The End of Rita

On the day she died, Rita Tolchinskaya rose from bed as she did every morning, early and by herself. Maybe she had a cup of coffee and stood by the window, looking down at the brown banks of I-94; thought about what to wear for the job interview on Monday; or counted the days to her graduation from St. Paul Technical College. It had been a hard three years, but things were starting to turn.

Then Tolchinskaya put on her makeup, set her blond perm into the carefully tousled mane she'd taken to wearing, and stepped outside. By the time the city woke she was letting herself into her brother's laundry shop on East Seventh Street to begin tagging and sorting. It was only her second day working by herself.

Six hours later her brother, Vladimir Storchak, was at their mother's apartment, sorting through prescription slips. He'd just brought her home from cataract surgery. There had been complications. He meant to call his sister at the shop, but the time got away and he had to pick up his wife for a birthday party. He'd see Rita there.

When she didn't show up at the party, he didn't think much about it. This just meant that he'd have to go back to his mother's for the next round of meds. Between two sets of eye drops, his beeper went off. The number rang at the coroner's office. No, they said, they hadn't called. Then the pager went off again. This time it was the St. Paul Police Department. Would he please come downtown? When he got there, the chaplain was waiting.

To this day, little is known about how Rita Tolchinskaya died. No one has been arrested in the case, so the cops decline to divulge details that only the killer might know. The only thing that's certain is that Tolchinskaya was found in the heating room, a narrow space in back of the store filled with the roar of boilers; that some checks were missing; and that there was a lot of blood.

Had Tolchinskaya survived that day almost a year ago, she would have remained one among many. An immigrant from Russia, she was part of a wave that began rising in the mid-1980s and still hasn't crested after dropping upwards of 5,000 "former Soviets," as the immigration agencies call them, in Minnesota. They were doctors, lawyers, and writers once. Not anymore.

Tolchinskaya's picture still hangs in the back of the English as a Second Language classroom on the fourth floor of St. Paul Technical College. Teacher Inna Braginski has kept snapshots of each class since 1991. That was when the college started to offer courses especially for Russians (or so they're usually called; in practice, the term encompasses residents of many now-independent republics). In 1988, 67 people arrived in Minnesota from the Soviet Union; the next year, more than 700; the following one 600; and so on.

In the Winter 1993 class picture, Tolchinskaya is easy to pick out. She's at the bottom left, books and papers spread out in front of her, one hand reaching for a pencil. Her red sweater and matching lipstick blaze against the gray block wall; there are deep shadows under her eyes, and lines down the sides of her mouth. She looks very studious, I tell Braginski. "She was always sad," she replies.

Vladimir Storchak brings his family photographs in a folder; he keeps meaning to put them in an album, he says, but can't seem to get around to it. The only one in which his sister smiles without reservation is in a shot of a blond, curly-haired girl in a white dress. She's about three years old. After that there's always a somber, slightly diffident cast to the eyes. It's in the family shots, taken in a crowded apartment with food set out on fine china; in the snapshot of Rita with friends, in mini dresses on a Kiev square. It's in the studio portrait where a long-haired brunette looks languidly at the camera, and it's there in the wedding photos.

Yet the people closest to Tolchinskaya say she was warm, cheerful, and had a way of making people open up. She loved to dance, to read--everything from classics to westerns--to listen to music (oldies mostly), to dress up. She never went anywhere without makeup and liked to show her friends tricks with lipstick and eyeshadow. And she was always taking care of someone. "Always putting someone else in front of her own good," says her brother. "She wanted to make the circle out of the square, if you know what I mean."

Margarita Yefimovna Storchak was born on New Year's Day 1951, in a Ukraine reeling from World War II and Stalinism. She was a protective older sister to Vladimir, for whom she always took the rap when there was trouble; in school she got straight A's. If it weren't for her Jewish father, she would have sailed into one of the best universities and, probably, the Soviet elite.  

As it was, she did all right. At 24, with two degrees in economics and finance under her belt and a job at a major state chemical company, she married another up-and-coming executive, Leonid Tolchinskiy. They had a baby they named Alex. It was a measure of their success that at one point, the family moved into a coveted single-family home, with trees and a pond.

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.'"

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."

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.

"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.

"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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