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

The marriage ended after 10 years--something about his affairs--and mother and son moved into an apartment. "It was a good life," Alex says now. "Not great, but fair. We had a nice place, nice furniture. She loved her Kiev." As far as she knew, Tolchinskaya would spend the rest of her days in the old, green, beautiful city by the river Dnepr.

Russians began coming to Minnesota a century ago, first fleeing the czars, then the Revolution. They arrived en masse after World War II, when hundreds of thousands of "displaced persons"--people the Nazis had hauled off to do forced labor--refused to return to the Soviet Union. Several thousand settled here, chiefly around Northeast Minneapolis. One neighborhood on the border with Columbia Heights became known as "Little Moscow."

Then came the Cold War. It wasn't until the 1970s that the Kremlin again began granting exit visas, mostly to limited numbers of Jewish emigrants. Vladimir Storchak was part of that wave. He got out just as the borders were slamming shut again, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Jimmy Carter announced the boycott of the Moscow Olympics.

Storchak says he always wanted to leave. "It wasn't a bad life," he explains. "But I could never figure out why I live in that country. I would see foreigners, tourists, and they can go and enjoy things, they can go to the better stores, the better restaurants. Why can't I have these things? I could not understand why people can go from country to country and I cannot go, why people can do things that I cannot do, why I couldn't make it the way I should be making it.

"But my father, he fought in World War II and he said, 'This is my country, I fought for that, I worked for that.' He was never a Communist, but he was a patriot, so to speak. He was treated different because he was Jewish, but still he was like, 'This is my country, whatever happens.' And my mother is Russian. For her, that was the homeland. She never thought about it."

In 1978, Storchak got married--to a woman, as it happened, whose sister lived in St. Paul--"and at that point I said, 'You guys can stay, but I'm leaving.'" An engineer by training, he got a job at a maintenance shop within weeks of arriving in 1980 and worked his way on to an electronics company. He quit that job in 1987 to buy a laundry on the East Side. Now he has four, and his wife owns a beauty parlor. A few years ago they built a big house in Eagan.

Storchak is the kind of guy who probably would have been an entrepreneur anywhere. His close-cropped gray hair, blue jeans, and huge belt buckle combine with ample gestures and a direct stare to give him a look of confident determination. He can talk shop forever, occasionally slapping his knee or raising a hand to the leather holster that holds his pager and key ring. "Right now, I get in every day at 4 a.m.," he explains. "That's my best time, my freshest time. My business is seven days a week, this problem, that problem, this client, that client. I'm always telling people, if you can work for somebody else, you should. But I always wanted to answer to myself. To be somebody."

In 1986, just as Storchak was getting ready to buy his first laundry shop, the top blew off Unit 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, 50 miles from Kiev. Radioactive fallout drifted in huge clouds over much of Ukraine and Belorussia, into Europe and all the way across the Atlantic. Army reservists were brought in from all over the Soviet Union to shovel concrete into the smoldering core. Thousands were evacuated; millions more, including the entire population of Kiev, were told there was nothing to worry about.

It's been argued that Chernobyl did more than anything else to finish off the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev took power soon after the disaster, trying to avert political meltdown with a program of reforms. Among his first actions was to crack open the borders. Yefim and Nina Storchak jumped at the chance to visit their son.

They weren't impressed at first, Storchak says. "You know what everyone in the world expects--big buildings, skyscrapers, Manhattan. And here we are in one-level America. But then I took them around to the malls, indoor golf, things like that. I showed them the houses: 'This is the $100,000 house where most of the people live. But here's the $1 million house--see the cars in the driveway--that's where some people live, and maybe we can someday.'

"And the thing is, you get used to it. They stayed for three months, and they saw how you can go to the store and buy tomatoes, summer, winter, doesn't matter, you have money, you buy. The only time you have to stand in line is on Friday at the bank, when everybody cashes their check. So when they got back home, they finally started to look at things differently. They said, 'Maybe we better get the paperwork together.'"

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