Lucy Pokryshevsky stood waiting at the gate in Los Angeles International Airport surrounded by preschool children from her Rancho Park synagogue who sang and waved American flags. She had waited a long time for this day.
Twelve years later than she expected and 13 years after she left her home in the Soviet Union, the 60-year-old preschool teacher was finally being reunited with her husband, Sergey, 65.
"Thank God it is all behind us," he told her as he stepped off the Pan Am flight. "Why are you worried? I am here. Don't worry. Everything will be all right."
Beneficiaries of Glasnost
This year, about 19,000 Soviet Jews will be allowed to emigrate to the United States, and about 3,000 of them will settle in or near Los Angeles. Sergey Pokryshevsky is one such beneficiary of glasnost, although there are hundreds of thousands of others still waiting. This is his story.
On June 23, three weeks after his arrival in California, family and friends gathered at Temple Isaiah for an official welcome. The Pokryshevskys, their two children and two grandchildren sat in the temple lobby amid a crowd, basking in the warmth of the moment, smiling at well-wishers and photographers.
Lucy Pokryshevsky, demonstrating the patience that has prompted temple parents to marvel at her manner with children, brightly answered questions as her husband embraced the youngsters.
"All my children," he proclaimed proudly in fragile English.
Minutes later, Sergey Pokryshevsky stood boldly before the congregation, framed by an American flag fashioned by temple children out of cardboard and paper. Two shy but beaming young girls handed him a bouquet of roses.
"We all hope you have a terrific life in the United States of America," said Rabbi Robert T. Gan. "Welcome to America. Welcome to Temple Isaiah. We're glad you're here, Sergey."
Slowly and warmly, he responded: "My dear friends and my dear children, I am very appreciate you for everything that I have, to be here today with you and my family."
Years of Frustration
For the Pokryshevskys, the night marked a dramatic end to nearly 20 years of frustration.
The family first started planning to leave the Soviet Union in 1970. As with many Soviet Jews who try to leave, Mrs. Pokryshevsky said, the initial push came from their children, who were drawn to greater freedom and opportunity in the West.
The road to their departure was not smooth. The initial obstacle was that Pokryshevsky had worked for 10 years as a radio engineer at a military electronics plant in Kiev, where the couple lived. Under Soviet law, all those involved in secret defense work had to wait five years before receiving exit visas. So in 1973, he retired from the factory and began the wait, meanwhile finding work as an electrician.
In hopes that it would expedite matters, the Pokryshevskys divorced each other in 1976, after 23 years of marriage. Mrs. Pokryshevsky and their daughter Alla, then 21, and son Dmitry, 18, obtained exit visas and left for America in January, 1977. The father, they figured, would follow in six months to a year.
Instead, 12 years dragged by.
Sergey Pokryshevsky bitterly made the rounds of Soviet bureaucracy. In 1980 he suffered a stroke but continued his fight to leave. He spent two weeks in jail after the 1987 Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow for taking part in a protest against the repression of Soviet Jews. He missed the birth of two grandchildren.
"On a daily basis, he would go to 20 offices at the Central Committee office building, government offices, the KGB, all of them" to ask for his release, said his son-in-law, Lev Yasnogorosky.
Soviet authorities blocked Pokryshevsky's departure citing "state security" requirements. Advocates for refuseniks say that the designation is one of political expedience, applied to many would-be emigres. Said one Jewish Federation Council official: "It's very vague and very useful."
Lucy Pokryshevsky, meanwhile, settled in Denver with relatives. Having been proficient at five languages in the Soviet Union, she found work teaching Russian at a private school and providing day care at a Jewish temple. When Alla married four years later, the mother followed her daughter and son-in-law to Los Angeles. Working alone or with her children, she continued making government contacts, hoping to find the combination that would win her husband's release.
"From the beginning when we left Russia, we started to fight," Mrs. Pokryshevsky recalled.
But from an international relations standpoint, their timing was poor. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Soon afterward, a new U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, was lashing out against the "evil empire" and as the years passed, Lucy Pokryshevsky struggled with no apparent effect. She was teaching Hebrew to 3- to 5-year-olds at the Los Angeles temple when help arrived.
A U.S. Citizen
"She was living in our community, teaching in our school, and we didn't really know anything about her," marveled Rabbi Gan.
In 1987, she became a U.S. citizen and returned briefly to Kiev, to remarry her husband. That was when her American friends began to organize.
"We formed a committee," Gan said. "We wrote letters to government officials both here and in the Soviet Union." The group targeted industrialist Armand Hammer, the White House, numerous senators, representatives and State Department officials. At the temple, the congregation held special Hanukkah services and incorporated Sergey Pokryshevsky's plight into his wife's preschool lessons.
"We wrote a storybook for the children at their preschool level about a man who wanted to leave (his country) and be reunited with his children," said Susan Sanders Witkow, one of those at the temple who coordinated efforts for Sergey's release.
Void in Her Life
The reasons for the community's motivation were simple.
"I think the thing that was most shocking to us as parents of the preschool was, here is the woman who provided the love and nurturing for our children, who makes it easy for us to take them from the home to the school, and she had this tremendous void in her life. She had been so good to our children. . . . We wanted to give to her what she gave to the children," Witkow said.
Whether it was because of work by the family and their friends, or simply because of a change in the international political climate, Sergey Pokryshevsky unexpectedly got permission to leave the Soviet Union this spring. The decision came with a typical absence of warning, and with no explanation.
"I will tell you honestly it was sudden, because a couple of months before, they refused him again and they told him 1992," his wife said. Three months later, he was told he could go.
"We give most of the credit to (Soviet leader Mikhail S.) Gorbachev and glasnost ," Witkow said. "We were very lucky our timing was right."
Now the couple, who live in West Hollywood, are busy putting politics behind them, trying to forge their own American dream.
"It is time to go on from here," Lucy Pokryshevsky tells friends.
She translates for her husband--who has renamed himself "Sam"--and is visibly happier, friends say. "She smiles a lot more," Witkow said, "She was always a smiler, but now it's different. . . . That burden she carried around for 12 1/2 years, 13 years, it's lifted."
Pokryshevsky has begun studying English. He has met his grandchildren and is getting reacquainted with a daughter who is a computer programmer and a son who is a mechanical engineer. Mrs. Pokryshevsky's students, who three weeks ago greeted him at the airport with paper doves and flowers, now call him their adopted grandfather.
His son-in-law relays a message for him.
"He says he sees a lot of smiling faces here, everybody welcomes him, which is different from the Soviet Union," Yasnogorosky reports.
"He smells freedom."