Felina Shvarts, 39, always wondered if she had done the right thing when she left the Soviet Union eight years ago.
Her husband, Vladimir, an engineer, and her son, Roman, now 16, were thriving after the family’s move to Southern California, but Felina couldn’t shake her longing to return to her homeland.
“I was not happy here,” she said. “The style of life here is very different than the style of life in Russia, and it was very difficult for me to get adjusted.”
Shvarts, of Van Nuys, no longer has doubts about her decision to leave her birthplace. Recent changes in Soviet policies allowed her to return home for a two-week visit with friends and family, and the trip chased away all her nostalgia for the country.
“It was miserable. The experience that I had there was terrible,” she said. “Now I don’t miss Russia anymore. It was very good medicine for me.”
Once, Soviet citizens who emigrated assumed they would never see family, friends or homeland again. Leaving “was perceived as some sort of disloyalty to your motherland” and getting permission for a visit was very difficult, said Sergei Aivazain, the press attache for the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco.
But Soviet officials changed their attitudes toward emigrants as well as their policies toward Western tourists. As a result, for example, nearly 3,000 Soviet emigrants who now live on the West Coast have been granted tourist visas to return to the Soviet Union for visits over the last two years, Aivazain said.
Many of them are from the San Fernando Valley, home to about half of greater Los Angeles’ Soviet immigrant community of 35,000 to 45,000 people, according to estimates from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
“The policy in principle is to encourage citizen-to-citizen exchanges,” which has meant that Westerners--including former Soviet citizens now living in the United States--can now visit the Soviet Union more easily, Aivazain said. “It is an integral part of the democratization of Soviet society. It is quite natural, and in line with the policies of perestroika and glasnost. “
For emigres, the trips are often long-anticipated, emotion-filled journeys. Tearful reunions and long talks with family and friends fill most of their time. They also spend time visiting sights of personal significance.
Elizabeth Leshinsky of Tarzana, who left the Soviet Union with her husband 16 years ago and returned for the first time for a two-week visit last August, said seeing family and friends was “like a dream come true. . . . It was on my mind all those years, dreaming to go back. I never thought I’d see them again.”
For Vicki Kopelevich of North Hollywood, an upcoming two-week trip to the Soviet Union represents the fulfillment of a promise she made half-jokingly nine years ago when she, her husband and their two children left Lithuania to escape political pressure and anti-Semitism.
Kopelevich said she had been devastated to leave her friends and relatives, but to console herself she had told her friends that she would return in 10 years. At the time, she didn’t really believe it, she said, but felt better saying it.
“It was very heartbreaking; I was very much attached to our family and my closest friends that I grew up with,” Kopelevich said. “I know it sounds strange in America, but we are very attached to our friends. Relationships are different there. They give you more moral support, more friendship.”
Trips to the homeland are not always entirely happy events, however. After experiencing the freedom of the United States, many former Soviet citizens find the omnipresence of the Soviet government intolerable and fear being forced to remain there. Some, like Felina Shvarts, are depressed by the poverty and despair they see and feel vague guilt that they enjoy a much higher standard of living than those they left behind.
“Nothing has changed over there, but our eyes have changed. What was pretty to us before is now so ugly,” she said.
Leshinsky said: “Everything seemed so gray, so little; the people are so unhappy, so drab. The stores you remember as being so big--they are nothing compared to the stores here.
“I was shocked to see the people. Everyone is so overweight; they have bad teeth; they look run down. My college friends looked like my mothers’,” she said.
Kopelevich said she is apprehensive about what she will find when she arrives in her hometown of Vilanaius in Lithuania.
“I am very nervous because I didn’t see my favorite people for many years,” she said. “And I am used to be American, a free person. I am afraid to be suppressed--to be told what to do.”
Neither Aivazain of the Soviet consulate, nor Ellen Rabin, of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, said they had heard of any former Soviet citizens being imprisoned while on visits to the country. But ignoring official procedures has resulted in sometimes terrifying encounters with Soviet authorities.
Felina and Roman Shvarts, then 14, went without official permission to visit the grave of Shvarts’ mother, located miles outside a tiny town in a remote province. In the middle of nowhere--on a dirt road where there were no other cars--a police officer stopped their car and demanded to see their passports, she said.
The officer took the Shvartses’ driver--a family friend--into his car for about 20 minutes before he let the party proceed. Shvarts said she assumes her friend bribed the police officer to let them go.
“We had the feeling someone was watching us all the time,” she said.
Shvarts said that ordeal pales, however, in comparison to the experience she had at Soviet customs, where she thought she was going to be prevented from ever returning to the United States. She said customs agents at the airport prevented her from boarding the plane for the return flight, searched her luggage and then strip-searched her. They also demanded extra money from her, claiming that she had excess baggage.
“They started looking through everything in our suitcases, taking photos out of the albums, looking through our dirty clothes in front of everybody. It was unbelievable what happened. I started acting very nasty--I was so mad. They just told me, ‘Shut up; be quiet!’ ” she recalled.
Roman said: “It was the scariest point of my whole life. I was just standing there, and they took her away.” He said he had feared the plane would take off without them and that they would be trapped in the Soviet Union.
Such anxieties are not uncommon for returning Soviet citizens, many of whom waited months or years for permission to leave the first time.
Leshinsky, who works as an accountant out of her Tarzana apartment, did not have any run-ins with Soviet officials. But, she said: “I was always scared. I thought they can do anything they want to us, and who is there to protect us? America is not going to fight Russia over us.”
Glad to Have Gone
Despite whatever anxieties or disappointments a visit to the Soviet Union can trigger, immigrants say they are happy to have had the opportunity to return to their homeland. Many have returned emotionally exhausted from their trips.
After returning, Shvarts said, she was “depressed, shocked, crying. It scared me so much. I couldn’t work or talk on the phone for a week afterward.” Leshinsky, too, said she was ill and worn out for nearly a month after the trip.
For many, one trip home is enough. As much as they missed their family and friends and longed for home, few have the desire to visit a second time.
“It was an unforgettable experience, but I do not want to go back ever again,” Leshinsky said.