The Journey to Amerika: An Immigrant Story

The Journey to Amerika: An Immigrant Story

Originally Published by The NYU Jordan Center for Advanced Study of Russia

No, we did not come from a war-torn country. No, we did not escape bomb threats and militants. But we are refugees. We came seeking shelter and opportunity – to the land that was the epitome of both. I should not need to exonerate my status by debating the conditions of pre-and-post-perestroika Ukraine. We knew well enough who we were. It said so on our passports, on our birth certificates and, let’s be honest, on our faces. When in the third grade I was accosted by a bully seven years my senior who came up to me, as I was “on duty” in the halls of our school – I was not surprised. Not by the attack, not by the “Save Russia, kill the Jews!” that he yelled as he punched me right in the stomach…No, that was expected. It had happened before, whether physical or mental – discrimination was ubiquitous. Whether it was in schools, or at work, in colleges or in the army. It was not our religion we were despised for; it was not even our blood. It was simply our “otherness” that was so easily scapegoated. We were the “enemy within” – a target for those who could not understand why their own life was terrible.

There is an old Soviet joke – a truckload of bread was promised to be delivered to a local store. By 6 AM there was a line of people patiently waiting for bread. At noon the director of the market came out and announced that the truck will be late, and the shipment smaller than originally promised. No Jews will be allowed to buy bread. At 6 PM, there was still no bread, and the director once again came out to make his announcement. The truck will be later still, and the shipment even smaller. Only veterans of WWII will be allowed to buy the bread. At midnight, the director finally announced that there will be no bread today. The grumbling crowd dispersed, and one person could be heard telling another “Did you see? Again the Jews lucked out! They didn’t have to wait!”

And so, we came here… not so fast. Let’s take a step back. Came here how? Refugee vetting is no simple matter – “extreme” or not! First, one must gather all the documents, in several copies, with English translations. Oh – that is the easy part, right? Do you think the clerk didn’t know why you wanted the copies? Do you think they didn’t hate you for “getting out”? Surely, they did…And you needed them to like you, to be your friend. Thus you begin to sell things, books first, then heirlooms, then whatever is left. To the last penny. And you lie. A lot. At school, at work, at home…even to your friends… because “who knows?” What if you don’t get the status…what then?A year and a half later,  after an interview in Moscow, after bowing and scraping, after multiple boxes of chocolate and cognac with envelopes full of “gratitude” to every clerk that had to stamp or copy or print some basic document, you are finally granted that magical status of a “refugee”.

You are now free to gather your bags. Nope, sorry, your bag. Only one, per person – that’s it, basta!  Put your life in that suitcase, but leave room for a pillow and a blanket (because those, we are told, are expensive in “Amerika”). Tell your children they can have one stuffed toy to bring. Maybe two… maybe a few plastic soldiers. Then you sell everything that is still left, everything you can – perhaps you will gather enough for a month’s rent in that magical country that you are hoping to get to… You sell your apartment too, for a sliver of what it is worth, to a man who makes sure that you understand he is doing you a huge favor; he takes all the risk (oh the martyr) by buying an apartment from a “traitor”. And you get yourself to Moscow.

The last goodbyes from friends and relatives, the last humiliation too, as the border agents take anything they can from your already pilfered possessions. They tell your children that the toy in their hands does not fit into the suitcase and thus will not be allowed through, too bad. And then – only then –  do you board that plane to freedom…

I cannot imagine the terror in the hearts of those refugees who were “turned back”. Stop. That’s not true. Yes I can. I can imagine – because I am not afraid of empathy. I am not afraid to remember the fear and the excitement that “Amerika” represented to us, to refugees. I will not be suckered into the “chaos vs order” narrative. I will not buy the false civilizational mythology of survival. We are not separate civilizations. “They” are not agents of chaos. When the militants destroy ancient artifacts in Iraq – it is not “their” history being destroyed. It is mine, ours! Where would we be without ancient Mesopotamia? Without Ur, Babylon, Ashur and Nineveh? What about the medieval Damascus? The centers of science and literature and law… Our civilization does not depend on their destruction. It never did. Our civilization has moved past that myth of survival. Look around – we are all the same. We are all refugees in this land. We came seeking shelter and opportunity. We came to earn a better life, not to take it. I am a Refugee. I am an American. I am a Jew. I am a Muslim. I am you.

Aleksander Kedrin: Formulae of Creation

Aleksander Kedrin: Formulae of Creation

(Photo above: Aleksander Kedrin in his New York studio)

The art book, “Aleksander Kedrin: Formulae of Creation”, was published in June of 2017 in Moscow.  It contains critical and biographical essays about the artist, as well as personal accounts of his creative journey from his own perspective. This text is my English translation of an earlier Russian volume that was presented at the 2014 exhibition of Kedrin’s work in Moscow. Additionally, the current volume contains photography of his ceramic works, as well as several portraits of the artist that I took in his studio.

I have known Aleksander for decades, his sons and I were high school friends. When he asked me to work on this project, I was both delighted and anxious. Having spent years talking about our mutual love for poetry, I respected Aleksander’s knowledge and talent. But taking on the task of translating his words into English was a serious responsibility. Could I keep his poetic spirit alive in a foreign tongue? So much of what he says is lyrical already, but the challenge is further enhanced by his use of poetic quotes throughout his essays. While some of the poems have had earlier translations, I often chose to do my own in an attempt to stick closer to Aleksander’s reading of the texts. As a student of literature and history, I knew about the Soviet repressions of artistic expression. But Aleksander’s personal story, his and his family’s struggles with the regime were eye-opening and often shocking. 

In addition to his own essays, the book contains many personal accounts written by those close to Aleksander: artists, poets and sculptors. If you want to really know a person, listen to what those around him tell you. The famous sculptor, Ernst Neizvestny, calls Kedrin a “hermit of cosmic depths”; the painter, Garry Zilberman, adds “blessed with divine talent”; and the architect, Andrey Kossinsky, calls him “a true synthesis of East and West.” To me, Aleksander is a poet with a paintbrush. He works in colors and feelings, seamlessly melting deep existential desire and emotion with poetic optimism and the human will. 

The invitation card for the gallery opening - stunning on its own.

“Temptation Fountain” -  Ceramics and Terracotta, 1988. Tourist Cultural Center in Tashkent. Dedicated to Miro and Gaudi.

“Magnificent Summer Day”

“The Potter”



Tondo from the “Blue Cities” Series

“Austere Times”

“The Hunt of Bahram Gur”



(Above - Ceramic plates decorated with Chamotte, Glass, Smalt and Colored Glaze (1975-1985) as well as a larger 4 piece ceramic relief - in the middle - from the same period)

Working on this book with Aleksander Kedrin has been wonderful. To steep myself in his world, the world of his father and of post-war Tashkent, was an experience akin to time travel.  I hope to visit the Tashkent Metro Station he created (Avenue of the Cosmonauts) one day, as well as his other monumentalist works. I am happy to present a few of my photos that were included in the book, put together by Люсинэ Петросян and Alyona Kalyanova of Галерея ARTSTORY. They did an amazing job curating the project and I can only wish I was in Moscow for the opening of the gallery show itself. The invitation alone is worth a thousand words. Thank you, both, for the work on this project.

The inscription reads (and I must say, Aleksander is too kind) - “To my dear friend and coauthor of this book, Misha, from Sasha Kedrin, with love and gratitude, joy and admiration!”

Using Format