The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. – Albert Einstein
My friend Vladimir came to the United States legally in 1979. It was almost impossible to come illegally from the former Soviet communist state, USSR. It was the first and last time in his life when being Jewish helped him a lot, he said. If he would have been a member of the communist party, Vladimir would not have been allowed to immigrate to the United States at that time or to become an American citizen.In the late 1970s and early 1980s agents of the immigration office loved America and did their best to protect it from invasion by flotsam and jetsam from third world dictatorships, especially communist ones.
Being a member of a communist party today is a badge of foolish smugness since academia and the Obama administration have advanced the global communist platform continuously. Who would have thought that, after escaping communism in the late 1970s, Vladimir would eventually have to live again under communism in the 21st century America, where it is worshipped by a large percentage of the American people. Did America not fight a war in Vietnam to prevent the spread of communism? How many millions died in the fight against communism and as a result of the oppressive exploitation of the utopian ideas of a professorial bum called Karl Marx?
Vladimir’s escape from Kiev was immigration based on religious beliefs. One could argue today that the mostly male, young, and military age “refugees” from Syria and the Middle East are refugees from tribal wars and religious beliefs.
The fundamental difference between Jewish immigrants then from the Soviet Union and other communist satellite countries and today’s “Syrian refugees” is that Judaism is a religion while Islam is a theocracy and a legal system of governance based on Sharia Law. These “refugees” are economic refugees who are not interested in assimilating and contributing to make America great as Jews did. These Muslims want to take over our country and change our Constitution to Sharia Law. As statistics show, a large percentage of these immigrants become immediate welfare dependents and remain so in perpetuity.
The Communist bloc nations severely restricted freedom and human rights to their populations. Vladimir would not have been able to immigrate to the U.S. had it not been for the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974. Two Democrats, Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, and Rep. Charles Vanik of Ohio, sponsored the bill which passed both houses unanimously. President Gerald Ford signed the bill into law on January 3, 1975. Vladimir and his family were beneficiaries of the Jackson-Vanik amendment which allowed Jewish people to immigrate to the West.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Jewish immigration loophole closed. Vladimir was lucky and escaped with his wife and son two months before the border closed. Immigration resumed in the late 1980s, generally for economic reasons, hence it was called the “sausage expatriation.” This was descriptive of the lone sausage or salami hanging in the windows of grocery stores during the communist era when shortages of food plagued every centrally planned economy. Socialist Venezuela is going through severe shortages of food, diapers, and toilet paper, in a country with huge oil reserves. Cuba is a classic example of a country exploited for 59 years by the communist junta of Fidel Castro.
In December 2012, President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, repealing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that gave freedom from the communist oppression to so many Jewish people.
The Soviets and even the former dictator Ceausescu took advantage of this Jackson-Vanik Amendment. The Soviets imposed a “diploma” tax on immigration. The tax was so high that, after the outcry from the West, it was removed after being in effect for over a year. Ceausescu allegedly charged Jewish émigrés $1,000 per head. His regime charged me for my education before I was allowed to leave.
Vladimir’s family paid $500 per person to renounce their Soviet citizenship. Consequently, instead of a passport, they received a piece of paper with a handwritten note under citizenship, “stateless.” They were “stateless” but free.
Although this amendment only applied to Jews and Germans under the “family reunification” aegis, the Russians used this opportunity to also expel quite a few dissidents, Soviet writers, and other top intelligentsia, who were too much in the public eye to make them disappear, and were thorns in the side of the Soviet regime.
Vladimir remembered that there was no synagogue in Kiev when he grew up; they worshipped underground. A few Christian cathedrals were left for baptisms, weddings, and burials. If people attended church, special agents from each factory were sent to spy on their employees who would pray on Christmas, Easter, or other special holidays. They wrote names down and made sure that such worshippers were given a really hard time in society. They oppressed everybody.
No entrepreneurs were allowed in the former Soviet Union. Those who tried were caught and severely punished. It was easy to go to Siberia for 15 years for a small infraction. His best friend’s parents tried to make candy at home and sell it to friends and neighbors. Because the father was found to have extra cash in the home, over and above his allowed salary, he was arrested by police and later summarily shot. If the commies really wanted to catch someone and make them disappear, it was easy to set them up, to put something incriminating in their homes, and then arrest them for the set-up crime.
Living on the edge of fear was something people got used to. People worried about families, friends, and children. “Soft pressure” was exerted often instead of jail or execution. “Soft pressure” meant that, if you were not in line with the communists, you and your children were not allowed to find decent jobs, housing, good schools, or universities. And you were constantly watched by the neighborhood informer.
It was a psychological game to keep you suppressed and oppressed at the hands of the state. It was a faceless type of oppression; you never knew who ordered it or exactly why. They might let you know somehow but you never knew to whom to apologize for your infraction. In Vladimir’s estimation, at least 25 percent of the population was treated this way and they had no recourse.
Vladimir described how getting permission to immigrate took from six months to seven years for some people. Anybody attempting to leave was considered a traitor to the state. In order to protect your boss from punishment for keeping a traitor employed, you had to leave your job; it was shameful and unpatriotic to keep such a person employed, such a “quisling.”
Wondering how the Soviets knew he was Jewish, Vladimir explained that everything had to be disclosed on the employment forms and it became part of the employment record that followed workers everywhere. Most places, once they found out that the applicants were Jewish, they were told they were wasting their time; they would not be hired.Vladimir’s case was different because he was an exceptional professional. He was a geophysical engineer in the oil and gas field, working in a Soviet institute of 550 people, with many geologists, engineers, researchers, oil and gas explorers, specialists who knew how to put out oil fires through geological drilling and detonation, and many involved in research and development.
Once he was part of a small group that came up with a plan to put out a difficult oil well fire which they were able to extinguish in six days, a spectacular result, devising a plan to drill sideways in hard rock. For his part, Vladimir was given a bonus of 60 rubles, and a personal visit from the minister of energy. But Vladimir was happy with the personal satisfaction of a job well-done.
Forty-year old Vladimir, his younger wife, and eight-year old son left USSR on the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, November 7. The customs officers, armed to their teeth, reminded them that everybody was celebrating the Soviet Revolution and “you traitors are leaving the country.”
They were allowed to take 72 pounds per person and, not knowing where they would end up, they took forks, pillows, a frying pan, winter shoes, and other implements for survival. I remember when I left legally in 1978 with two sets of sheets that never fit any bed in America.
They were allowed to exchange from rubles the equivalent of $100 per person, $300 for his family, and he still has the money in an envelope.
This was our life-line. We did not have much family to leave our personal property with since most perished in WWII. We gave friends our books, we could not give away photographs older than ten years, and everything was strictly catalogued.
A person was only allowed a wedding band, a pair of earrings, nothing more expensive than 50 rubles, no paintings, and no art objects, nothing that was not on the approved list. Anything extra had to be given to the state.
My friend had given me some paintings, I had to give them back; if I hadn’t, the state would have confiscated them.
It took six months to a year to get paperwork to prove that they did not owe anything to the state. It was a terrible life to extricate from the clutches of communism and to gain freedom in the west. They would get the run around from every office. They had to prove so many things, they had to go to archives to prove everything and run the gauntlet of the Soviet red tape. “That was my life for six months.” Vladimir cannot understand why ignorant Americans are so eager to become communist!
A church in New York helped them start their new life in America, got jobs, and eventually built a professional career that took him to Virginia where I met him a few years ago.
Since they left, Vladimir never went back to Kiev, now part of Ukraine. Many others, who left like him, did go back. He would like an apology from the state for what they have put them through. The chance of getting such an apology is zero. The country is no longer the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine, it is now Ukraine.
© Ileana Johnson 2017