Elena & Mark

Philadelphia, PA

“There was a big story, this is our Thanksgiving story, the turkey story. It was time before Thanksgiving, and Mark’s relatives said if you make an all-together shopping trip for $100, you can get turkey for $0.19 a pound. They said we are going to make a big shop, and you guys will have this turkey. We made two turkeys. We lived on these turkeys for I think six months. Since then, I don’t eat turkey. None of us eat it.”


We’re both from the Soviet Union. I grow up in Kiev, and Lena grow up in Moscow. We met when we were seventeen in college. I moved to Moscow after high school to go to college. We lived in Moscow for sixteen years. She lived in Moscow for like thirty-two before we came here, and I lived sixteen years in Kiev, sixteen in Moscow. Now, it’s difficult to say, because of the Russian-Ukrainian relationship. I used to say that I’m from Russia and from Moscow, now I prefer to say I’m from Kiev and Ukraine, but we are from the Soviet Union. We are Russian speaking.


At that time, it didn’t make a difference. I think probably people in the republics, they understood the difference, and I think it was probably just our arrogance, the arrogance of the Russian people who thought that everyone was just included, and everybody was the same. But the truth was, it was a fight, and many cultures weren’t valued.


We ended up in the U.S. in 1989. We were kind of not typical immigrants because we didn’t plan to stay. We came for three months when the borders opened up, when reform started. The reform started, and we were able to come visit my relatives for three months because we needed fertility treatment. They found us a doctor and she was able to get treatment for free. We were very confused about this country.


Mark’s cousin is Mark’s age. They grew up together, so they came to this country in 1979, like ten years before us. At that time, the communication between the two countries was actually zero. They really wanted us to come, and they wanted to meet Mark’s wife, me. They wanted to show off, and they wanted to prove that America is the place to be.

Everybody has doubts, and life for an immigrant is not easy. They wanted to show us how they lived and what this country is; what they had and what they knew, they wanted to convince themselves, too, that they made the right choice.

When we came here, they knew that I was having problems getting pregnant, problems conceiving, and they were being good family people. They were like, “Here in America, it’s not a problem at all. There’s a lot of treatment here, best in the world.” So they were just starting to BS us with that. They didn’t really have any big connections or anything, but they wanted to show off, as I said. They also wanted to help us, too, like good relatives, good people. Mark’s cousin, there are two cousins, Ela and Dina. Dina worked as a manicurist at the shop, and one of the clients happened to be a receptionist of the doctor, the fertility doctor.

Dina said, “This is funny, well, I have to talk, right? I mean, at work, I have to talk. I don’t know what to talk about. I don’t want to talk about me and my problems, so I just start talking about my cousin Mark who is coming here to visit us and his new wife Lena.

She, by the way, has some kind of an infertility problem.” Or maybe the receptionist just asked, “Do they have children,” and Dina said, “Oh, no, she can’t conceive.” Maybe the receptionist said, “Oh, I’ll talk to the doctor I’m working for.” This is how it happened.

Basically, when we came here, the doctor already made an offer. He said, “I will do it, it’s called Mitzvah.” I don’t know if you are familiar with the word, but mitzvah is something in Jewish tradition, it’s almost like a prayer for someone deceased. For the deceased, he is doing some good deed, and it kind of goes into his or her virtues. He said, “Yes, I will take your manicurist cousin’s wife in, I can help them.” That’s how this started. We came here because it was our first opportunity at all to go abroad, to see the west.

Everything beyond our border on the western side was closed for us. We grew up with this notion of the wall and that we could never, ever travel outside this border. Then, when we already thirty years old, all of a sudden this possibility opened up, and we did want to see the world. We came here without any clear purpose outside wanting to see America, we wanted to see how it was.

Listen, I pictured America like the land of plenty, so I imagined that everything was perfect. The cities are clean and beautiful and everybody was rich, and the cars were beautiful, clothes were beautiful, everyone was sexy, everyone was very stylish and very polite. All of a sudden, just before we bought tickets here, I had a dream, and the dream was that it was like a wasteland. Full of garbage and weeds. Ugly. Somewhere in the distance, some obscure buildings, totally faceless. I woke up, and I said, “That was the silliest dream I had; what a stupid dream it was.”

When we came here, we saw this wasteland. We were walking, we didn’t have any cars or anything, we were renting and walking to different locations. We were passing exactly by this wasteland. But we stayed because we had a purpose now; we had a doctor who was giving us this treatment. We didn’t even have money to take public transportation.

There was a big story, this is our Thanksgiving story, the turkey story. It was time before Thanksgiving, and Mark’s relatives said if you make an all-together shopping trip for $100, you can get turkey for $0.19 a pound. They said we are going to make a big shop, and you guys will have this turkey. We made two turkeys. We lived on these turkeys for, I think, six months. Since then, I don’t eat turkey. None of us eat it.


About the perception of America and why we stayed here: I think it was more complex. Being in the Soviet Union, we were influenced by the Soviet propaganda that America is bad, and of course we were anti-Soviet, so we didn’t believe it, we thought America was pretty good. You had a picture, or watched American movies, but it was somewhat idealized – probably due to the 80’s or 70’s movies especially.

And of course we grow up on rock music. It was one source of influence. Another source of influence was our relatives who wanted to show us something – like Atlantic City or CVS Pharmacy, would make our jaws drop. But our reaction was completely the opposite. We actually had a pretty good image of America, and we had come to this northeast Philadelphia suburb. This house is probably built of cardboard. We were also trained as architects, so it was a big disappointment, why is everything built out of crap here? There was a lot of cultural aesthetic disappointment. At the same time we saw New York and we liked it, and we start liking little a bit more of the American image.


It’s a wasteland.


First, it was pretty depressing, especially when we start living in this neighborhood. We grew up learning to aesthetically appreciate the quality of raw material. But, despite not liking here, we started living here, and kind of learned to like it. Five years after living here, we went back for immigration papers, and realized that no – we didn’t want to go back to Russia. It had changed, the Soviet Union had collapsed. It was a different country.

Legally, I found a job as a designer in a stained glass studio, and we start working on immigration working papers through an immigration lawyer. The bureaucratic system didn’t work because I was trained as an architect, and the position was as an artist, so it didn’t match. It was a long, long struggle after which we had to go back to the Soviet Union and get in line as refugees through my parents. We went to Moscow through the American Embassy for this interview, got papers, lived in Moscow for a couple of months, lived back in America. So it was just a long bureaucratic procedure.


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