10 May Babinsky. Emigration (1974 – 1976). 6: Soviet Citizen No More
The official fee for the delivery of our luggage to the dock and packing the crates came to 30 rubles. The team of movers asked for 300 rubles under the table and, of course, a meal to take care of our, in their words, pathetic belongings. (All handymen and service people expected a homemade meal.)
I will never forgive the three wardrobe-shaped men for devouring all my kotlety intended to last us a week. (I made the mistake of sharing the kotlety detail with friends—one girlfriend brought us a pot of borscht every week, another who lived an hour away showed up, an oversized cast-iron pot in her husband’s hands, with a story of making so much stew that they would not be able to consume it anyway.)
HIAS picked up the cost of shipping up to a ton (a thousand kilos) of household goods.
Our thirty-five hundred books, the bookcase wall unit, pillows, kitchen stuff, blankets, photos, several cuts of fabric, two wall rugs weighed in at nine-hundred-twenty kilos.
And I knew how helpful odds and ends could be, like threads, shirt buttons to replace after the laundry service, shoelaces, and zippers o replace broken ones. In America, every unspent penny would help.
On April 13, it took a KGB captain many hours to examine our books, one by one. We stood in a cubbyhole watching through a glass divider as he shook each book, squeezed its back, checked the year of publication, and ascertained that there were no library stamps. The photograph inspection went faster: we had none showing bridges or people in military uniforms.
The movers nailed our three boxes shut in our presence. The destination printed in Russian and German on the invoice said “Embassy of Israel in Austria, c/o Mikhail Shklyanoy.”
The next morning, the bank converted 500 rubles into $450. That was our first time inside a bank. Bookkeepers used banks to transfer company funds or to pick up the cash for payroll but it had not occurred to us that a bank could deal with individuals.
After that errand, Dima did not steer from the house until the departure day: rumor recommended that men stay inside the last week so as not to fall victim to provoked fights followed by a fifteen-day detention and rescindment of permission.
On April 14, I surrendered our apartment as of April 20. Since the building did not belong to the city directly but through a specific organization, we could do it a week prior to departure instead of a month.
The building manager whispered that she was Lithuanian thus implying no love lost for the Maliche. She told me that she had a relative in America and, now that we were on the same side, asked to sell her any furniture we had not yet sold. She bought our Czech-made dining table.
A neighbor stuck her head in with news that a queue for onions had formed across the street. The building manager flew out. I said that I did not need onions. The neighbor stopped in her tracks trying to wrap her mind around my statement.
In the words of poet Iosif Brodsky, “People who lived their lives in Russia are entitled to go to heaven, no questions asked.”
(Article in Wikipedia: In 1963, Brodsky’s poetry was denounced by a Leningrad newspaper as “pornographic and anti-Soviet”. …he was interrogated, twice put in a mental institution and then arrested. He was charged with social parasitism… in a trial in 1964, finding that his series of odd jobs and role as a poet were not a sufficient contribution to society. They called him “a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers” who failed to fulfill his “constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland”. The trial judge asked “Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?” — “No one,” Brodsky replied, “Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?” For his “parasitism” Brodsky was sentenced to five years hard labor and served 18 months… He was forced to emigrate in 1972. In 1987, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature).
The promise to keep our news to herself went out the door with the building manager. The effect was immediate: some neighbors pretended they did not recognize me, some bowed deferentially. The former included Jewish families. The latter consisted of the athletes that had traveled internationally.
The neighbor from the next-door apartment, a professional photographer, knocked on our door late at night with a present of photo developing solutions for Dima. Dima did not have the heart to tell him that we could not take it with us.
Soviet Citizen No More
The Israeli and Austrian visas entitled us to purchase train tickets for the route Kiev – Chop – Bratislava – Vienna. Our train was leaving in the afternoon of April 20.
Avram and I collected spravki that confirmed no last-minute rentals or book-check-outs or installment purchases. Then I petitioned for notarized copies of our diplomas, grade extracts, and vital statistics certificates at a designated notary office. The Deputy Minister of Justice of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic authenticated the senior notary’s signature.
The originals, along with our passports and employment record books, belonged at the city archive.
The archive clerk discovered a discrepancy in the spelling of my first name between my birth certificate where it was Bena and the original where it was Benna. (They had been written out separately, not through carbon paper.)
She looked at me gravely: “You are not you. A notary must confirm that you are you.” I thought I lost my sight – all went dark for a second. She gave me the address of a notary office that handled amendments in emigrants’ documents. And how would a notary know that I was I?
In doubt of my mental competence, the notary asked me to repeat the request. Her eyes telegraphed that the archive must have gone insane; her mouth said, “Come after lunch with chocolates for the typist. I’ll issue a spravka that you are you.”
Based on the authenticated proof that “Bena and Benna is one and the same person” the archive accepted our documents and issued a receipt. From there I went to OVIR to deliver the stack of spravki and sign something. With that act we were Soviet citizens no more. On Friday, April 16, 1976 we became stateless.
On Saturday, Dima’s friend commandeered a pickup at a construction site to move the remainder of our belongings to Avram and Rakhil’s house. They undertook to sell them. The last three nights we slept on old coats spread on the floor.
My memory retained only flashes of the final Kiev day. My girlfriend brought us a cake with sunflower seeds; she had bought a glass of seeds in the market then she and her son spent the night extracting and cutting the kernels.
A few athletes waved to the two cabs that picked us up. A few curtains stirred. A small gathering saw us off at the railroad station. Avram brought Polina’s milk and soup from the milk kitchen. Rakhil stood ramrod straight, lips compressed, eyes huge and dry. She did not hug us or kiss the children.