Tales from behind the wall

Local mmigrants talk about growing up in former Soviet Union

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 
photoGalina Burley

Ask Clark County's immigrants about what it was like growing up in the Soviet Union, and you'll get a variety of unusual tales.

For Galina Burley, 37, life changed dramatically as her country moved from the Cold War into the modern era. The Vancouver mother of three grew up in Sochi, Russia, and moved to the United States in 1991 when she was 15.

One of her strongest memories of her school days is from her fifth-grade history class.

"After a whole year of Soviet history, our teacher comes in and said, 'OK guys, throw away your history books, a bunch of the stuff I was teaching you was crap,'" she said.

In the final weeks of the class, the teacher told the kids a different story about Joseph Stalin, who had been portrayed as a hero, and how he killed and repressed his own people, Burley said.

She also remembers how Americans were portrayed before and after.

"The books were about how you guys are oppressing African-Americans, oppressing your own people," she said. "And then there was a big shift, and suddenly we all loved Americans."

Prior to the Soviet Union's breakup, kids had to wear a red flag on their school uniform to show solidarity with the Communist Party.

"I remember a school assembly in 1987, 1988, (during Perestroika) where our school director said, 'You no longer have to wear a flag,'" Burley said. "Of course, I also remember lines, for bread, for everything. That was just normal."

Yulia Rogers, 32, Russian parent liaison for Evergreen Public Schools, moved to the United States from Ukraine in July 2004. She remembers chaotic times before and after the Berlin Wall came down in 1991.

"None of us knew what to expect," Rogers said. "This was our way of life. A lot of us maybe suspected it wasn't the best."

She remembers plants and schools shutting down and rising unemployment from when she was 10 through her teen years. In 1996, she came to the United States for the first time as an exchange student in Albuquerque, N.M.

During the Cold War, when folks in the United States were demonizing the Soviets, the Soviets were doing the same thing, she said.

"In Soviet times, for us it wasn't so much that you guys were bad, it's that we thought we were so much better," Rogers said.

The space program and the launch of the Sputnik, Earth's first satellite, in 1957 was a huge source of pride in the Soviet Union, she remembers.

"It was a big deal that we were the first ones in space," Rogers said. "It doesn't matter that you guys walked on the moon. We were better."

Of course, things changed after she came to the U.S. and married her husband, who's American and Canadian.

"It's my home now, I feel like it's a much better opportunity," Rogers said. "The education system is corrupt in Russia and in Ukraine."

In those countries you can get a free college education if you get certain educational points or grades from professors. The problem is, oftentimes, professors will auction off points or give certain grades for a bribe, she said.

"It's just sad," she said. "It can be really frustrating for people that really do have talented kids."

The Soviet regime also did its best to kill off native languages, she said.

Ukrainian, Armenian and other populations were encouraged to speak Russian first. And Russian was the language used by schools from kindergarten through college, she said.

In recent years, there have been efforts by old Soviet bloc countries to reclaim their native languages and heritage, but Russian still remains dominant, Rogers said.

"A lot of the population (age) 30 and up, who were raised there, they speak Russian," Rogers said. "Although there was a big push after 2000 to make the native language the first language."

Rogers, who was raised in eastern Ukraine, is part of the population that was raised speaking Russian, she added.

"It was hard for my generation because we were brought up Russian," Rogers said. "We had to relearn our native language as a second language. Ukraine, we have our own poets, writers, great people, but we couldn't grow up reading about them because of that."

Burley, whose grandparents were Armenian, also remembers the bias against native languages.

"Even though my grandparents spoke Armenian, we weren't allowed," Burley said. "They didn't want us to have problems with our school."