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

"I remember when I called her, she was always asking me if I had enough money, if I have something to wear. Because before, in Kiev, she used to help me with everything. Whatever I needed I could ask her, and she could help me get it. But over here she was in a situation where she couldn't do that. And I knew she would feel bad if she couldn't do something for me. So I always said, 'Oh yes, I have everything.'"

This, too, is a common experience. It's not so much the money, Zelkind says--Russians have a reputation for making their dollars stretch--but the feeling of not being in control: "You feel stupid, illiterate. People used to come to you for decisions, and all of a sudden you can't even make decisions for yourself."

Tolchinskaya took it harder than most. Most immigrants, Zelkind notes, come as families; many break under the pressure eventually--but at least for a time they hang together as an enclave of home. "Rita had her brother and mother here, but that's not the same. Her mother was sick, and her brother had his own family and his business. I think she was very lonely."

Nina Storchak moves slowly around her apartment, her light blue housecoat swishing past furniture, heavy black stockings throwing wrinkles on her legs. She opens drawers, rummages through paperwork, searching for documentary traces of her daughter--her college transcript, her passport--then gives up and heads for the Kleenex. After more than four years, her English is still pretty much limited to "yes," "no," and "thank you."

But in Russian, she talks fast. I can't make out much of the torrent of words that follows my question about her daughter, except "good," "sad," and, over and over again, "why." She says Rita was a good person, Vladimir eventually translates. "She didn't smoke, she didn't drink, she didn't hanky-panky. She was always helping my mother. She would take her to the doctor, and shopping. They went for walks over where she lived. She misses her a lot."

Diabetic and almost legally blind, Storchak rarely leaves her Montreal Avenue highrise except to sit on the bench in front with some of the other ladies. That's a common sight in a neighborhood that has become the Twin Cities' main Russian enclave. Around Sibley Manor, the low-income housing complex down the street, the air on a warm day is filled with the long vowels and soft sibilants of Russian chatter. At the strip mall, Kiev Foods sells caviar, carp, and Russian yogurt under Cyrillic signs that read "Buy Three, Get the Fourth One Free."

Most of the people living around here are seniors. Russian immigrants have always been older on average than others, and the last few years especially have brought a tide of refugees in their 60s, 70s, 80s. Figures kept by the state Department of Human Services show that in the last two years, fewer than 12 percent of all newcomers were over 55 years old; among former Soviets, the share was 25 percent. The reasons are complicated, having to do with the refugee daisy chain (people who came in the 1970s and late 80s are now bringing their parents) and the economic chaos in Russia that has left many pensioners literally starving.

This new face of Russian immigration presents some challenges. Like Storchak, many of the older newcomers have serious health problems, from heart and kidney disease to cancer. Many of them were working in Russia, but don't have much of a prayer here. "I've had a few students in their late 50s who got decent jobs," says Inna Braginski. "Most of them don't. Some just compromise to survive. It's very hard for them to understand--they feel they have so much to offer, and they go out for interviews again and again. But companies don't like gray hair."

And so, a lot of the seniors simply age in place. Though most of them came to be with their children, they often find that visits grow sparser over time. "It's different in America," shrugs Alla Friedman, who mentors many of the seniors through her job at the Jewish Community Center. "The kids are working, they move out to the suburbs, they don't have as much time for their parents."

Socializing, for those fortunate enough to be mobile and close by, is pretty well restricted to whatever programs Friedman can put together. She's taken groups to concerts and the opera, and to downtown St. Paul, which many have never seen even if they've been here for years. She's also put together a Russian lounge, complete with newspapers, magazines, and a poster honoring World War II veterans. On Wednesday, the day when Friedman unlocks the small lending library, the place is packed.

Before long, loneliness may be the least of the Russian seniors' problems. Like other elderly immigrants, many of them are slated to lose their only sources of income, Social Security disability income and food stamps, between now and July 1. Minnesota is considering a law that would allow immigrants to keep receiving medical care along with state General Assistance. But that's only $260 a month for a couple.

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