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Immigrants Reflect on Soviet Collapse

  • Peter Fedynsky

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, millions of people have emigrated from the newly created nations that once were constituent republics of the communist empire. Our correspondent spoke to several of them who have settled in New York.

Marketing consultant Irina Shmeleva uses social media to follow events in her native Russia. As a Soviet actress, she says, she lived a privileged and comfortable life, but the lack of freedom forced everyone to act.

“The Soviet individual had to be a true soldier, pretending everything is fine, because everything should be beautiful," said Shmeleva. "But if you wanted to discover what is going on inside you, what is your destiny, what you want to do, what you think about this, that or the other - that was impossible.”

Shmeleva says recent demonstrations in Russia show young people may finally realize hopes for freedom that were raised by the Soviet collapse, but dashed by what she characterizes as a return to authoritarian rule under Vladimir Putin.

“I speak here with people of my generation and ask everyone, ‘What do you think?’ They say, ‘Nothing will come of the demonstrations.’ But the young don’t know that nothing will happen and they try to make it happen," she said.

In Ukraine, the nation’s rich farmlands and industrial base briefly raised expectations that the country’s standard of living would skyrocket. What skyrocketed instead was the price of energy that Soviet economic planners had subsidized.

Vasyl Lopukh is a researcher at New York’s Shevchenko Scientific Society who taught economic theory in the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil. He says Ukrainians did not initially realize that their inherited Soviet industries were not viable.

“Approximately 60 or 65 percent of Ukraine’s labor force worked for the military-industrial complex directly or indirectly," he said.

With little or no demand for the weapons, uniforms and food produced for the Soviet army, he says many Ukrainians became unemployed. And the status of Ukraine and other post-Soviet nations as some of the world’s most corrupt countries now hinders Ukrainian membership in the European Union. Lopukh says the country’s political and industrial leaders have lacked vision.

“They cared about their corporate interests and profits, and not about creating an economically independent Ukrainian nation," he said.

Unlike Lopukh, Isakjon Zokirov says he would be imprisoned if he returned to his native country, Uzbekistan. Strongman Islam Karimov has ruled the Central Asian country since it declared independence in 1991. A human rights activist, Zakirov fled his homeland in 2004 and now works as a delivery man in Brighton Beach, New York’s Russian-speaking neighborhood.

“The standard of living in Uzbekistan has dropped significantly," he said. "The economy has worsened. There have been no democratic transformations there.”

Numerous international organizations confirm Zokirov’s assessment. He says he likes living in America.

“The country is safer for me personally," he said. "It’s democratic and I support democracy. You can find a job here, learn, and you can do everything. In a word, I like America.”

Once part of a single empire ruled by Moscow, post-Soviet immigrants again have a common nation, the United States.