Alexander Dolitsky: My first days in America as a Soviet immigrant - Must Read Alaska
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Alexander Dolitsky: My first days in America as a Soviet immigrant

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There are decisive episodes, dreams, words, scenes, facial expressions, meetings, smells and other physical and spiritual phenomenon that are deeply recorded in our memory. These meaningful moments could be turning points in our life or reminders of the past that eventually influenced future directions and choices in our life, shaped our personality, and formed our ideological believes and moral values.

One of my memorable moment took place on February 8, 1978, the eighth day after my arrival to the United States from Europe as a political refugee. On that day, I received my first job offer—to shovel snow by hand off the roof of a four-story apartment complex in northeast Philadelphia. The pay for the job was $25.00. 

Although, I was a college-educated professional, with teaching experience in the secondary schools of the Soviet Union, at that moment of my life I needed a job to pay for my living expenses, and I was pleased to have it. I was not shamed or humiliated. Immigration is a challenge for survival, and I volunteered for it.

My employer for this job was Martin Dubner, an immigrant from Romania, who, as a hard-working and skillful plumber, managed to invest wisely in real state. He owned several residential houses and two mid-size apartment complexes in Philadelphia. His wife was a petit Jewish woman with a distinct East European accent; she helped him to run the business. Their son, an undergraduate student at Temple University, was a first generation American, born in the United States. This was a modest immigrant family (I assume with a substantial savings in the bank), residing in a middle-class neighborhood around Roosevelt Boulevard in northeast Philadelphia.

After I finished shoveling snow, the manager of the apartment complex invited me to his home office, offered me a seat at the table in the living room and a cup of coffee. He was a tall, stocky and strong-looking American man in his fifties. I could tell by his assertive body language that he was curious about me, perhaps the first and only Soviet political refugee he ever met in his life up to now. 

“It must be cold in Russia?” he asked. “Yes, winters are cold,” I answered. “Do you know what a refrigerator is?” he asked again with a serious expression on his face. I was puzzled by this blatant question and his obvious lack of knowledge of my former country. “Yes, I know,” I answered. 

And I questioned myself, “Do Americans really believe that Russia is so cold all year around that it is perfectly safe to keep food out of the window or in outdoor food storages instead of the refrigerator?” 

“Is that true that tanks are riding on the streets in Russia?” he continued asking his blizzard questions after a short pause. I stared at him, speechless at his shallowness and unfamiliarity with life in the Soviet Union. “No…., only on military parades during certain holidays—Victory Day on May 9th, ” I answered. A breeze of the Cold War was obvious in this little office. I was quite and alert. 

Then, the manager sat at the table and offered me a lesson of English language. “I will teach you English now,” he said. He moved an ashtray on the table toward me and commanded, “Say ashtray, ashtray.” I sheepishly repeated, “…ashtray, ashtray.” With affiliative smile, he appeared pleased with himself and his teaching accomplishment. 

Moments later, he handed me $25.00 cash and offered a ride to my home on Fox Street in northeast Philadelphia. It was a smooth ride in a Lincoln Town Car—my first riding experience in a luxury American car. All I really remember was how much room the car had inside, how long it was, and the premium sound system. The car was so comfy that I almost fell asleep on the way home.

This was my first job, my first so-called English lesson and my first ride in a luxury vehicle in America. And all I could think that day was, “America, what a unique country with all its imperfections, challenges, colors, freedoms and opportunities; and how lucky I am to be here—in America!”

Today, I would like to encourage our youth to open their minds to various opinions, views and ideologies, and, the most important, to appreciate our multicultural country—the United States of America.

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1977; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.

Read: Old believers preserving faith in the New World

Read: Duke Ellington and the effects of Cold War in Soviet Union on intellectual curiosity

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Latest comments

  • You must write more about your experiences, neighbor! Fascinating! I always wanted my children to travel abroad to realize just how good we have it here in the US and AK!

  • Interesting the title of book “Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia”. My wife’s great Grandpa came over to Wales from Chukotka side with his mother, circa 1875. She was married to a trapper with two wives, the women found vodka in his cache, became inebriated and ended up fighting. She took her son and walked to the coast and caught a ride with a whaling ship to Wales. When the reindeer were introduced they herded and took their share of deer north to Deering. But the family identifies as Iñupiat, not Yupik. It’s way down to St. Michael where their lands start. We know the Chuckchi on Russian side, but not Yupiks.

  • A review of my genetic ancestry revealed Russian roots from an area of Russia not unlike Palmer. There are autumnal fairs that are popular with tents and local crafts very loved by the locals. The people of the land cling proudly to their ln languages and ways. Throat singing and Russian dances are very stylized. It is a plains area where horse riding and contests are not unlike western days. The men ride bare back and bare chested. They have long dark hair and you would think you were in a pow wow gathering. They say prayers and remembrances to their ancestors. They say allegiances to their cultures of the land. We don’t know what is not on our tv. The Duke of St. Petersburg (Russian Orthodox) came to the US at dawn of industrial age. He received a truly royal welcome the likes of which has not been seen before or after. He was terribly moved and inspired by the cowboy welcome. There may be residual appreciation for our US Constitution which we have been educationally influenced away from by marxist usurpers.masquerading as unions. I have done my research too.

  • If any curiosity we have a wealth of knowledge in our own Dr. Mala here in Alaska who did research regarding health among genetic Alaskan cultures living and thriving, not a decimated diaspora in Russia. I allude to his research. He can can speak authoritatively and a comparison would be fun for the scholarly. Dr Mala lived in USSR doing research. He found that Aleuts and northern Alaska tribes are so different genetically they are different races. This not unusual. In Africa there is the greatest genetic variation among people living next to each other near Mt. Killamanjaro – the pygmies tribes and hutus for instance. They too are separate “races” with gigantic differences among dna variations. Simplistic, wrong social theories enforced to promote unnatural oppression in support of false social narratives does no one any good in Alaska nor Africa. Truth is truth. Anti-truth policies just create expensive optional political havoc.

  • That was a beautiful article and much needed! Thanks for sharing!

  • Could it be the savvy plumber was more interested in how the college-educated professional answered instead of what the college-educated professional answered?
    Could it be the college-educated professional somewhat arrogantly assumed the Romanian immigrant knew nothing about life under Soviet communism such as Ukraine’s Holodomor, stark proof people didn’t need refrigerators when Stalin starved them to death.
    Let’s not celebrate multiculturalism, Professor.
    America has a distinct culture. People who emigrated to America used to acculturate to that distinct American culture. Multiculturalism is Balkanizing America. Immigrants arrive from various parts of the world, bringing their cultures with them, and multiculturalists say, “Your culture is better than American culture which is discriminatory, racist, etc., etc. You must keep your own culture here. We’ll unite in political agreement and mass organize to change America and get rid of whatever offends us about America at the moment.”
    Let’s celebrate instead what unites us, Professor.
    How about an essay on that, Tovarisch?

  • To Morrigan: My conversation was with the manager of the apartment complex, not with Martin Dubner. Martin Dubner (skillful plumber who immigrated from Romania) was the owner of the apartment complex. He hired me for this job. Your comments are rude, narrow-minded and insulting.

  • Seems reasonable, expecting a man of letters to differentiate distinctly between “owning several residential houses and two mid-size apartment complexes” and “manager of the apartment complex”.
    That sensitive, are we? Consider it part of American culture which today so many are working so hard to get rid of. Taking one’s self too seriously simply assures few others will.
    Rude is it to teach an accomplished academician how to say “ashtray” in English, to ask lots of questions about refrigerators, gulags, and pogroms, two words which, by the way, Americans didn’t invent?
    Narrow minded is it to challenge credibility of an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, which surely equips one to know all about multiculturalism from the perspective of Stalin’s man-made famine which starved to death nearly 4 million Ukraininans, to Chernobyl, to Viktor Shokin’s firing for daring to investigate the Biden infestation of Burisma?
    Was it fun putting a curious American in his place, professor? “Is that true that tanks are riding on the streets in Russia?” he continued … I stared at him, speechless at his shallowness and unfamiliarity with life in the Soviet Union.”
    What an opportunity to put all Americans in their place, stare and get speechless about the famous picture of Boris Yeltsin speaking on a –tank– outside parliament in Moscow, 19 August 1991, or events of 4 October 1993, when tanks circled parliament, and began shelling the White House?
    Soviet tanks on the streets of Budapest in 1956, Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague in 1968, Soviet tanks on the streets of Tskhinvali in 2008… shallowness and unfamiliarity, yes?
    What does our professor say to youth whose opinions, views and ideologies lead them to inquiries such as these? If they’re your students, professor, do you award them failing marks?
    Does a college-educated professional answer their questions or correct their thinking?
    Dear professor, what else is multiculturalism but the inevitably nihilistic consequence of too many people taking themselves too seriously, ethnically or otherwise?
    Your lesson, my learned Alexander, is to get over yourself.
    Your best effort will be your essay on what unites Americans, how you’ve set the example.
    Tovarisch, you’ve had 43 years to figure it out, now would be a good time to get on with it.

  • To Morrigan: Your comments do not make sense. The event that I described took place in February of 1978. You make references to 1990s and 2000s. And what is your real name, Morrigan?

  • Dear Alexander, your essay seems incomplete.
    The essay, while casually interesting, reveals little of the Real Alexander, the measure of the man from callow academician of 43 years past to learned professor of today, except for impressive credentials, what makes him worth reading?
    Hence, our questions… whether someone writing today about his “shallow” American inquisitor remembered his inquisitor’s questions about tanks riding on Russian streets when, a decade or so later, Soviet tanks rode on Russian streets and shelled Russian government buildings.
    Abstruseness and pedantry are not your friends, professor.
    Even so, no harm done, until we reach the bit about encouraging our youth to appreciate our multicultural country.
    Multiculturalism indeed… More like putting the finishing touches to brainwashing forced on generations of America’s children by America’s wreckage of a public-education industry…
    There’s the harm my friend.
    Now your homework, your essay on what unites Americans, appreciating our united country, when may we expect it?

  • I enjoyed reading this article…..please have more from him…he’s highly educated and loves our country!

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