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

"If they have to pay full price for their apartment, the truth is, they cannot survive," says Dora Lender, a resettlement counselor at Jewish Family Service. "Sometimes their kids can support them. But a lot of them are just getting by themselves." Theoretically, all it takes for immigrants to retain their benefits is to become citizens. But that means passing a 150-question civic quiz, in English. "These are bright elderly people," Lender says, "but many of them will never learn the language. Some of them are 88, 90 years old. They just don't have the memory. They couldn't remember 150 questions even in Russian. Not even 100."

In a few weeks, Braginski will stick another picture up on the wall where she keeps the graduation shots. This one will be a mixed class; Russian enrollment at the college has fallen off lately as the refugee demographics have changed. Nationally, immigration from the former Soviet Union is down 40 percent from the early 1990s. Minnesota hasn't seen a similar decline yet, but it's expected soon. "We don't know quite what's happening," says Diane Segal, who heads JCC. "We've heard that people are having more trouble selling their apartments back home. Some of the younger ones are waiting to see, 'Will I be one of the minority that becomes successful economically?' And maybe we've finally managed to convince them that it's not that easy here."

Actually, they've always known that: There's a saying, Zelkind says, that "those who leave Russia are brave, but those who stay are extra brave." It's true now as much as ever. A few weeks ago Vladimir Storchak got a letter from a friend of his parents back in Kiev. "The country is in disarray," he wrote. "The people who used to be apparatchiks are taking over the country, they're sitting in a good spot. The rest of the people are in a deep hole. The scientists are all trying to leave. The academics, people like us, are going to the dumpsters to try to find food. There's banditism, rackets, prostitution, everywhere."

But that kind of thing doesn't count as political or religious persecution, and thus does not qualify anyone for refugee status. New hot spots have opened up since the Cold War ended, neatly reflected in the immigration statistics: Some 500 people from Bosnia arrived in Minnesota in the last two years. More than 800 came from Somalia, and 215--a tenfold increase over 1994--from Sudan. If present trends hold, look for Zaire next.

Inna Braginski steps back from the wall, and Rita Tolchinskaya fades to a red blotch. Only her name still sticks out, circled by a heavy black line in the list under the photo. Most of the class of '93 has graduated by now, Braginski says, and many have found jobs. This one--she points at a 30-ish woman with brown, wavy hair and alert eyes--works at Rainbow Foods cutting fruit. "She's a mechanical engineer. This lady here, she's in her 50s, a computer programmer. She's still trying to get a job. This one here," she points to a perky redhead, "was a sad story. She got hospitalized for depression, and then she became terribly religious and left her husband and kids. I don't know where she went. This gentleman"--white hair, ruddy cheeks--"is a doctor. I think he does a lot of fishing now."

Toward the end of her time here, Tolchinskaya was feeling a little more hopeful. She'd taken on more hours at Johnson's, and extension classes at the college. Her teacher had set up a job interview for her in a large accounting firm. Her English was starting to come along, and she was looking for a new apartment. She'd started to date.

Yet the sadness lingered. "My sister was not the kind of person who always saw the best in life," Storchak says. "It takes a while for everyone to adjust, but it took longer for her than for some. She told me that she felt stuck. She wanted her independence more than anything else, and she couldn't see it was imminent."

On May 4, the first anniversary of Tolchinskaya's death, Storchak will visit her grave at Mount Zion cemetery, where she lies next to her father. Alex too is flying in for the occasion. He says he still hasn't found a way to think about his mother without ending up in a spiral of questions. "Why did it have to happen? Why couldn't they just take the money? What if I had called her, and we would have been on the phone for an hour? What if she was here in New York instead of there, what if I was there instead of here? In the end, I just figure... "

What if his mother had never come to America? Has he wondered about that? There's a long pause, punctuated by what sounds like blowing smoke. "No. Not that, really," he finally says. "I'm thinking, maybe it's just the way life had to do it. Her being here had to be a better choice. You always have to think that.

"I know it was hard for her, but I think she liked it, really. She was trying to adjust to this life. I think that by this time, if she was alive, she would be much happier now. I know she would."

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