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Freedom and Success in U.S. Comes With Price, Soviet Emigre Discovers

Times Staff Writer

Sam Shekhter moved from the Soviet Union to San Diego in 1979, in the last wave of emigration before perestroika and the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. Shekhter has become a well-to-do businessman living in posh surroundings at Fairbanks Ranch, but he is not a happy man--not completely.

“I left because of complete disbelief in what was being preached by the Soviet government as to what its goals were,” he said, “and because of the absolute failure to deliver. And I would never go back. Despite these feelings, I paid a price. And the price was friendship.

“In Russia, you become very involved in the life of your friend. You know every detail of one another’s lives. You’re nakedly emotional. Here you’d be considered crazy for such. Psychiatry as a profession doesn’t exist in Russia, so your friend is your psychiatrist.

‘Ruthless Sharing’

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“There’s a ruthless sharing, which friends in America don’t know, or don’t seem to as far as I can tell. Friendship in Russia means dropping by unannounced and talking for hours about things that matter. Here, it’s a scheduled event--'Let’s have a beer'--or it’s nothing at all. And this ‘Have a nice day’ stuff, it makes me sick.”

Shekhter, who founded Strang Mechanical and made a bundle in San Diego, said he left his native Leningrad because he felt like a phony. He despised living the lie the system espoused, and, to some extent, he says he’s troubled by the phoniness of America--by, in his words, its shallowness, its hunger to entertain itself, its lust for power and greed for money.

“When I got involved in that famous American sport--moneymaking--the rat-race chase was really on,” he said. “Before you know it, you’re a part of it, sucked into it forevermore. You’re on the highway, in the fast lane, and you can’t slow down.

“But Russia--geez, I would never go back. As I and my Russian buddies say about glasnost , it means only one thing: The leash may be longer, but the dish is still empty.”

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Gula Yakhnich and her husband Walter moved from Moscow to Mesquite, Tex., in 1977. He was a doctor, she a map maker. In Mesquite, they opened a barbecue restaurant, which they transferred to Mira Mesa in 1983. He is now playing the stock market; she is a housewife.

Lingering Suspicion

She says she’s suspicious of both glasnost and Gorbachev.

“I don’t trust any of them,” she said bitterly of the Soviet regime. “I don’t think they are honest and good. In many ways, the situation there is worse than it used to be. The food shortages, for instance, are much worse.”

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Yakhnich said she bases her knowledge on information supplied by Soviet friends who recently concluded a visit to San Diego. She said that, although she and her husband emigrated legally, by applying and getting permission, as soon as their letter was filed, they were fired from their jobs.

“Why did we leave? We couldn’t improve our lives any way whatsoever,” she said. “And the living conditions were grim. We saw an opportunity and took it.”

Leonid Radomyshelsky grabbed a similar chance. He emigrated from Kiev to Italy to the United States in 1976. He now has a patent on a portable gold tester and an executive position with Tri Electronics on Mission Gorge Road.

“Everything in Russia was unpleasant,” he said. “I made 250 rubles a month. There was never enough in the stores, never enough anything. The clothes were of very poor quality. Everything was at a deficit or deficient. Good books were unavailable or banned.

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‘Atmosphere Stifling’

“You could get in trouble for being caught with a paper such as the New York Times. I was prohibited from learning or reading Hebrew, and the Voice of America and BBC were always jammed (on radio). The atmosphere was stifling, oppressive.”

Radomyshelsky brought his spouse and children here, as did Yakhnich and Shekhter. Radomyshelsky says he fell in love with American life immediately, although his early years were limited to selling secondhand clothes and jewelry at swap meets. He says the only thing that bothers him about the United States is crime, which leaves him horrified and wondering about the capacity of a democratic society to police itself.

Yakhnich considered the fear and oppression of totalitarian Moscow to be the worst kind of crime, “a crime of the soul. There was absolutely no freedom of speech, no freedom of opportunity.”

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“People talk about the splendor of Soviet culture, but I see the Bolshoi Ballet more often living here than I ever did in Moscow. I read the Russian writers far more easily here than I ever could there.

“I can’t imagine anyone favoring that society over this one.”


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