a demonstration concerning the treatment of Soviet Jews. (Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Misha displayed profound gratitude for our financial assistance, yet he really did not know if we would send a check to his sister when he first met us. He took a leap of faith, and his vision of freedom for him and his family was worth taking this risk. To this day, I am so humbled that we could help Misha and his family in a small yet significant way to create a new life in the United States.


Diane Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI catalog and for OLLI Connects.

 


We normally publish OLLI Connects each Monday. Now that the tragic situation in Ukraine has prompted such an outpouring of grief and personal reflection from our membership, we decided to add a limited series of Thursday editions of observations and individual memoirs related to the ongoing crisis. –Editor

 

3 Replies to “A Leap of Faith Helped Soviet Émigrés”

  1. Diane, it is so easy to be duped, especially when one’s orientation is that people are basically good. There are happy endings and I am so glad this is one of them.

    1. Bobbie, thanks for your comments. During this trip, we were dispelled of the assumption that people were looking out for our best interests due to the Cold War mentality. But that is another, much longer story for me to write.

  2. It’s really difficult to imagine what it’s like to live under the Russian government. This man was obviously desperate. Thank you for sharing this glimpse of Russian life, and for helping him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.