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

For the elder Storchak, any paperwork would come too late. An official with a highway-engineering company, he'd been among the first to fly over Chernobyl in a chopper to inspect the damage. No one told him how bad it was; no one, for that matter, told the hundreds of thousands of cleanup workers, of whom an estimated 10 percent have since died.

Yefim Storchak was diagnosed with lung cancer and leukemia in 1989. Rita took care of him then, shuttling between her job and his hospital bed. The illness ate up her lunch breaks, her evenings, her social life. Doctor's appointments were a struggle in a crumbling health care system, and medication was impossible to come by; Vladimir ended up sending chemotherapy through circuitous routes from America.

Rita Tolchinskaya buried her father in 1990, and turned around to take care of her mother, who was also getting sick. She held on as the country she'd grown up in dissolved around her, and helped her mother put together the paperwork to join Vladimir in St. Paul. She had long talks with Alex, now 16 and restless and about to finish high school. His father was moving to the States, and he wanted to go along.

In October 1991, Tolchinskaya cried through goodbyes at the Kiev airport as Alex prepared to step on a plane to New York. They both knew, he says, that now there was no way she was staying. "We always made decisions together." The trees were just starting to bloom in Kiev when Rita Tolchinskaya, too, stepped on a plane. It was March 1993.

The first couple of months, for any immigrant, go by in a whirl. "You walk down the street," as Alex Tolchinskiy describes it, "and you know that you're walking and you know which street it is, but you still can't believe that you're here." There's the day-to-day adventure of deciphering a new set of signs and meanings, and it's heady work.

Then reality sets in: This is not a vacation. You're going to have to live here. Everything is still foreign, and is bound to remain that way for a lot longer than you hoped. Memories come into sharp relief, and with them a piercing sense of loss.

Like almost every Russian who's come here the past five years, Rita Tolchinskaya began with a stop at Jewish Family Service in St. Paul. The agency works out of an office building right off the intersection of Ford Parkway and Cleveland. Pass through a couple of doors in JFS's second-floor suite and you come to the office of Natalie Zelkind, a curly-haired firebrand who was Natasha when she left Russia in 1978.

On the day I talk to her, Zelkind is getting ready to meet with a set of new immigrants, a 50-ish couple coming to live with their son. Under current regulations, refugees can enter the U.S. only if they have a direct relative already in the country. And everyone must document that they faced active persecution; in the case of Russian Jews (and the other smaller, but significant groups of "former Soviet" refugees, Baptists and evangelicals), that usually means religion-based discrimination.

While the couple fills out the forms, their son turns to me. "There's no way to be legal," he says under his breath. "When we first came, we lived in a studio in St. Louis Park. It was $300 in rent. Our check was $260. The government calls it General Assistance, but it's nothing. If you start working they take the assistance away, so then you have to work more. Then you don't have time to learn English, and without English you can't get good work."

This man was lucky. A gynecologist in Russia, he found an off-the-books job delivering pizza for $1.25 an hour plus tips. Somewhere along the way he hooked up with an auto dealership in Hopkins and landed a job selling cars. His wife, also a doctor, is studying to take her board exams so she can practice in Minnesota. They hope, he says, to "contribute to America."

That's what everyone thinks when they first come. Immigrants today aren't as naive as they were in the '70s when, as one refugee counselor puts it, "It was really hard to convince people that the streets were not paved with gold. They were coming from complete isolation. Today, at least they've seen TV shows and corresponded with their relatives over here." Yet the hope lingers. No matter what they've heard, Zelkind says, "most people assume that they'll be able to do something similar to what they were doing before"--only with greater rewards.

Tolchinskaya, like most, soon found out otherwise. In recession-weary 1993, a 42-year-old Ukrainian economist was not exactly in a position to write her own ticket. JFS found her interviews for jobs in data entry, warehouse work, cashiering. Nothing came of them.

Eventually she enrolled at St. Paul Technical College to learn English and become an accountant. Teachers remember Tolchinskaya as a quiet student, soft-spoken in class but impeccably prepared for written tests. "She wanted to mainstream into regular classes after two quarters," says Braginski. "I told her she should stay on longer, that she wasn't ready. But she said, 'No, I can't wait, I have to speed the process along.' Some of her teachers told me when she first got to the accounting classes she didn't seem like she understood anything. But she made it somehow."

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