NEW YORK — New York. -- When Gregory Maizous arrived here from Moscow by way of Athens, the first place he stayed was in Washington Heights, the old neighborhood on the east side of the George Washington Bridge. He sat and watched television all day -- C-SPAN, the cable channel that broadcasts live from Congress.
''It was amazing, the greatest thing I ever saw,'' he said. ''People were arguing, fighting about what the country should do. I thought: 'This is politics. This is really politics.'''
He thought everyone must be watching and talking about this. But, of course, no one was. People who were used to being Americans were watching Cosby or the ball game. Politics, debate, democracy, freedom -- they took that for granted or ignored it. They minded their own business.
Things look different when you're new, when you've just defected from the Soviet Union. Mr. Maizous was a journalist, a writer on a film magazine, who could not get out legally because his father worked in a military plant, one making SCUD missiles. He also had to divorce his wife so she would not lose her job when he took off.
It wasn't easy to defect. Actually, it was comic. He got to Athens in the summer of 1988 with a group invited by one of Greece's communist newspapers. He telephoned the U.S. Embassy but the operator didn't understand what he was talking about, and it was only later that he realized she was Greek, not American. He called the Greek immigration service and officials there said they would be glad to grant him sanctuary, but this was Friday and everyone wanted to get away for the weekend. Could he escape his KGB minders again on Monday?
He had worked years on a plan to defect and it finally worked. But he had no idea what to do when he got to America because it was so much more than he ever imagined, so much more free. ''In Russia, it was you must do this, you must do that,'' he said. ''I knew that the government didn't rule your life here, but I had no idea what those words meant. It took me a while to realize that here there wasn't anything you must do. I could even move to California if I wanted to.
''What a country. I am always surprised,'' he said. ''Look at this John Sununu, a big man like that with an important job like that, and everyone can attack him because he used government planes. Amazing. Big Brother is watching, but Big Brother is the people of the United States.''
Mr. Maizous worked as a translator, then as a receptionist at the Museum of Modern Art, and now he has what he calls ''the best job in the world.'' He is in politics. He is a case worker for a New York state senator, Donald Halperin, who represents the part of Brooklyn that includes Brighton Beach and other neighborhoods with large numbers of Russian emigres. That's where I ran into him while writing about the United States' new ''littles'' -- Little Odessa along the boardwalk in Brooklyn, Little Saigon in Orange County, California, Little Seouls and Delhis and Karachis.
''OK, so is there anything wrong with America?'' I asked Mr. Maizous, who is 34, and has just been joined by his wife -- their divorce was cosmetic -- and their 12-year-old son, Max.
''The schools,'' he said. I got the same answer from other new immigrants. ''Americans think education is another entertainment. The teachers and the textbooks are too friendly. Maybe I'm still a totalitarian, but education is supposed to be hard work.
''My dream in Moscow was to go places I heard of in school -- Easter Island, Death Valley. But we couldn't even go to Leningrad without permission -- and that was hard to get,'' he said. ''Americans can do anything, but they're not learning anything about the world or even their own country and its history. I don't mean to be critical, but Americans are isolationists, even at home.''
I hear a lot of things like that in my travels. In a world where millions of people are willing to risk or give up a great deal to become Americans -- Mr. Maizous risked his wife and child -- it seems to be only Americans who do not appreciate and take advantage of all the reasons why the others want to come.
''You know what was the great discovery for me?'' Gregory Maizous said. ''I discovered myself. In America you can discover who you really are. In Russia, everything was decided years ago. Here no one but me decides for me. It's amazing.''
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.