For many Soviets, a better place is any place away from the homeland

May 21, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- For now, Alexander Grigoryan is making his living off other people's dreams of a better life someplace else. Anyplace else.

Mr. Grigoryan, 36, is founder and proprietor of a small business that helps people translate and process the paperwork to apply for immigration visas.

Strategically located next door to the U.S. Embassy, his fourth-floor office depends on a steady flow of Soviet citizens who are fed up with their homeland.

But sometimes, he says, he finds it a little too much.

"It gets you down," Mr. Grigoryan said. "It really does. Some time I'd like to meet just one person who says, 'I'm happy here and I don't want to leave.' "

There is irony in Mr. Grigoryan's gripe. Like his customers -- hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens -- he, too, is trying to leave.

"I like the American spirit. I feel it's very close to my heart. And I know some English," he said.

And as for the business? "The neighbors don't like it. The police don't like it. The authorities could close it any time they want. There's no security in it for us," he said.

Mr. Grigoryan, an Armenian, his wife, Natasha, and their 8-year-old daughter, Marina, were forced to flee their native Baku, Azerbaijan, about 18 months ago as a result of ethnic discrimination that eventually exploded in anti-Armenian pogroms.

They live in a single room in a cheap Moscow hotel and wait to be summoned to the U.S. Embassy for an interview to see if they qualify as refugees. They have been waiting since the fall of 1989 with no end in sight.

Because they do not have permanent Moscow residence permits, finding a regular job is impossible. So Mr. Grigoryan decided to put his experience with the emigration bureaucracy to use and got into the visa-application business.

But he's just running his business, called "Chance," until he gets the chance to leave for America. Two of his employees, Grigory, 33, and Gena, 35, have received refugee status from the U.S. Embassy and will be leaving soon. Nora, 32, is thinking of leaving. Only Sergei, 20, a student who does the German applications on Mondays, is not planning on emigrating. Not yet, anyway.

Chance helps with U.S. paperwork for 20 to 80 rubles, depending on what's needed; South Africa ("very attractive to Soviets, because they want white people") costs 35 to 70 rubles; Australia goes for 180 rubles; Germany runs 200 rubles. (The last two prices, which approach a modest Soviet monthly wage, are high because the applications are long and complicated.)

To many Soviet citizens, the visa applications Chance prepares are something like lottery tickets: a long shot at a fabulous prize -- life in the West. It is a long shot more and more people here are willing to take.

Last week, the Soviet Parliament once again deferred passage of a long-awaited emigration bill that would codify Soviet citizens' right to leave. Promised for well over a year, the law has been repeatedly held up, sidetracked and buried in amendments, because the Parliament seems to be afraid to face squarely the question: How many people really want to leave?

In practice, even without the law, long-standing Soviet restrictions on emigration as well as travel abroad gradually have been lifted. The chief limiting factor today is no longer the Soviet exit visa, but the foreign entry visa.

Last year, some 55,000 Soviet citizens, mostly Jews and Armenians with U.S. relatives, emigrated to the United States; 142,000 ethnic Germans moved to Germany; and 200,000 Soviet Jews left for Israel. Another 3.7 million people went abroad temporarily.

But the lines outside the U.S., German and Israeli consulates, still the only three countries accepting large numbers of Soviet immigrants, just keep growing longer. New lines have appeared at such unlikely places as the Danish Embassy.

Danish diplomats have explained repeatedly that their little country takes only a handful of immigrants a year -- those who have close relatives in Denmark or other special factors.

"We tell them they don't have a chance, but they trust the rumors more," said a Danish diplomat. As long as the Danes are willing to give out applications, people are willing to line up to receive them.

That kind of determination scares some of the potential receiving countries. Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shcherbakov said that when he met in Vienna, Austria, with representatives of 38 countries, "in the majority of cases, ministers asked us not to hurry to approve this law.

"The whole of Europe was agitated with rumors that 20 million hungry, ragged Russians would pour into Europe, like the invasion of the Huns."

Emigration long carried the stigma of treachery in the Soviet psyche. Jews, for many years the only group with a real chance of getting out, were routinely fired from their jobs if they applied for exit visas. School principals summoned assemblies for the sole purpose of publicly condemning children whose families were emigrating.

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