How I Decided to Go to America

The year was 1995, and everybody was going to America, almost like the Jews at the beginning of the 20th century. Just try to imagine, that for many years one was not allowed to go to any foreign country, even as a tourist, even to the “socialist” country without the approval of the Communist Party special commission. An opportunity to go abroad – literally anywhere abroad – was the most exciting thing one could imagine. Before Perestroika I was abroad only once – with a delegation from our University, but that will be a topic for some other blog post.

After the trips abroad have become possible, I’ve traveled once – with all my three children to Poland, during the summer of 1995. Now imagine what people felt when all of a sudden, you were allowed to travel. And also, all of a sudden there was email. And several years later – world wide web. Imagine how it felt when, after years of almost complete isolation, you could receive emails from your former classmates living in other countries. You could receive an email list with job postings. Actual job postings from the USA. And you could email, and inquiry and somebody would reply! It was a mind-blowing experience.

So as I’ve said, everybody was going to America. As if it was 1905, and the Jews were fleeing Russian trying to escape pogroms. But this time around there were not just Jews. Everybody wanted to go. And business in the US has also realized that there is a huge workforce market, with skilled workers, totally unexplored. That’s how it all started. The demand was so great that when I look back, I think one should have made a special effort not to go to America.

And there was me, a single mother of three, living in one room of 2-room (not 2-bedroom, just 2-room) apartment, being able to provide daily necessities and more, but absolutely being unable to get out of this one room.

To give some historical perspective, after 1991 all previously state-owned apartments were “privatized” meaning, that each person has received “for free” in their own possession the place they were living in. So if it happened to be a one person in a 2-room apartment, they would automatically own it. If there would be five people leaving in a similar apartment, as in my case, each of us would own “1/5 of the apartment”. The apartment renting was virtually non-existent, and when available would cost more than I could afford. Plus, you could go to the doctor only at your place of registration, and renting would not provide registration for you. Also, there was no mortgage in existence. The only way to get something bigger than one room in this 2-room apartment was to buy a place, paying in cash.

Knowing the salaries in the US, and knowing the cost of apartments in Saint-Petersburg at that time, I figured out that it will take me two years to come up with the money I needed, and joined the crowd looking for jobs in the US. I absolutely didn’t want to emigrate, at least that’s what I was telling myself. To be honest, how when I recall these times, I think that I was thinking two separate thoughts. One of them was that I can’t imagine living anywhere except Saint Petersburg, and I just need to make this trip before it is time for Anna and Vlad to go to school (because schools in America are obviously horrible, everybody knows that). The other thought (or the other me) was “I want to leave and never come back”. My relationships with my mother were a constant crisis, my relationships with Boris were a constant crisis, So for some reason, I thought that I can run away from all of these crises at once.

So I’ve stopped to resist and started to look. First, two job offers came from New York. One was arranged by John Roseman, a significant person in my life (another “save for later” note), a new-yorker living in Saint Petersburg trying to build new and just capitalism in the New Russia. This did not go through. His friends in New York told him that it is too much of responsibility to bring a single mother of three to America. “What if one of your children will get sick? You can’t stay at home, you have to go to work, what will you do?” Also, recalling other emails he’d shown to me at that time, I suspect, that the way their attorneys were going to arrange my working visa was not 100% legal (there was something along the lines “she needs first to come to the US and start working, and then…”)

The second one also came from a friend, who was already working in the US at that time. That one was some questionable Russian-owned company in New York, and the conversation went along the same lines: it’s all great, but how you feel first coming to the US and work for a little bit on some project, and then we’ll see…

That was not an option either.

My friend Irina left to work in another “strange” place. If I recall it correctly, it was presented as studying abroad, and the pay was below all possible standards, but it was not called “salary”, and thereby people could be invited to work and be paid a little bit over minimum wages. Irina talked with her boss about me. Single mother, three children. Will I go to Miami, FL, to work for 26,000? No, even being as naive as I was at that time, I knew enough to understand it was not an option.

And then there was G., with whom I worked at Urbansoft, with John being a director (another “save for later” note – he deserves a separate story). By that time G. has been working in Illinois as a consultant for some time, and one of the clients he was assigned to asked him, whether he knows somebody in Russia who would come to work for them.

Then there was a call. My goodness, an international call! And G. was asking whether I am interested… And then there was a phone interview with Patrick, the manager of IT for the company I didn’t even know the name of at that time. And – it didn’t work. I didn’t make it.

As I’ve learned later, they hired Val, who was “one person does it all” at the moment. But 6 months later they decided they need a separate DB person. And they called me again.

Patrick was not with the company anymore, so I’ve interviewed with another manager. Again – phone interview! With people from America! How exciting and how scary!

That was when my “primary key story” had happened, and I could not believe I’ve got a job offer for just knowing what is a primary key, and what is a foreign key (the very basics of the database theory for those who are not in the field). To be precise, it took not one but two phone interviews, since at the first one I sounded “a little bit nervous”, as I was told. Ha! “A little bit”! A lot!

This second interview ended with unbelievable “We would like to have you as a part of our team”. Actually, I do not recall being especially overjoyed. It was something else. I remembered Irina sitting in the empty apartment the day before her family was about to board the plane… She was really excited… as for me…

… I called Boris right away and told him we need to talk. When we met, I told him: I’ve got a job offer from America. Heading out to meet him, I was thinking to myself: if he only says, “I do not want you to go”, I will stay. He told me later that he understood quite well, that this would be the case, so he replied: Good! You should go!

Again, later he told me that he wanted me to take this opportunity, for mine and my children’s sake, and he was feeling that his life is about to end, but he said: You should go! And I was like: Well, if you really want me to go, I will go and will never look back!!!

And that’s how my journey has begun.

6 thoughts on “How I Decided to Go to America

  1. I recall that time when going to the US was mainstream for IT specialists. I even participate ones in the interview that a company (or maybe recruiters) did in a nice Moscow hotel. So, they came, stayed for a couple of days and interviewed tens or maybe hundreds of IT specialists. My English was not good enough and I was happy with my job at the American company in Moscow, so I didn’t try to find US job seriously, just for fun with my friends. But a lot of them found positions in the US and left at that time and nobody came back.

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  2. Thank you so much for your comment! I am happy that my stories are interesting to somebody beyond my family and friends. And thanks for following 🙂

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  3. It’s fascinating to read a story like this. Honestly, I was so young when the dissolution of the Soviet Union happened, we learned what we learned in school, but it wasn’t really anything like being able to read your story. Knowing the experiences of the people involved, this story opened my eyes a little bit.

    And for you to take everything and to start over like that, it’s so brave and so incredible. I’ve been reading some of your other posts as they come through my feed but this, I think this is my favourite I’ve read so far, so thank you for pointing me to it.

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  4. Thank you! I am happy you liked this post. When I decided to start this project of recording our family history, mainly having my granddaughter in mind, my daughter, her mother, told me: do not try to write it chronologically. I told her that I was going to start with me coming to America because everybody is asking about it. And then I will be gradually moving in different directions.

    These posts tell the rest of the story:

    https://hettie.family/2019/06/10/getting-ready-to-go-to-america/
    https://hettie.family/2019/06/14/flying-to-america-for-the-first-time/
    https://hettie.family/2019/06/22/how-my-life-in-america-started-and-about-my-first-ceo/

    And isn’t it interesting to be able to time-travel, and seeing Vlad’s and Anna’s pictures on their 28th birthday? And knowing not only “how it started,” but also how did it end up?

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