23 Sep Soviet Emigration in Rearview Mirror. Chapter 3.
Iron Curtain is Rusting
I left my emigration for dessert. You’ll find the chronicle of the many twists and turns of Soviet emigration on this site; it completed with “I was born in Chicago in 1976 when I was thirty-one.” Here is the bird’s-eye view.
It was the end of the world they knew, the beginning of one as blank in their imagination as their address books.
The ethnically-based, mostly Jewish, emigration received official blessing in order to silence anti-discrimination protests in the West and to prove that there would be few takers—who in the right mind would give up their motherland? Internally, it was billed as a humanitarian gesture that facilitated family unification.
According to some estimates, about 250,000 people exited the Soviet Union before the emigration was shut down in 1979. It was a tiny fraction of the total population of 240 million.
But the number did not matter. The mere fact that it was higher than zero suggested that a livable world possibly existed outside the motherland’s borders.
Not just for the top drawer of the society any longer who defected while traveling internationally but for the ordinary folk. Clearly, the old, trusted Iron Curtain acquired some rust. That notion doomed the mighty empire.
Not the fire in my belly but dread propelled me toward the opening. Being a Soviet meant being defined by fear. The answer to the question “what terrifies you most, the status quo or the unknown?” decided whether you emigrated or not. Or rather, whether you thought you should.
The action itself depended also, of course, on your family dynamics, on your parents’ consent, on your security clearance, on the persecution you expected, and on other ingredients beyond your control.
It would be many years until later arrivals suddenly began using labels like daredevil and visionary next to our names. True, we made The Decision quickly and thus led the way but heroes and visionaries we were not. The joke popular among the emigration-bound crowd “cowards leave, risk-takers stay” explains that paradox best.
Soviet Emigration in Ukraine
The qualifying requirements differed somewhat in different locales. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Ukraine made the application process the most demeaning and convoluted in the country.
The applicants were subject to firing from their jobs the moment they announced their intention. All employees gathered to spew disgust, heartfelt or prudent, at their former coworkers turned traitors.
The meetings did nothing to stem the flow. If anything, they proved the emigrant’s case. And they provided advertisement of the opportunity to a wider audience. In 1976 when we applied, the meetings already narrowed to departmental. They soon petered out.
Above all loomed the termination of emigration altogether—Soviet laws did not contain grandfathering clauses. The contigent of the first couple of years consisted primarily of “sales system workers,” i.e. people who worked in stores, i.e. had access to deficit.
They had little to lose if permission was not granted. Made powerful by shortages, they would rebuild their lives easily.
On the other hand, what leverage could an engineer, doctor, or teacher have? None. If refused permission, the intelligentsia’s prospects were nil: no employer would hire traitors; unemployement equated to social parasitism which was a criminal offense.
Forty years since that time, the reality of it still seems improbable, miraculous. The story has not receded into the past. If anything, the picture sharpened, became enlightening and urgent.
Soviet Emigration – The Gene
Amazingly, our children, even those of a tender age when they emigrated, who are now writers, producers, journalists, and educators, focus on this topic in their work, whether they speak Russian or not. Gary Shteyngart, Maxim Shrayer, David Bezmozgis, and many others. There is much to say about an experience that transcends generations.