by Suzanne Schreiner & r & & r & The Skeptical Immigrant & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & o all appearances, Nastasia Cohen is a successful go-getter. She's been in the United States for a couple of years and already has her own business as a Russian interpreter. She also has her own Saturday morning radio show targeted at Russian speakers on the Thin Air community radio station, KYRS. Cohen came to the West not as a religious refugee, but as an educated young Russian woman seeking economic opportunity that she couldn't find back home. With the advent of perestroika and the devaluation of the ruble, she says, the Soviet system "crumbled by the time I was out of high school. Before, your education guaranteed you a place of work. I wanted to have a different future." She thought she might as well chance it in the West, where she could put her education to better use, maybe even go to medical school. She headed for Canada because she knew people who had emigrated and they said it was a beautiful country, with a climate much like Russia's. She met and married an American man and they now have their own home in Spokane.
But even with all Cohen has accomplished here, she looks back at the old Soviet system and sees some benefits over the go-go, competitive, free-market West. Yes, mobility was restricted under the far-reaching Soviet registration scheme, with every citizen registered in a particular city, entitling them to an apartment allocated by the government -- "just to keep everyone under control," she shrugs. But, "everything was free. People could retire." There were also paid vacations for all workers and she says pregnant women received a three-year paid maternity leave. "It's really nice ... Medicine is free. Here, insurance companies run hospitals, so do you really think your doctor is trying to do the best for you?"
Not that she's forgotten the bad stuff. No stranger to religious persecution herself -- her father is Jewish -- Cohen acknowledges the lack of religious freedom but thinks it has been overblown. "My father suffered from it, but so what? It was not that bad. You just keep doing what you're supposed to be doing -- work hard, study hard. Keep your religion to yourself," she says, recalling the Easter cakes her Orthodox mother would bake to celebrate the holiday in their home. "Don't bring trouble on yourself."
While Cohen acknowledges the greater freedoms of the West, she has been here long enough not to idealize it. People back in Russia think everyone is wealthy, she says. "Oh, you live in America. Everything is great. You have so much money" It's almost like they think "as soon as you cross the border, someone is supposed to give you two suitcases loaded with money," she laughs.
But when she thinks back to life in Russia, she remembers the vitality of the streets, the sense of community, and compares it to the isolation of the West, with people enclosed in their cars, always in a hurry. As the economy improves there, she sometimes daydreams about returning to be part of it again, though she's pretty sure her American husband might not be so eager.