‘Our family made the right choice.’

It’s been almost a year since two Soviet refuseniks from Leningrad, Ilya Levin and his wife, Yelena, suddenly found themselves emersed in the exciting--and traumatically different--environment of Los Angeles.

Benefitting from a relaxation of Soviet emigration policies, and an intense letter-writing campaign on their behalf by relatives, the Levins arrived in Los Angeles on April 27, 1988. The Times chronicled their first full day in the city.

They were like many Jewish emigres who have left the Soviet Union since Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power, after years of frustration over repeated government refusals to let them go. But while the Levins’ 13-year struggle to resettle in the United States was finally over, the task of adjusting to Southern California’s fast-paced life style was just beginning.

Over a recent dinner of fish, potatoes, sausage and vegetable salad, prepared by 42-year-old Yelena, a visitor to their West Hollywood apartment asked about the culture shock.


‘A Terrible Situation’

Ilya, 43, recalled that he had been here hardly two months when, with Yelena and a friend in tow, he gently maneuvered a Buick onto a congested race track known as the Santa Monica Freeway. Yelena declared that her husband was tense as they entered the fast traffic flow.

“Cars were coming from that side, from this side, it was a terrible situation,” Ilya said.

“I kept saying, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK,’ ” Yelena added.


But that is history, and “now I drive normal,” Ilya said.

Actually, mastering English, not braving Los Angeles traffic, was the biggest barrier to adjusting to life in the United States, the Levins said.

Their daughter, Alexandra, 21, arrived nine months before her parents and speaks more fluently than they. During the dinner she interpreted when an idiom eluded her mother or father.

But the Levins are rapidly catching on to communicating with the locals, and even their black poodle, Vegin, is beginning to comprehend commands in English, they said.


Works as Draftsman

Because of the language barrier, Ilya, who in the Soviet Union worked as an engineer on civil defense systems, said finding a job was “very hard.” Still, in about six weeks he connected with a Santa Monica air-conditioner manufacturer, for whom he now works as a draftsman.

Yelena, an experienced hairdresser in Leningrad, is awaiting her license to work here.

Alexandra studied computer science in Leningrad and enrolled last January as a business administration major at USC. She said she has been struggling with a course in American political institutions. “I had no idea of the political processes taking place in America,” she said.


As for American men, Alexandra said, “They are different. (They) want women to be more emancipated.”

“You are not emancipated?” her mother asked, laughing.

Yelena said she is trying to help refuseniks less fortunate than her family--the hundreds of Soviet Jews headed for the United States who are now stranded in Italy, victims of an overburdened humanitarian network. “It is a big tragedy,” she said.

Although they miss their close-knit childhood friends in Leningrad, the Levins said they are not lonely here and have no regrets about uprooting themselves. “Our family made the right choice,” Yelena said.