The End of Rita

Margarita Tolchinskaya left behind a budding professional career and a ravaged homeland when she emigrated from the former Soviet Union to join her brother in St. Paul. Three years later, she wound up dead in the back room of the family laundry where she

On the day she died, Rita Tolchinskaya rose from bed as she did every morning, early and by herself. Maybe she had a cup of coffee and stood by the window, looking down at the brown banks of I-94; thought about what to wear for the job interview on Monday; or counted the days to her graduation from St. Paul Technical College. It had been a hard three years, but things were starting to turn.

Then Tolchinskaya put on her makeup, set her blond perm into the carefully tousled mane she'd taken to wearing, and stepped outside. By the time the city woke she was letting herself into her brother's laundry shop on East Seventh Street to begin tagging and sorting. It was only her second day working by herself.

Six hours later her brother, Vladimir Storchak, was at their mother's apartment, sorting through prescription slips. He'd just brought her home from cataract surgery. There had been complications. He meant to call his sister at the shop, but the time got away and he had to pick up his wife for a birthday party. He'd see Rita there.

When she didn't show up at the party, he didn't think much about it. This just meant that he'd have to go back to his mother's for the next round of meds. Between two sets of eye drops, his beeper went off. The number rang at the coroner's office. No, they said, they hadn't called. Then the pager went off again. This time it was the St. Paul Police Department. Would he please come downtown? When he got there, the chaplain was waiting.

To this day, little is known about how Rita Tolchinskaya died. No one has been arrested in the case, so the cops decline to divulge details that only the killer might know. The only thing that's certain is that Tolchinskaya was found in the heating room, a narrow space in back of the store filled with the roar of boilers; that some checks were missing; and that there was a lot of blood.

Had Tolchinskaya survived that day almost a year ago, she would have remained one among many. An immigrant from Russia, she was part of a wave that began rising in the mid-1980s and still hasn't crested after dropping upwards of 5,000 "former Soviets," as the immigration agencies call them, in Minnesota. They were doctors, lawyers, and writers once. Not anymore.

Tolchinskaya's picture still hangs in the back of the English as a Second Language classroom on the fourth floor of St. Paul Technical College. Teacher Inna Braginski has kept snapshots of each class since 1991. That was when the college started to offer courses especially for Russians (or so they're usually called; in practice, the term encompasses residents of many now-independent republics). In 1988, 67 people arrived in Minnesota from the Soviet Union; the next year, more than 700; the following one 600; and so on.

In the Winter 1993 class picture, Tolchinskaya is easy to pick out. She's at the bottom left, books and papers spread out in front of her, one hand reaching for a pencil. Her red sweater and matching lipstick blaze against the gray block wall; there are deep shadows under her eyes, and lines down the sides of her mouth. She looks very studious, I tell Braginski. "She was always sad," she replies.

Vladimir Storchak brings his family photographs in a folder; he keeps meaning to put them in an album, he says, but can't seem to get around to it. The only one in which his sister smiles without reservation is in a shot of a blond, curly-haired girl in a white dress. She's about three years old. After that there's always a somber, slightly diffident cast to the eyes. It's in the family shots, taken in a crowded apartment with food set out on fine china; in the snapshot of Rita with friends, in mini dresses on a Kiev square. It's in the studio portrait where a long-haired brunette looks languidly at the camera, and it's there in the wedding photos.

Yet the people closest to Tolchinskaya say she was warm, cheerful, and had a way of making people open up. She loved to dance, to read--everything from classics to westerns--to listen to music (oldies mostly), to dress up. She never went anywhere without makeup and liked to show her friends tricks with lipstick and eyeshadow. And she was always taking care of someone. "Always putting someone else in front of her own good," says her brother. "She wanted to make the circle out of the square, if you know what I mean."

Margarita Yefimovna Storchak was born on New Year's Day 1951, in a Ukraine reeling from World War II and Stalinism. She was a protective older sister to Vladimir, for whom she always took the rap when there was trouble; in school she got straight A's. If it weren't for her Jewish father, she would have sailed into one of the best universities and, probably, the Soviet elite.

As it was, she did all right. At 24, with two degrees in economics and finance under her belt and a job at a major state chemical company, she married another up-and-coming executive, Leonid Tolchinskiy. They had a baby they named Alex. It was a measure of their success that at one point, the family moved into a coveted single-family home, with trees and a pond.

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