Government made it difficult to leave the Soviet Union
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Skakovsky: My stepfather’s family came to the U.S. in the early 1900s after the revolution in Russia. He and his older brother were left behind. His brother finally came here in the ’70s, and he was the only one who stayed. But in the ’80s, my stepfather’s health was deteriorating, and he realized that if he stayed in the Soviet Union he wouldn’t get the medical care he needed and he would die.
When we made the decision to come to the United States, we were looked upon as traitors. We were not accepted in the United States yet, and we hadn’t left the Soviet Union. They took our passports away, and we were citizens of nowhere. We lived that way for two years.
Everybody knew we were leaving, and usually, when that happens, you get fired from your job immediately. But my stepfather was a very good orthopedic surgeon, so people would come from all over the area just to get a treatment from him. He didn’t lose his job because he was needed in the community.
He knew a lot of the city’s managers and directors. He never used his position to gain personal wealth like many people did in the Soviet Union. We lived very modestly but, at the same time, we were in contact with many of those in the upper class of Soviet society.
Our close friends and most young people were excited for us, but the older generation treated us like we had betrayed the country. They made it very difficult to leave the Soviet Union, but, for some reason, we had it easier than others.
For instance, my stepfather’s older brother got permission to leave in 1976, but he wasn’t allowed to go until 1979. So he lived three years with no work at all, the whole family had nothing. The ’70s were very difficult, but by 1989 Perestroika* was bringing change to the country and making it more open minded, but we were still treated differently.
Gallacher: What did your family have to leave behind?
Skakovsky: Quite a bit, we weren’t allowed to take anything we had. All our personal belongings were limited. Each person was allowed to take one carton of cigarettes, one gold ring, one coat and $50. Everything else was left behind. My parents sold the car and used the money to purchase an expensive fur coat that was very popular in the Soviet Union. They thought they would be able to sell it in the United States, but nobody wanted that kind of coat here. I think my mother finally sent it back to her sister.
Gallacher: What was it like growing up in the Soviet Union?
Skakovsky: I was born in the eastern part of the Ukraine in 1966. My father was in the military. When I was born he had just returned from military service, and when I was 2 he was called back again. My father was always gone, and my parents grew apart. When I was 3, my mother met my stepfather, and I didn’t see my father again for 13 years.
Gallacher: What was it like to see him again at 16?
Skakovsky: I had memories of my father, and I always wondered about him. Finally, I asked my grandfather to help me make contact. I remember going to my grandfather’s house, and then he took me to the apartment complex where my father lived. We waited outside, and when my father came my grandfather didn’t say that I was his son. He just said, “I have this young guy here looking for work. Would you like to hire him?” My father seemed very serious. I didn’t know what he was thinking.
We walked to my father’s apartment, and my grandfather finally told him that I was his son. My father was overwhelmed with emotion, and he started crying. That time was overwhelming for me, too, but I didn’t see him much after that. I made contact with him after I came to the United States, and we stayed in contact for about 10 years, but I haven’t heard from him in a while.
Gallacher: What stories did you hear about the United States when you were growing up?
Skakovsky: We thought it was a very rich country and that kids flew around in helicopters. I was 10 years old when my uncle came to the United States and, ever since that time, I thought that someday I would come.
When I served in the Soviet Air Force, I worked as a weatherman at the military airport, and I had at least five different radios that I used to receive weather reports from all over the world.
During that time, I would listen to Voice of America**. When the officers would walk in and hear it, they would get nervous and shut it down and warn me not to listen. But I listened anyway, and they caught me and sent me to a military jail, where they kept me for 21 days.
The bed was locked to the wall. There was no mattress, only metal. Chairs were cemented to the floor. Everything was done on the run. I was given five minutes for breakfast, a cereal that was served very hot. I was constantly burning myself trying to eat it before the time was up. Everything was on command, “Sit down, get up, run.” When they let me go they sent me to work in a major command center. Basically, they promoted me. I still don’t understand why they did that.
Gallacher: After the military what did you do?
Skakovsky: I worked for two years and then we came to the United States in June of 1989. We came through New York and directly to Denver. I had graduated from college in the Soviet Union with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, but I didn’t know much English. Nine days after arriving, I got a job as a dishwasher at La Petite restaurant for $3.75 an hour. Within a week, I had a second job, next door, at a Mexican restaurant, bussing the tables.
While I was working in the restaurants, I was studying a business book that I had bought. Within two or three months, I had learned how to write a business letter, introducing myself and my janitorial services. I sent out 100 letters and got my first contract with a business in Copper Mountain. For two years, I lived in Leadville and commuted to work.
When that work ended I applied for a job in a dental lab. It was another job that didn’t require much English. They interviewed me and told me they might call me. I had already heard that several times before, so I offered to work for free until I learned the job. They hired me and started paying me immediately. By then, I was a single father of two kids. My wife had left me three months after the birth of our second child. So I had to get up every morning and get them ready for day care before I went to work. ……(to be continued)
*Perestroika – was a political movement within the Communist Party of Soviet Union widely associated with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Its literal meaning is “restructuring,” referring to the restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system. Perestroika is often argued to be one reason for the fall of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and for the end of the Cold War.
**Voice of America – the official external radio and television broadcasting service of the United States federal government.
Immigrant Stories runs Mondays in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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