I basically grew up in a community of dissidents. Academics. We knew [literary critic Andrei] Sinyavsky, too. We were all ready to leave in the 1970s, when we were still very young. We held readings of [Andrei] Sakharov’s work. We had the community that raised us. A community of people who did not want to live the way everyone else was living. Almost everyone left – or ended up behind bars, because you could get two-to-five years for participating in a Sakharov reading. Either left, or was institutionalized. So, by 1980, by the time Jenny was born, I had already studied English. We had a very interesting group. I studied with [Soviet actors Savely] Kramarov and [Valentin] Gaft.
I first applied for permission to emigrate in 1980, and my father was immediately sidelined from all of the negotiations he was involved in. Meanwhile, I did not get permission. My father later told me that he would not survive it if I left. Technically, he did not: he passed away in 1983, even though I had not left. But the idea was still in my head. I can tell you that I wasn’t going to America – I was getting out of Russia. I just did not want to be there after the death of my father. He had been the founder of an institute. At the funeral, they did not allow the casket inside the building of the institute because he was Jewish...After that I was done with Russia.
There was a gap then. [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev had died, the borders were getting more open; [Yuri] Andropov came to power, things really got intense. I was getting stopped at stores while walking around with a stroller. They would check my papers three times, grilling me – why am I out with a stroller and not at work? So I started looking for a way out of this situation, but it took me six or seven years. Jenny's and her mom Alla with cousins, after arriving to America. ЭмMigration project by Yuliya Levit
I would say that I wasn’t going somewhere. I was getting out of somewhere. That’s probably why it was easier for me. We were like three families, sort of leaving. No one wanted to go except me. I pulled them out like the little engine that could...dragged them out. Well, I talked them into it, eventually. Just gave them no choice. We all went...We were the first to receive refugee status, all four of us. We got it thanks to Lena (older daughter) , who had a major incident at school. There was a boy who drew the Star of David on her back. At school, yes. Eighth or ninth grade. When we told the story at our interview, they had no more questions. Even though they initially weren’t going to accept us, because my husband was a party member, a well-off man, and there was no real need for us to leave at that moment. But we got refugee status. And then he said that he would not go anywhere.
I did not know anything about America, not a thing. I just knew that I wanted to leave. I was very calm. When you know why you are leaving, you are not thinking about where you are going. But I can tell you that in America I never experienced the kind of fear that I felt in Russia. My last years in Russia were so bad that, whatever would happen in America, it would be better than what I was leaving behind. If things did not work out for my children, that would be a tragedy, of course. I was fully responsible for getting them out.
When I was leaving, I looked at my apartment (it was an old apartment on Begovaya Street, my grandparents lived there back when it was a communal apartment) and Lena said, “Mom, at least take an umbrella!” So that was the last thing I did – took an umbrella off the hanger and walked out the door.