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Everything Right

Albert Shekhter's story posted on July 08, 2012 at 5:32 pm. Albert emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia to New York, United States in 1996

 I came from St.Petersburg in 1996. I was 36 years old. We settled in Brooklyn. Why we decided to emigrate? --  That is a very simple question. We always wanted to leave. We had a chance and we jumped on it. I was married, well, at least for three years prior to our emigration. We already had a daughter. She was born in 1994. The opportunity presented itself. We got visas, bought plane tickets and came here. We decided to do so because we wanted to leave. 

 Before emigration  I studied at an institute, and I graduated with a Master’s degree in technology. I worked in my field as a programmer.

 Well, I, indeed, had no difficulty applying for emigration at all. We applied for documents and received passports. There were minor procedural delays. I don’t think it’s necessary to get into these details now. We ended up receiving all the necessary papers. We had some difficulties at the American embassy, because we were missing a document. My mother-in-law didn’t have her birth certificate. She had a passport, and lots of documents, but not a birth certificate. She was born in a different country, in Kazakhstan. Look, she was born during war, and later, say, when she came back to Ukraine from Kazakhstan, she received all her documents, but she had no idea what happened to her original birth certificate. But this document was required in American embassy, and we had to request it from Kazakhstan. This took us several months, but it was the only glitch. Otherwise, everything was very straight forward.

 What did you think of America? Did the reality match your expectations of America?

 I do not even remember it. Well, say, I was, frankly speaking, not surprised at anything . When we were coming out of the plane, it snowed a lot. And that was quite unexpected. We came here when, well, you might not have been here in 96 when we had a big snowstorm. It was just like previous year. Do you remember how much snow we got last year? It was like that then.

 Didn’t you like living in Russia?

 Like or dislike – this is not a correct way to ask. I simply thought that living in the US would be better for me, for my family, for my daughter, and for my wife. I knew that they would be safer and better in every aspect. This is not even a question.  What was a total surprise for you?  There were no surprises. I was not surprised at all

 -That is because you were already familiar with American culture? Or..

 I don’t know why. I was already a grown-up person. I was 36 year-old. I was not that young, not that old and thus, I had no problem.

 Do you remember any funny story about something that happened to you in the first year in America?  Something you remember with a smile?  I can tell you a story, I have a good one. I think it was in 1997, when my daughter was just three years old. We were living in Brooklyn, but not in this neighborhood. We used to go to Manhattan by train. And she was speaking in Russian and in English. Well, you know, every year there is this show. Cat show. One day, I took her to the cat show in Madison Square Garden. And we took the subway. It was Sunday, so the train was not crowded. My wife was also with us. Then an African-American was passing by, and my daughter came up to him and asked him in clear English : “Why do you have a black face? I don’t like it” On that evening, we explained to her that that was wrong and she should never say such things to people. That evening my wife and I sat aside with her. “Dina, this is not good, you should never talk like that. In America and everywhere else. So next time, when she and I took the subway, she came up to a different guy and said “Oh, you have a black face, I like it!”

 Have you ever felt sad or desperate?

 Never. I’ve been through different situations, but I never felt anything like that, really.

  Have you ever thought “God, what I did was wrong?! Why did I come here?


 Was it difficult to find a job? Or new friends?   It was not simple. Even though my first job was a professional one, and I was paid $55,000 a year, but it was not simple. First of all, my English was not good. That means, maybe, it is easier to find a much simpler job. As to friends, people don’t find them. You live, you meet some people, and then you become friends with them. You develop friendship if there is mutual sympathy and interest. I don’t know, when we lived in St. Petersburg, certain people whom we met here and there became our friends. Well, it’s the same everywhere.  Have any of your habit changed? What about your view of the world?  I think there is nothing special. But some things I surely understand better now.  I was just 36 years old, and 40, 45, 50 years old. Of course, the more people think about things, the more he discovers. But this has nothing to do with emigration. This, most

all, has something to do with the process of aging. When one has experience living in both countries, one surely has wider view on things.

 Can you remember the moment when you first felt yourself as a fully legitimate resident in this country?

 Maybe, when you start working, then you get this kind of feeling. In general, I don’t really think about it, but when you have a job, and a place to live, you know what you can afford, and you feel great. It’s hard for me to say: I don’t remember feeling any different than I do now. But basically, money or job give you a sense of security. You know what you are after. You know your rights and that you’re protected. Maybe in the beginning I didn’t know some things, but it never bothered me, I still felt fine. My daughter always was fine. She was 2 years old, then 3 years old, then 4 years old. She just lived her life. She didn’t have any negative feelings. I remember when I had my first job, I felt the same way as I did in two years, or in three, or in five… There was no difference. .    -Does she consider herself an American?

 Of course. Since quite a while ago.

 Do you often recall the past or, on the contrary, try to forget it?

 I don’t try to forget it. I, practically, don’t recall it because I already do not remember many things. I have much information in my daily life, and thus, I already often forget what I don’t actively use – my past. But basically, I have a good memory.

 Do you and your family know history of Jewish emigration from the USSR?   Of course, I know. -What about refuseniks?

 I saw them when they just... 30 years ago, I saw them with my own eyes when they were real refuseniks. My friend’s family were refusniks. Their children were here, in Philadelphia. And parents were in Leningrad back then, so that, of course I know. I now often meet people who were refuseniks in Kiev for 10 years. This was for real. That was because soviet authorities used any excuse…  I was 20 years old, and I saw those people. As a young man. My daughter doesn’t remember it, but I do.  

 -What about the struggle of American and European Jews for provision to push soviet authorities towards allowing free emigration from the USSR?

 This is essentially the same story.  Did emigration have affect on your Jewish identification?  Practically, no. Just like I identified myself there, I identify myself here, too

 What are you now: an American? European? Russian? Soviet? Or all of the above?

 I am a Russian Jew who lives in the US. And I am an American. I am very proud of my Russian heritage and Russian-Jewish heritage.

 What do you want to say to your children and grandchildren? What message you want to give them?

 No message. Well, just to let them live and do whatever they want. But if they need some specific advice, they’re always welcome. My daughter is very smart, you know. I can give her advice, when she asks me for it, but she basically does everything right on her own.

The interview conducted by Sooji Kim, Fourth year Russian, Columbia University.