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My Road to Freedom

Vladimir Bychkov's story posted on January 15, 2013 at 5:04 pm. Vladimir emigrated from Moscow, Soviet Union (USSR) to New York, United States in 1974

       In 1959, an American Exhibition was opened in Moscow. I am a young physician, a pathologist at the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In the book section of the exhibition I see on display a textbook I desperately needed: “Obstetrical and Gynecological Pathology” published in the United States. I am tempted to steal it because there was no other way to get it.  But I refrain, not so much of the moral principles, but mostly out of fear of police guarding the exhibition. How could I imagine at that moment that my road would eventually lead me to a point 36 years later when, being a citizen of the United States, I’ll publish my own monograph with an almost similar title?

Most of my childhood friends did not distinguish between Jews and non Jews. However, in many Russian families, anti-Semitism was merely dormant for years. Once, I slapped my classmate on the face in front of the whole class after he called a Jewish boy a derogatory “zhid” (akin “****” in English).

In 1949, my last year of school, the time had come to choose a future profession. I always wanted to serve humankind. I thought to dedicate my life to the study of human society. To do that, I wanted to enroll in the course named “Political Economy” at Moscow University. My grades in school would allow me to be accepted without the entrance examinations if I could get predominantly “A”s with a few “B”s. Receiving an “A” for composition in a nationwide graduation exam was paramount. The subject of the composition that year was entitled “We Were Raised by Stalin to Serve the People" (words from the national anthem). I wrote it well but made one error, I spelled the word “rodina” (motherland in Russian) with a small “r”, when, according to the examiners, it should have been written with the capital letter. This incidental mistake was a blessing in disguise. I had not received the “A” required for straight admission to the Moscow University. As a result, I had first to go through an interview. Despite my overwhelmingly good grades I was not been allowed to take the examinations. Not understanding a reason for the rejection, I went to the dean’s office for an explanation. The Associate Dean, who came to talk to me, stated that the profile of the course I have chosen was not suitable for me. Maybe it was my profile that did not suit them. It was a blunt case of anti-Semitism. For me it was the last straw. I became completely disillusioned with the Communist system. After being refused the opportunity to study human society, I turned to the study of the human body – medicine.

In August of 1949, I entered the First Moscow Medical School. My fourth year in medical school was marked by an event that could have become one of the greatest tragedies ever to befall the Jewish people. Stalin’s anti-Semitism had culminated in what was called “The Doctors Plot”. Many leading physicians, some of them my teachers, were accused of conspiring to poison and kill the Soviet leaders. On January 13, 1953, the leading communist newspaper “Pravda” published an editorial, “Let Us Bring Doctors Traitors and Killers to Justice”. It was supplemented by a caricature depicting the face of Dr. Solomon Vovsi, a Major General and the leading internist of the Soviet Army, as a mask hiding a fierce Dracula-like visage with a beaked nose resembling a Jew. A ruthless anti-Semitic campaign was unleashed in the news media producing a common hysteria. Some people were afraid to go to Jewish doctors.

But the monstrous plan failed. On March 5, 1953, the Dictator died. That day miraculously coincided with the Jewish Purim Festival commemorating the escape of the Persian Jews from the sword raised above their heads.  On April 18 of 1953, the newspaper “Pravda” published an article, “Soviet System of Justice Guards People’s Rights”. The doctors were exonerated of any wrongdoings; but anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union persevered in its malicious, though less malignant, course.

In 1958, I started work as a Junior Scientist at the Department of Pathology of Moscow Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology. After defending my thesis in 1963, I decided to pursue a teaching career and applied for a position as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Pathology of the Moscow Central Postgraduate Medical School where my wife, Ida, already worked as a Legal Advisor. The director of the school was Maria Dmitrievna Kovrigina, once the Soviet Minister of Health. She was in the past a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, a hard Stalinist and a rabid anti-Semite. Ida asked the Chairman of the department, where I sought a position, Anatolii Vladimirovich Smoliannikov, a Cornel and the former Chief Pathologist of the Soviet Army, whether he would take me. “Yes”, said Dr. Smoliannikov, “but you should neutralize the Fascists” (meaning Kovrigina and her staff). With my wife being there a legal advisor, I got the job.

An event that happened in the summer of 1957 produced a significant impact on my intellectual development.  The International Youth Festival was organized in Moscow. For the first time in Soviet History, a huge number of foreign visitors gathered in the capital. A delegation from Israel was a part of it. Ida and I wanted to meet somebody from there. We walked around in the center of the city until we met a person with an Israeli badge. I approached him and inquired in my fragile English whether he was a delegate from Israel. He answered me in Russian which he learned as a Communist  and our conversation continued for several hours. His name was Michael Haresegor (later prominent Israeli historian). One thing he said produced an effect whose repercussions were to last all my life. There were Russian words which he did not know and I could not translate them to English. He asked me,”How come that you, an educated person, don’t know English?” The next day, I found a teacher of English and never again read Russian literature except for professional texts.

In 1973, a possibility of emigration from the Soviet Union started looming on the horizon. The Soviet repressive regime and growing anti-Semitism became intolerable for me. Once, an incident in a tram produced an extra shock for my psyche. The driver of a tram, I just entered, was yelling at an old Jew: “It is a pity that Hitler did not kill you all”. I jumped up and called the driver a Fascist. All of the passengers were on her side. Someone told me that she was right and that the Jews were traitors and must go away.

It was clear that applying for emigration would badly jeopardize our social status. To get permission to emigrate, an invitation from a relative in Israel had to be provided. The process of getting these invitations was taken over by HIAS. The message to HIAS was sent via my postgraduate student whose husband was a Syrian citizen.   Being able to travel, he conveyed it to our friends in New York. They went to HIAS and the process was set in motion. After a while, we received a letter from the Foreign Ministry of Israel asking the Soviet Authorities to allow us to reunite with our alleged relative, Jacob Grubner, living in Tel Aviv. I have never met him or heard about him, as he was one of many volunteers giving their names to invitations for their unknown brethren from far away. 

To clear the way for emigration we had to sell our country house. It was not easy because the house was a collective property and the deal had to be approved by the members of the cooperative society. The meetings of the coop society were always conducted at the end of summer in an open courtyard. In case of rain the assembly would have been deferred for the next year. It rained that morning; but shortly before the time to start the meeting, the sky cleared and the deal went through.

Next was the crucial point of quitting my job. On September 2nd, 1974, I entered my chairman’s office with the intention to tell him about my resignation. I respected him and wanted to soften an impact of my unexpected move. I pretended that I was quitting because of some problems with my throat which could interfere with the teaching activity but the truth was immediately surmised by everyone around.

On September 21st, I gave my last lecture. After finishing it, I told the students, “You are free, and I am also” (it was not an intended joke). Nobody left. They stood up, gave me a bouquet of flowers, and wished me good fortune. Then, I had to submit my official letter of resignation to the Chief of Personnel, Nikolai Ivanovich Buravchenko, a KGB man. He shook my hand and said, “Good that you are quitting and now you will be able to see the world”. In a hallway, I bumped into another Communist official, comrade Savchenko, director of all medical schools in the country, expecting a reprimand. To the contrary, he wished me good luck.

Then it was necessary for my wife, Ida, to resign from the Communist Party which she became a member after her boss, Kovrigina, offered her to join. Refusing this offer would have meant to lose her job as the legal advisor, a position hard to get. Because Ida felt uncomfortable to go through the humiliating process of expulsion in front of her party colleagues, I took the task on myself. As a non-party member, I was not even supposed to carry a sacred card. So I brought the card to the Party Secretary, Nina Ivanovna, and left it on her desk. Again, opposite of what I could expect happened. She accepted the card and expressed her sorrow of losing “such good people”.

Next, it was my older daughter’s turn to quit the Young Communist League. She had to explain the reason, so she said that we had a close relative in Israel. “Probably, he is very rich”, commented the League representative. “Not rich, but very dear”, answered Lena. The angry official muttered, “We part with you without regret”. We reached the final stage of the emigration process when I went to OVIR (Soviet Exit Visa Office) with the invitation from Israel to do the required paper work. After reviewing our invitation, the officer stated that the document was not valid because the birthday of my younger daughter was incorrectly listed as “August 1, 1965”, when it should have been “August 1, 1968”. “You have to get another invitation”, claimed the official. I felt desperate; it could take an extra year to do it. Seeing my predicament, the official said that the document could be corrected by the Dutch embassy which represented Israel (the diplomatic relations between USSR and Israel were ruptured in 1953 after a forged explosion in the Soviet embassy in Tel Aviv). The officer would not tell me a location of the Dutch embassy but, to correctly follow the process of applying for emigration, volunteers secretly distributed the typewritten instructions. Each prospective applicant had to make five copies of it to supply the others. We had our set that contained the desired address.

I arrived at the gates of the Dutch embassy only to find out that I could not enter without an exit visa. A policeman guarding the entrance advised me to send the request by mail. To my concern that it may never reach destination, he recommended sending the documents with return receipt confirmation. I had received the confirmation, but after a couple of weeks, I began to worry about fate of the request. To clarify the situation, I needed to call the embassy. To get the phone number, I went to the tourist agency serving the foreigners affirming that I was a professor from the Postgraduate Medical School (I still had a valid ID) and that I failed to meet a visitor from Holland, so I would need to call the embassy to find out what happened. I got the requested number, phoned the embassy, and was informed that my papers are ready to be picked up. “How can I do it if I am not allowed in?” I asked. “Come to the gate, and tell a guard that you talked to us, and ask him to request somebody entering the embassy to bring out the documents”, I was told. It worked, but the hassle continued. Upon arriving again at the Exit Visa Office, I could not get a necessary form to fill because the official called in sick. A day later, I repeated the visit with the same result. It continued for several more days, until, finally, I got the form. “We have only one copy of it; and you are not allowed to make any corrections”, I was informed.

Filling out the form, I had to explain our relationship to Jacob Grubner, a phony relative who sent us the invitation. We did not have any Grubners in our family. I claimed that my paternal grandmother, after her husband’s death, married a Grubner, now my granduncle living in Israel. 

Three months after submitting all the necessary papers, in the morning of December  27, 1974, I pulled out from the mail box the best message of my life, a post card saying, “Come to OVIR to pick up your visas”. I rushed up the stairs to our apartment on the third floor shouting: “We are free!”

After receiving the cherished post card from OVIR, a tremendous burst of energy filled my body. I arrived there the same morning and got a list of the things that remained to be done: to pay for the visas and for the renunciation of Soviet Citizenship, to get a proof from the renting office that the apartment was freshly painted and to get a discharge from the military draft. I overcame all these hurdles in one day (which should be entered in the Guinness Book of World Records).  Repainting of the apartment couldn’t be done right away but I offered money to an official in the renting office who pocketed it and gave me the proof of the done job. I removed myself from the draft, and paid the money for the renunciation of the citizenship. By the end of the day, I made my last visit to OVIR. I wished the official there a happy New Year and she did the same to me.

The next day I went again to the Dutch embassy, this time without obstacles. An embassy employee arrived in the room filled with emigrants and addressed us as gospoda (misters), instead of the Communist tovarischi (comrades). I felt I was being transformed from a slave to a master. Next was to get the airplane tickets to Vienna, Austria, the first lap on the way out. The exit visas carried an expiration date of January 20. I had decided not to take any chances and purchased tickets for January 10. Only twelve days remained to leave behind 42 years of my previous life. On the eve of the departure, our friends and relatives came to us to say the last “good bye”. The atmosphere was of parting forever. Some people cried. Despite the general pain, my joy was unstoppable.

On January 10 we arrived at the airport. All our possessions consisted of several suitcases with only the most important personal items. I was asked by some people willing to emigrate to procure invitations for them from the faked relatives in Israel. It was impossible to memorize all their names and dates of birth. I coded all this information as telephone numbers in my note book which I dropped in one of the suitcases. A custom official thoroughly searched us. A diamond ring on Ida’s finger and an old terracotta painting were not permitted, though we were allowed to leave them with the waiting relatives.

And the last shock! About 20 minutes before departure, I was approached by a KGB agent in civilian clothes. He was holding up my notebook and he requested my visa. I froze. I don’t know how long it took for him to come back. Though it seemed to be an eternity, actually it was not more than 10 minutes. He returned my notebook and my visa without any comment. We boarded a Russian airplane and flew to freedom.

It was a sunny afternoon on January 10, 1975, when we descended into a clean and beautiful Vienna airport. Instead of fierce policeman, there was a middle aged Austrian guard holding a German Sheppard, both smiling. In the terminal we were welcomed by an official of Israel’s Immigration Authority (Sokhnut) who asked people going to Israel to step aside. Of the 10 immigrants, 2 were to go to Israel and the other 8 preferred to choose the other countries. I tried to tell to the Sokhnut representative why we would not go to Israel, but he said: “Do not try to explain, I shall never understand it”.

We chose the U.S. because I was already an American in my soul. I knew the language and the culture, we had close friends there, and my professional interests were tied to American medicine.

Then an official from HIAS approached us. There is no other agency in the world like HIAS. People, by virtue of their Jewish origin, are provided with complete care from being fed, getting a roof overhead and moving to the desired locations through a maze of bureaucratic formalities.

A minibus took us to an apartment in the center of Vienna. The next day, we arrived at the HIAS office where I had disclosed the data concerning other people wishing to emigrate, those coded in my notebook.

The next part of our voyage was transfer to Rome where we had to stay for 3-4 months to get entry visas to the United States. Because of my knowledge of English and Italian, I was assigned by HIAS to be in charge of a group of about 90 emigrants on the move to Italy.

Due to my knowledge of Italian, HIAS employed me in Rome as a liaison for the emigrants needing hospitalization. While we stayed in Italy waiting for the entry visas to the United States, everything was taken care for us by HIAS including weekly pay checks, medical and dental care, and all paperwork needed for immigration to US. A Swedish woman, watching a queue of Jewish emigrants getting cash, exclaimed, “It is the first time in my life I see people being paid because of their nationality!”

On April 29, 1975, we were booked on an ALITALIA flight for New York. Again, I was asked by HIAS to be an intermediary between the crew and the Russian-speaking passengers. The same day, our plane landed at Kennedy Airport. The lifetime dream came true.  The omnipresent HIAS transferred us to NYANA (New York Association for New Americans), the Jewish resettlement agency. I had a feeling of a person who crossed the firing lines and successfully reached his own camp.

The first step I had to make was to regain my professional status  by  taking an examination mandatory for foreign educated physicians to be allowed to get into residency training before obtaining the license to practice medicine. On June 15 of 1975, one and a half months after our arrival, I passed the test.On July 1st I started working as the Chief Resident at the Department of Pathology of the Albert Einstein college of Medicine.  One of my Moscow colleagues told me prior to departure from Russia that I was making a mistake by emigrating. He said, “You are a good teacher, highly appreciated by the students; there you would not be able to reach the same level”. Fortunately, he was wrong. In 1980, the students at the University of Illinois Medical School, which I joined after completing my term in New York, honored me with the “Golden Apple” award as the best teacher of the year. While receiving the prize I told the students about my colleague’s warning, to their delight and applause. 

In 1990 I was invited to take a position of Associated Professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and Director of Pathology at Elmhurst City Hospital.

To help newly arriving Soviet doctors to pass licensing requirements in the U.S., I organized and chaired the “Soviet Émigré Physicians Advisory Council” conducting monthly seminars. In 9 years of its existence, about 1,000 former Soviet doctors attended our sessions. In addition to the instructions regarding the exams, we helped those who passed the exams to find a place in residency training, mandatory for medical licensure. This social activity brought me to the new heights. I was elected to the Board of Directors of NYANA. As an only immigrant on the Board I enjoyed the opportunity to help my fellow countrymen. In addition, I became a member of the Advisory Council to the New York City Comptroller. Sitting in the City Hall, I reflected once again on unpredictability of the road of life which brought me so far. In 1999, my wife developed an illness that brought about my decision to discontinue my professional activity and to be at her side. We were inseparable for 56 years, the last 5 years of her life being in Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston, the best facility of this kind. In Russia I never had a feeling of belonging. There I was often reminded that I was different, a ****, an “ugly duckling”. From the very beginning I felt at home in the U.S. I fully identify myself as an American. I am proud to belong to this great country. To be American is not a matter of creed or race; it is the spirit which makes you American. At a Thanksgiving celebration on November 27, 2012, I raised my glass to HIAS. The toast produced a thunder of applause by the people who were helped by it and by their numerous descendants, many in their 20s and 30s, who benefited from our bold decision to come to America.

This story is based on my memoirs: “One Flew Over the Iron Curtain”, just published and available on