Irena Kuzuetsov




11. The Life Story of Irena Kuzuetsov:

The idea with me in this case, I’m not a typical person, a typical Soviet

girl, because I am a melting pot also because I grew up in the Russian country, I

grew up in the Russian traditions and with Russian culture, but due to the fact that my grandmother and grandfather were Jews there were a little bit of the Jewish traditions also. But I would say that the Russian traditions prevailed because they were they were all around and when my parents began to live by themselves

without my grandma and grandpa, they really, they were living according to the Russian traditions and Russian culture so … it was lost. They didn’t leave it on

purpose, but it was just lost because they didn’t have any community, they didn’t really preserve the trends and the traditions and the customs, so it was just right away they didn’t know the language so it so happened. So I think that our

character in fact is both, it was much influenced by where we lived, how we

started our lives, well, it complicated our life and our individuality and what we

are now. Because we lived in the Soviet Union and because of those things of the culture that we didn’t agree with. So we really suffered because on the one hand we had to conform to that, we had to follow a lot of things.

For example all the young kids had to join the Young Communist League which was really, in fact, it was just normal, no one paid attention to that. But


we had to do that; otherwise you couldn’t get into the institute, you couldn’t get to the college, you would have problems. Everybody does that and you would be


the only one who doesn’t want to… nobody asks you whether you want it or not,, you are there and deep in heart you are strongly against it and it was really


stupid. That meant that you had to sit in all kinds of meetings and listen to all the stupid things that they were saying, that just, we are the sons of the Community



Party and we are all children of the Community Party and our goal is to build the

Communism which we didn’t believe but we had to listen to that. They made us go to meetings. Every holiday there was a meeting and then like every three

weeks or every month you would go and again the young one who was not at the meetings, there was a lot of problem. We had to go, we wouldn’t have any other choice and I think that this can really damage the personality because just doing something and not believing in that and just conforming to that will really, had to be very manipulative and just not to show a lot of things. Well this is really, it is wonderful; the thing that first struck us, in Americans, is that they are very open most of the time you speak with the person and well we always wanted to meet

such people who are openly just say what they think and in the Soviet Union it’s seldom that you would be able to speak of what you think because you never

know who you are speaking to. You can not be open with people. Of course we spoke, were very open and very friendly with our friends just with people we knew that we shared opinion and we just were not afraid that they would go somewhere and say ‘Hey, these people are this and that.” From the very

beginning, from the first grade, when you were 7, 8 years old we knew about the mysterious case, our case, our kind of folder, or our file, I don’t know how to call it, but we knew that there is a history of every person from his childhood which is somewhere. In fact, it was funny, when my very good friend, we


graduated from school together. She went to teach in the KGB school. She


didn’t have to do anything secret. She was just supposed to, it’s just like working here, maybe in the fort or somewhere, she’s just supposed to teach them English but in order to be hired she was processed. And when she was 10 or when she was 9 her mother was Egypt on business trip and naturally, she was gone for


three months, and naturally she was writing her postcards and these people when they were interviewing her they said “Have you ever had any contact with



foreigners?” She said “No.” “Have you ever written anywhere, have you ever sent any letters abroad to the foreigners?” She said “No.” They said they “How come we have record that you had correspondence with EMt?” So she was surprised. So when she told me that it gave me goosebumps because can you imagine a kid writing postcards with her mother and this is on record. Because when she was writing them nobody knew that she would be working in a closed organization. They kept records in case somebody wanted something they could always find

out. So we knew from the very beginning that we have to be good, that we have to have, at least my parents told me I have to be good, I have to have good

records because what if something happened, it would be in the case so nobody’s going to forget anything so I was always terrified of any kind of records and in

fact when you were telling me that and that you were going to write a paper and that you were going to send it [to me] I suddenly thought, “Oh my God, so this

will be recorded.” So I still have this hangover, I still have this fear. In fact I’m terribly afraid that the cop will stop me somewhere.

I spoke with my family very openly but Igor’s parents were different, they really believed in the ideas of Communism and they really believed that you don’t have to think about them or anything, you just have to work hard, the

government will think for you, they know better for you what to do and Igor was really a rebel because he argued with them a lot. So with my family I didn’t have any problems, I just… Well, sometimes I remember them when I was a child, my father, though he realized that what was happening at that time was not true he


kind of said, “You shouldn’t talk like that, you’ll be in trouble,” and maybe very often he would say, I think that he was telling me, he didn’t tell me the complete truth of what was happening because he was afraid that I would go to school and tell that to kids and there will be some trouble, I would get myself into trouble,


or I would get them into trouble. So sometimes he really played the sort of game



that “Oh, Yes, this is a very good government,”‘ just to protect me. Just to protect my psychology maybe because it’s difficult for a child to live in this.

Because I was watching the TV and I know that it was all lies what they were telling.

When we were growing up they just started, we just started listening to listen to the Voice of America this was in fact the start of everything because we

were listening to like all kinds of things happen. For example, in Czechoslovakia

when the soldiers took the tanks into Czechoslovakia, it was presented as the only way, that we were saving the Communist movement in Czechoslovakia and those were just criminals who wanted to break the life of the friendly Czechoslovakian

comrades and people and it was our goal and it was our right just to save the Czechoslovakian people, that was why we sent the tanks there. But you switch on the radio and you listen to the free Voices of America or Germany or any place else you hear quite another story and you understand, you can’t help realize the lies in that, it is just logical. It’s impossible, you just know it’s true.

Also, I know I remember that, which was really a big thing for me after, just after that, after 1968, after that Czechoslovakia thing, we had an exchange


problem with Czechoslovakian kids, we were supposed to go to Czechoslovakia,


which we never did, but the Czechoslovakian kids came to visit us and they were


telling us terrible things. They were telling us terrible things and since then Igor said that he started to understand that it’s, it’s something wrong in our lives. He started that in college. I think that I started to suffer and understand it, that


something was wrong here when I was in school, in high school when I was about 14, 15, something like that. Part of that was maybe due to the fact that I have an uncle who is a dissident. He not so much dissident himself, but he’s a writer, he was a big friend of Scheransky and Sakarahov, and all those guys. Well, it was



not very often that I listened to what they were talking of, it was pretty often. It meant that I questioned a lot of things.

In fact, from the very early childhood I knew that I had to study better and I knew that I had to be exceptional to have the same opportunities as non-Jews.

Because in the Soviet Union until very recently there were certain places that you knew that you can not get there because you are a Jew. Like, for example,

anything international was a problem. And, well, I knew that there were certain

places that I shouldn’t even try to get and there are certain ways that I just have to really just try hard, more than others, because there was a certain limit like even you take any university or college, there were certain percentage like maybe in

the United States there’s a percentage of black people, well, Jews also had limits, maybe they’re considered a minority maybe, I don’t know why. But, like here

for example if you don’t go to the synagogue, if you don’t tell people that you are Jewish, that you are not working for example on certain days, nobody knows, and nobody cares who you are, which religion you are. There there is a special


question in your passport when you are going to vacation passport that you carry all the time. Everybody knows whether you are Russian, whether you are Ukrainian, whether you are Byelorussian, anyway whether you are Jewish,


whether you are Armenian. So, it’s just basically religion but it’s mainly why


they decided to do that. In fact now there’s a lot of argument about whether they should remove that, but even now with all these progressive movements I think that this is still there. I always wanted to know the roots of that, to know the reasons why they started to do that, I never heard. It started after, just in the


Stalin times. It didn’t exist when Lenin was alive, it just started when Lenin died


and the Stalin era started that’s why. They started that just to separate people. So it was just, that was just the atmosphere that I was growing in.



Well, of course I shouldn’t say that it was always gloomy. Well, we had a lot of joy and a lot of fun and we had a lot of, if you think about it, we just had a normal childhood. First in the family, then I want to school, and I went to music school, two schools. In the daytime I went to normal school and then in the

afternoon I went to music school so I was fairly busy and I studied hard and I

liked English very much and I read English books and I read Russian books and I played the piano and I had to rehearse alot, to work a lot on that. In summer, in

fact we had a big group of kids that played. We had a huge apartment house with about 300 apartments and naturally there were so many kids and we played

together, just normal happy childhood. In summer would go, well some of the times I went to Pioneer Camp, summer camp. Pioneers are just like scouts.

Pioneers are the…, so this whole Communist system starts with when you are 7 years old. When you go to school, just in the first grade, you are, you will join the so called Octoberists that means that you begin your social political life very young at 7 years old. So the elder kids will come to class. It normally functions

like that. Those Octoberists are in small groups, for example you have 20 kids in the class and we had groups of 5 little kids and every group had a tutor. The tutor was either a Pioneer or more elder kid, a more grown up kid. So they


would come and tell a lot of political stories just what’s happening in the country what a wonderful man Lenin was, or about the childhood of Lenin. I remember


just that was really sickening, just everything was about Lenin and they took us to the Lenin Museum and they took us to the museums of the October Revolution so it was kind of, I didn’t have any political education in the family and I would never have it if not for the school. And the part of the school we had was


political education for childhood. It was one of the reasons I said once and I


thought, my God, if I have a child would he be just will he suffer with this whole Octoberists, Pioneers. Now it turned out that they, I don’t think there’ll be


anything like that there now. Hopefully not. It’s really scary. Well, parents

have absolutely no word at school, just the other way round. Teachers, you know you’re very much dependent on the school and the attitude toward your kids. So they often turn toward bribing the teachers to be good to their kids and to just give recommendation and just to … because you know if you have good record at school and the bad record means not only that you have bad grades, but they

write about the personality and if the teacher writes that ‘She is a bad person, and she’s very incapable and she has problem contacting the kids,” it can, you can really suffer because you can’t get into the college and you just have to just your whole career and your whole life can be influenced by this, so parents are like mice. They don’t Re to interfere.

I always had problems at school, I had problems. Well, I can’t say that I was too outspoken, but there were certain moments when I just couldn’t, just it was just too much. Well, I just had problems, especially in the upper grades.

Well, I didn’t want to go to the meetings, I missed the meetings, and then they would call me and they would put me in front of the class and they would say, “Shame on you, you’re not more politically minded,” and ‘How can you explain this and that,” and it was upsetting. Again, you had to be very strong there because I just went out of school and I kind of forgot it. I had my own life, we

all had, I had my own group, we just didn’t care. There was no other choice, we had to survive, it’s just the way it was. So, we spoke about what we wanted and that’s it. When I was a little kid I really believed that Lenin was a really good guy, and then I was just not interested in it. There were kids, and in fact, you know, I think that the political leaders start very very early because there were

kids I don’t believe that they knew ftom the very beginning that if they acted that they would achieve a lot in life, they were just active inside and they would


is         prepare special reports about political events, what was happening in the world,


what was happening in the country, and I was just not interested. I lived another life, I was interested in music, in art, and my life.

In fact, I must say that I didn’t want to stay there very very long ago. I just didn’t want to stay there because I was constantly thinking of myself as part of a part of, as a teeny part of a huge experiment that was being carried out by people who don’t know what they’re doing and I’m saying “My God, I have only one life, am I going to just to end up being the mice for them?” Really, I was dependent on so many decisions that because you know I was, due to my professional work with foreigners, and the politics at that time were changing all the time and also it was complicated by my being Jewish because they didn’t allow me to work with foreigners because they were afi-aid… Well, in fact that was just, well I don’t know whether I can call it Catch 22 because I started to work I started my career at a time when people were emigrating to Israel and the government the people, the officials, were so afraid that Jews will emigrate they thought that Jewish people were not reliable because anytime they can leave the country with God knows what secrets. So, I didn’t know any secrets, because, well how would 1, so it started maybe by people emigrating but they were

limiting me alot. As I told you before, I knew where I can not even apply for a job. I could never think about getting a full-time job I was always doing some kind of part time and it was on the verge of being illegal because, it was funny because when I was working with those people from other countries I was not supposed to give them my telephone number, I was not supposed be any person to them. It was absolutely out of the question to invite them home or something like that and that was very difficult and very frustrating and also there were plenty of times that they would just refuse. They would just cut me off, like for example, when I was working for an agency they would tell people who wanted me that I was not available, and I was not doing anything. So, it was very frustrating and that was because I was Jewish I think because there were no other reasons. They were afraid that I might, well, at that time the only people who could emigrate from the Soviet Union were Jewish or others were Greek, also had the possibility of reunification with their families. So that was very bad for me so I was really thinking about emigrating long long ago but I never thought, to tell you the truth that this would come true because I took so many things for granted and I’m really, I am still attached to my country and it was very difficult because I have my friends there, I had my family, I have my family now here but my parents didn’t want to go at first, they didn’t want to do that so that was very difficult.

I was not thinking, in fact I must admit that I did not think that would be a cultural shock for me. It’s a big cultural shock being here because I thought, I know the language, I read a lot of American books, I thought that I know the culture. It’s not that you suddenly that you find yourself in Germany, for example, where you don’t know a single word in German and you can’t even speak to any one, but I never thought about it, I just thought that I have to get out of the trap and I thought that it would be a different kind of life and I really thought I have to try if I have this chance. There was terrible culture shock, there still is. It started at the very beginning, in fact. It started, I started to first experience the culture shock when I first came into the shops. It was really a shock. Because, I think it’s also culture shock because here I am, especially I came at a very bad time because there was practically nothing in the Soviet shops and the next day when we are here my mother took us to the store and I told you my first reaction, I was very angry. I thought so much food, why do people need so much and what do they do with it, it seems wasteful. Everything was difficult and it was foreign, just deep in your heart you feel that you do not belong here. I just feel unfair that people there don’t have it, but it’s life. At first it was funny but I understood the words that people said especially when I spoke with a lot of officials. When I came I had to go to the immigration service and do a lot of things like insurance, and especially in the hospital. I just didn’t understand what people are talking about, I know the words but I don’t understand what they’re talking about. And I felt like an idiot. You have to place yourself somewhere because it’s very difficult to tell yourself that you are not a visitor because my first feeling here was that I’m kind of visiting here, I’m a tourist and I will stay here, I will see the places, and I will go home. I was telling constantly myself that I have no home anymore this is going to be my home and I have to make it. From time to time it’s home. It’s very interesting, I can’t say that I love New Jersey, but when we were coming to New Jersey [from a visit in Maine] I felt like I was home. It’s just like a dog, you put a piece of cloth, you stay here awhile and it’s your home. So, you put your belongings, you put your other things, and its Re home. Now it is better and well everything was difficult and different.

Well again, maybe it was too much because my father died and because I lost the baby and I was kind of prepared for a different life and again I had to adjust to something difficult, different.

Take the resumes. The first time, well nobody told me that I had to write a resume and nobody told me how to look for jobs here and nobody told me that you had to sell yourself here which is totally different. You don’t have to worry about a job in the Soviet Union because you can get it. It’s funny but the way in the Soviet Union we found jobs, well, I’m speaking about qualified jobs, I’m not talking about unqualified jobs, where you can go just anywhere and they will need, a plumber or carpenter, there are so many jobs you don’t have to worry, but if you want to find something intellectual the only way is when you graduate from the institute, from the college, you are sent to certain place to work and its mandatory, you have to work there at least three years whether you want it or not. So I would say that the majority of the people work there all their lives, they like it or they don’t like it. They don’t really have the chance to move because you can go to some other place to work only if you know somebody. For example somebody gets promoted, he knows you’re a good person or he knows you personally or he knows that you’re a good professional and he wants you but there is no such thing as an ad in the paper or just sending your resume … there is not such a thing so it was very, well it’s very strange and very difficult to get accustomed to. It’s funny. It’s embarrassing for me. It’s embarrassing, for me it’s embarrassing because, this interview that I had, it was not an interview, I didn’t look at it as an interview, that’s why maybe I was kind of easy, but I was nervous at the end. But just I wanted to talk to this guy and also I wasn’t sure that I want this job because it’s so far away I didn’t just think about it as a job possibility. But otherwise my first interviews were disasters. It’s just different.

I really don’t know in fact if we shall ever feel at home here, I really don’t know. In fact I went to the hairdresser and there was a German lady who has been here 33 years and she said don’t think that you will ever feel, you will always feel self conscious, you will always think about Russia as your home. I look at that the same way as I look at my marriage because I had a first marriage and it was a different life. This life is over, now I have a different life, and I don’t miss it, because it was there, because it was there it was over so this is, I look at it the same, it is just life. There were so many bad things about that, there were so many good things about that this is life. It’s just like family. It wasn”t bad, it wasn’t good, it was a family. Now you’re with your husband. I’m working on myself on this point to take it as it is. You have to take it slowly, Igor wants me to think that way so you can’t get everything and you also, maybe subconsciously why I’m unhappy about moving and about all this, because subconsciously I may be looking for the place that reminds me of home. I’m looking for a big apartment house, with many stores, that will be a little bit similar with home, and I should not do that. I should not look for the same thing because again, its a different life for me. And you know, it’s different and its difficult, well though I like the architecture and I just got used to it but it was okay. Yesterday we went for a walk about 9:00 or 9:30, there was not a single person on the street. Isn’t that strange? And like I can’t say that in Moscow that we had a nightlife, in fact there isn’t, but we kind of were getting together and we were socializing a lot, there were people around us. Maybe here there are a lot of people around also but we just don’t know what they’re doing. We just don’t know, it’s not the time yet, it’s just a few weeks.

I don’t know [if I’d emigrate again], it’s hard to tell because I kind of forgot what has happened to me there, I idealized the past. I think that, in fact there are a lot of people, elderly, especially elderly people, who want to go back. Who want to go back and just see what has happened because they miss home, it’s just nostalgia. And in fact one of our friends when we were still there, she came, she was from Leningrad and she came from Israel. She immigrated to Israel

very long ago and she missed home and she came to Leningrad and she stayed there and she said I am not going to come here again ever. If you want to see me come over and I’d be happy to receive you in Israel because the apartment is so bad, you were idealizing the life so much as you see that it hasn’t changed. So the negatives come back. I really don’t think that I don’t think that I would hesitate to do that. Maybe I would do that in a different way. I still feel very guilty, I still think that maybe if my father had stayed there he wouldn’t have died. Maybe I would leave him there. It just happens.

Parents mostly have nothing to do with it [couples meeting], unfortunately. Well, because I myself did a lot of silly things with my life. You meet in very  different places, mostly at school or just when you’re young you have companies, groups, kids getting together, and you will go to parties and meet at the parties, just in the street, anywhere. My cousin met her husband in the street. She’s divorced now. So it isn’t necessarily a disaster, it can be a good marriage. I noticed here that there is no eye contact, no one pays attention to anyone, nobody cares. There is no interest, sexual interest here. For example I was in the Metro, always in Moscow for example in the subways you will always see people, guys flirting with girls and just trying to make acquaintance here you don’t find, everybody’s just reading or doing something. Maybe because people practically don’t have money, there is no risk. No one can be money hungry, greedy, because nobody has money. There can be convenience, there are marriages of convenience because for example if your father, if the father of your girlfriend is ambassador or… It was very popular, my college was very specific because the girls there were very marriage oriented they were oriented to marry somebody who would be working abroad so they could go, so that they could go, so they could enjoy good life, and well if you have somebody in your family who lives abroad that means good clothes, that means VCR’S, and its very possible that if somebody pulls strings for you you can get a very good job. So most marriages of convenience in the Soviet Union is to get money.

You can’t even compare the life standards [with the U.S.]. I would say that the Soviet society is very false. It is based not on income, it’s not based on the income, it’s based on the position, it’s based on who you are. Family is part of that, well, you can be as you call it intellectual of the first generation. For example Igor’s parents are workers and he is intellectual because he graduated from the college and he has his own level which is different from his parents. He started his own, and though his income was very low, his position, his profession as an engineer or as a jewelry maker is different from the position of the worker. Though the worker can earn much more money, So the status is based on your intellectual abilities rather than on your income. On the one hand there is a respect [for education], but if you are a teacher, if you are an engineer, you don’t get enough money just to be in a good place. My parents, in fact, my grandfather was a tailor and my father was just very talented and he went to the

conservatory. He was a singer and also a song engineer and the family thought him a little crazy because they all made money and they were thinking that this is what a person has to do and just go into art it means that you aren’t going to make any money in the Soviet Union. So they thought that my father was the unfortunate child or the unsuccessful child and I have an uncle who’s completely different, he was very very money oriented and he still is. He has been very

fortunate. My mother also comes from, well in fact my mother’s father was in jail and he was in jail when she was 12 and my grandmother could hardly support them, my mother and her sister. They all went to Siberia during the war because it was dangerous to stay in Leningrad. Leningrad was encircled by the Fascists.


They went back to Leningrad after that. They went back to Leningrad after that. They went back to Leningrad and my grandfather was still in jail and he came from jail in 1955 when Stalin died so it was difficult for my mom. She came to Moscow, she didn’t have any money she didn’t have money to eat so she was buying candy all the time to have something not to be hungry but she made it very well. They made it. They were never wealthy, they struggled all their lives. My father was always very optimistic and he kind of looked at life as this is life so what can we do about it. And he was interested in what was going on in the world and what was going on in the Soviet Union and I think that this was part of it and he just didn’t want me to hear any bad things. That’s why he never condemned anyone, he never blamed anyone, he was just that kind of person, he never blamed anybody. I never heard him say about any person this one is bad or this is bad, he kept it inside.

I don’t know whether I took it [optimism) from my parents, and, just I didn’t emigrate because I was hoping for a better life, I didn’t really expect it to be rosy and happy I just, it was just, I couldn’t take it anymore, it was not

optimistic. It was not just because 1, I think it will be difficult, it was just the last straw. There was a choice, I had a choice of just staying with my old friends and just living their life. My friend for example, she’s still there, she has a child, and she spends her life in the stores hunting for food. On the other hand this is something, you know for example, people are getting close there because they share food. For example, you see something on sale and you buy some for

yourself and you share it with friends. For example, when I was there, suddenly I saw chicken in the store. I remember I bought four chickens so I just gave one to one of my friends, one to another one, one to another one, and the last for me. But on the other hand just I remember that once I saw a big line, people were lining for maybe for milk, maybe for something else, and there were different stores, there are no supermarkets in the Soviet Union there are just stores. And there are lines everywhere so what people do, you stand here and you tell the people behind you that you will come back in 15 minutes and then you go to stand here and there and you are shuffling back and forth. So I just saw a woman and she said “I was here,” and somebody who was supposed to be behind here said ‘No you’re not here, how come I haven’t seen you? I don’t remember you.


Maybe you were here but it was very long ago and why are we supposed to stay here and you are running away.” So what she did, she ran away, she made a little acceleration and she just bumped into there and she stayed there and she was a strong girl and there was an old woman there and she just couldn’t push her out.

I think that if she was stronger that she would but she just, and this was a very tough line so in order to get there she just bumped into that, just physically,


bumped into that line. That was terrible, one of the worst things in fact, I just don’t know why I remembered that. If you balance that and also well I just we were reallv hodin for better but…

I think I could talk for hours about that because so many things happened.