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The Soviet Fall From Afar: Emigres And Defectors Remember Watching U.S.S.R.'s Collapse

Kazakh cellist Alfia Nakipbekova says she never thought of going back.
Kazakh cellist Alfia Nakipbekova says she never thought of going back.
One quiet day in August 1991, Olga B.'s 3-year-old son was flipping through TV channels in the family's first apartment in the United States. He was looking for cartoons, but over his shoulder, his mother noticed something shocking: images of tanks on Red Square.

Less than three months earlier, Olga had left Moscow, where she had spent her entire life. Half-Tatar, half-Jewish, she had won entrance to the United States on religious-persecution grounds.

She says now that what she saw that day on television added a strange and unexpected twist to the sense of culture shock she was already experiencing.

"It was our intention to leave Russia, and we actually worked on this immigration for three years, so we didn't want to live in the Soviet Union anymore; but at the same time, culturally, we were still very Russian and we still had very close connections to our friends [in the Soviet Union]," Olga says. "We were not completely members of [U.S.] society -- we were still trying to find our place -- but I had this feeling [of] 'Thank God, I am safe and my family is safe here.'"

Olga is one of the approximately half-million people who have immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union since 1970, the majority in a glasnost-era surge. Jews, Armenians, Volga Germans, and others also managed to relocate to Israel, Germany, Canada, and elsewhere in the final years of the U.S.S.R.

In 1991, like those they left behind, they too experienced the shock, fear, and hope of the fall of an empire. It was an experience from afar, but not entirely removed.

For Olga, who is now a physician in New York City, the days of the attempted coup were filled with "incredible" worry, as she was unable to afford the international phone charges to reach loved ones in the Soviet Union.

When she did manage to speak to them, she remembers having surreal conversations; family and friends asked her, a newly arrived resident of the United States, to explain what the calamitous events in Moscow meant.

"What they were asking us [was], 'What is your media telling the world about what's going on?', because people themselves were not quite sure what was going on," Olga says. "They knew that there were tanks in Moscow, that there were some barricades, [and] that people were gathering around the White House, but they didn't have an account of what was going on there. On the official channels there was just communist propaganda or classical music. I think, being [in the United States], we were better informed about what was going on in Russia."

For others who were out of harm's way, concern was mitigated by celebration.

A Visit From 'Gorbachev'

For Eda Gorbis, a Tbilisi-born psychologist who had made her way to Los Angeles, the coup attempt coincided with a planned birthday celebration.

Soviet immigrant Eda Gorbis (right) poses with the Gorbachev lookalike.
Soviet immigrant Eda Gorbis (right) poses with the Gorbachev lookalike.
The party was covered by local media keen on getting Soviet-Americans' response to the events in their former home.

To Gorbis's surprise, it also featured an unexpected guest -- and a humorous reminder of changes taking place an ocean away.

"It was my birthday party -- I made an elaborate party -- and I believe it was the media that brought the look-alike, Gorbachev's look-alike. I don't know whether they brought him or one of my friends, or -- I don't know how he ended up being there, but there he was," Gorbis says. "He looked exactly like [Gorbachev] and he was carrying a Soviet flag. We all took pictures with him."

Not all who left the Soviet Union, however, did so with hard-won visas in tow. A small percentage of people slipped from the Soviet Union's grasp by defecting.

No Going Back

Among those was noted Kazakh cellist Alfia Nakipbekova. In 1981, on the last day of a rare cultural trip to London, she requested political asylum. Then, she remembers, the Soviet Union seemed "forever" and its demise a decade later impossible.

One of her most vivid memories from the days of the putsch is a story that made its way into the newspapers, and for her, had special resonance.

Renowned cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who had long fought for democratic values in the Soviet Union, had made his way from Paris to the White House in Moscow to join in its defense. Some accounts say he climbed on top of a tank to play his cello at one point in an impromptu expression of optimism and will.

That's the version of the story that Nakipbekova, who was once herself a pupil of the master musician, heard while in London.

"One thing I remember very clearly is [hearing of] my former cello professor, Rostropovich. He was there and jumped on a tank and performed," Nakipbekova says. "But here are my mixed feelings about it: If you are a celebrity and you support a cause, that's fine, and a lot of people are happy and celebrating [the moment], but you also know that in reality, things don't change overnight -- and as we know now, it's still very difficult and uncertain politically as well as economically [in the former Soviet Union]."

Nakipbekova also says that despite being far away, she was not too far to have experienced a newfound sense of nationhood when Kazakhstan became the last republic to declare independence in December 1991.

"Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union when I left, so I didn't really leave Kazakhstan; I left the Soviet Union, you see," Nakipbekova says. "When this all happened, I felt more a part of Kazakhstan. I'm not nationalistic, but I do feel more connected to Kazakhstan. Being from a republic, it gives another dimension to how I felt."

Nakipbekova never thought of returning, however. Most who left the Soviet Union have not.

But many of those same emigres would also say that at least partly, they were there in spirit in 1991, when the country they once called home ceased to exist.

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