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Immigrants tend to be like that, says Arturo Esquivel, an adviser at the college. "Absenteeism is not a problem with these people. They're already professionals by the time they come here. You have to understand, we've had nuclear physicists come through here. We've had tons, and I mean tons, of medical doctors. We have guys who used to be plant managers, who supervised hundreds of people. And now they're taking basic English classes. It knocks them down pretty good."
Russians, Esquivel says, have it easier in some ways than other refugees. They're white, familiar with industrial culture, and often imbued with a ragtag entrepreneurial spirit honed in the Soviet black market. "I've noticed them getting into multilevel marketing," he says, "even around here at the college. There are guys selling vitamins and Mary Kay and those really expensive vacuum cleaners. Whatever it takes.
"And they're incredibly good at working the system. No is not an acceptable word to these people. It's 'Arturo, if I can't get approval from you, who can I talk to?' They have tremendous patience, and I think it comes from having to wait in line to buy bread and stuff. We laugh at that, but they will sit outside my office in the little hallway, and if I'm in a meeting half a day they will wait half a day until they are able to see me. They will make little deals with the instructors: Give me three or four weeks, and if I'm not cutting it, I'll back off. They don't throw tantrums or anything like that. But when they want something, they can be very insistent."
Nina Agranovich laughs when I tell her that. "That's how we were raised," she says. "It was hard getting what you had a right to." Agranovich was an adviser to Russian students at the college before funding for the position ran out. Like most everyone else who dealt with her, she remembers Tolchinskaya well. "She was struggling incredibly hard," she says. "A couple of times she almost lost hope.
"I think one of the hardest things for her was making all those choices by herself. In Russia, you don't have many choices. You work in a job, it's good, you stay. You get into a program at school, here are the courses you have to take. [In the U.S.] you have all these options. And if you can't be in the right place at the right time, you lose your chance."
Tolchinskaya did eventually find a job, at Johnson Bros. Liquor, a national wholesaler headquartered on the East Side. She'd go there three times a week, stuffing envelopes from 5 in the evening until 8 or 10. Colleagues remember her as supremely well-dressed--she'd brought her wardrobe from Kiev--and very polite. Along with a phone operator named Maureen Westendorf, she was the only worker in her 40s.
The two women ended up spending a lot of time together. Over break, Tolchinskaya would tell Westendorf about her life back in Russia, about her and her husband's good jobs, their house in the woods. She'd talk about losing weight, and snarf brownies from the vending machine. Sometimes she brought in art books to show her co-workers.
"What was most frustrating to her, it seemed to me, was not being able to communicate," Westendorf says. "Some of the teenage temps got upset when she didn't understand them. She would come in and ask me to help her make up sentences, like 'What do I say when I want to get my hair done?' She had tried out different ways of saying it, she would really work on it. But she had a hard time putting the words together.
"When she died, I always thought, I bet someone came in there, to rob the place or something, and they got frustrated, they wanted some answers, and she didn't understand. I could just see her panicking and starting to talk Russian, not knowing what they wanted. She was a really gentle person, and it was very hard for her when she couldn't do what people wanted her to do."
Right around the time she got the job at Johnson's, Tolchinskaya left her brother's house. She'd been wanting to for a while, he says: "She was still a young woman, and she wanted some privacy, which I couldn't guarantee her any." She applied for public housing and got an apartment in the highrise at 280 Ravoux Street. The building was nice, recently renovated, with columns and a tile floor in the lobby. But she couldn't wait to move out again.
You have to understand, Vladimir Storchak says, that no matter what Americans think, in the Soviet Union there was no such thing as public assistance. The regulated economy made sure housing and basic foodstuffs were cheap, and it pretty much guaranteed everyone a job. "But if you didn't work, forget it. You were out on the street. It was shameful." There's an edge in his voice, an echo of a society that, official egalitarianism notwithstanding, was hell-bent on class and prestige. Alex has the same tone when he insists that the life his mother found here "wasn't what she deserved. In Russia she was a successful, professional woman. She had a good education and a respectable job. Here she had basically nothing. And it was very uncomfortable.