The memory sometimes seems like a dream from another life, but more than half a century later, Emil Tsipan, resident of the Soviet Union, vividly recalls the look of the land he was born in and wants to return to.
At a wonderful spot by the sea called Santa Monica, he remembers, there was this broad beach where he frolicked as a boy.
Every year, at the house on Madden Avenue where he and his parents lived, a new license plate for their car arrived in the mail. One year it was blue on orange; the next year the colors were reversed.
This Muscovite spent his first six years in Roaring ‘20s Los Angeles. He can produce a yellowed birth certificate that documents his arrival into the world as an Angeleno on July 26, 1924, at the now-defunct Kaspare Kohn Hospital on Whittier Boulevard.
Now, after more than a year of struggle with the Soviet bureaucracy, Tsipan has received word that he will be permitted to return to the United States with his Soviet-born wife to live.
“Finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said Friday.
In the biography of the 66-year-old Soviet Californian with thinning gray hair, there is all the tragedy of this country’s history. And though President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his allies have pledged a new law virtually ending state controls on emigration, Tsipan’s example shows that even after years of perestroika reforms, Soviet bureaucrats can hinder a U.S. citizen from returning to America.
Even now, Tsipan worries about what authorities could do to him or his loved ones. As an American journalist met him for an interview at his southern Moscow high-rise, Tsipan whispered “speak Russian” as they walked past a middle-aged woman watching over the lobby.
Glasnost (openness) notwithstanding, he did not want it known that he was meeting a foreigner.
“I have always had to stay clear of big things, of big aspirations,” said the slightly built man, closing his eyes and furrowing his brow. A “low profile” was the price this American elected to pay to survive through some of the most terrible years in Soviet history.
His parents, Hyman and Bessie Tsipan, were Ukrainian-born Jews who immigrated to America in search of a better life. After the birth of their only child, they lived in a modest home in Hyde Park, a South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood now fallen prey to drugs and gang warfare. Later, they moved to Petaluma.
Hyman Tsipan, a furrier, was unhappy in California. He joined the American Communist Party and waxed nostalgic for the Ukraine. Motivated by the establishment of U.S.-Soviet relations and the hardships of the Great Depression, Hyman decided to take his family home, although Bessie, who loved California, was opposed.
After sailing from San Francisco, the Tsipans docked in Leningrad in 1936 aboard the Soviet steamer Sibir. They went to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where Emil, then 12, was enrolled in middle school. Within eight months he had mastered Russian, the mother tongue of his new country.
Sorrow came with the outbreak of World War II. Hyman Tsipan, drafted into the Red Army soon after the Germans invaded in 1941, was killed in action.
As the Nazis drove on Kiev, Bessie Tsipan and her son were evacuated to the Fergana Valley of Central Asia. Already ill and despairing, Bessie, who had loved California, took her own life in 1944.
At age 20, Tsipan was alone. Although excluded at first from Red Army service because of ideologically suspect origins--"I was born in L.A."--he finally won admission to a course on military aircraft maintenance. But the war ended before he could see action.
He returned to Kiev and took a job teaching English, dreaming of eventually becoming a professor. He tried to get a university diploma but, as happened at many turns in his life, Tsipan found he had two disadvantages--he was American-born and his Soviet papers listed his nationality as Jewish.
In 1949, he married a fair-skinned and frank-talking first-year student from Kiev named Mila. She became a high school physics teacher. The couple eventually had a son and a daughter.
For 17 years, they lived in Kiev. Tsipan survived the uncertainty of Stalin’s final years, when Jewish intellectuals were liquidated for the crime of “cosmopolitanism,” and America, the erstwhile ally, became the enemy.
“Uncle Joe’s death for me was a timely one,” Tsipan said laconically. But he acknowledged that he burst into tears when the announcement of Stalin’s 1953 passing was read on the radio. “I was a product of my times,” he explains.
After repeatedly failing to get a college-level teaching position in Kiev, Tsipan came to Moscow in 1966 to seek work. “I phoned Radio Moscow. They were desperate for translators, and they took me right on,” he said.
After six years of translating the pronouncements of then-President Leonid I. Brezhnev, news broadcasts and travelogues into English for the state-run radio’s worldwide shortwave broadcasts, Tsipan left.
“The reason was that I wanted to revisit America, and I didn’t want to be billed as someone who worked there,” he explained. “So, I went back to teaching.”
He revisited the United States for the first time in 1974. In 1986, he and his wife went to California and spent two days sightseeing in Los Angeles. Mila enjoyed it, but she was not ready to leave her homeland.
But the decisive event in their plans came on July 7, 1988.
Their son, Robert, a budding specialist in the Portuguese language, reportedly was the top candidate to be sent by the Soviet government to fill a translator’s job in Sao Tome and Principe, a former Portuguese colony off West Africa. But the job went to someone else.
Unconvincing reasons were offered, but to Emil Tsipan the real motivation was clear: Robert was under the same double jinx that had dogged him.
“I decided to leave when I saw that, because of my origins--American Jewish--my son was being deprived of the opportunity of becoming a specialist in his field, and this after years of perestroika, " Tsipan said.
He could have left the Soviet Union as a tourist and simply stayed, but he and Mila wanted to take their family with them, including 32-year-old Robert; daughter Agnes, 31, a music teacher; their children’s spouses, and their two grandchildren. So more than a year ago, they applied for permission to emigrate to the United States.
On Oct. 4, 1989, Tsipan went to the U.S. Embassy in central Moscow. Under the signature of Donald R. Tyson, consul of the United States of America, he was handed American passport No. Z6404346.
Nevertheless, to the Soviet Interior Ministry office that issues exit visas, Tsipan was still a Soviet citizen, period. Employees told Tsipan he needed a close relative in America to issue him an invitation to return to a country where he was still a citizen.
According to Tsipan, a cousin, Greta Dorfman, lives in Santa Rosa, where she is a secretary. “But she was all I had and, for them, a cousin wasn’t close enough,” he said.
He had another reason to be worried--precedent. In 1974, another U.S.-born translator at Radio Moscow, Abe Stolar, applied to emigrate. He was given an exit visa but was snatched off the plane before it could take off. It was 14 more years before the the Chicagoan and his Soviet-born wife were allowed to leave.
In his quest to emigrate, Tsipan gained the support of the U.S. Embassy, which at least twice, he recalls gratefully, sent diplomats to see Foreign Ministry officials on his behalf. For American Jewish groups, he became a “refusenik"--a Jew kept in the country against his will--and therefore a human rights case that needed a just solution.
This time, perhaps, the double jinx worked in Tsipan’s favor.
After lunch on Thursday, Tsipan returned to Foreign Ministry headquarters for another try at obtaining permission to leave.
An administrator gave him the news--the cousin in California now apparently would suffice. “We’re making an exception because you’re American-born,” the man explained. The Tsipans were told to report to another office in 15 days where papers will be drawn up.