Couple returns to Russia after emigrating 30 years ago

By Maggie Fazeli Fard

Community Life, Sept. 23, 2010

Every spring, mothers and fathers across the country field gift requests from their children, mementos of impending college graduations. The lists can read like miniature wedding registries, items ranging from baubles like pearl earrings and designer watches to extravagant jaunts island-hopping with friends along the Grecian coast. But when Inna Kuts’s daughter, Becky, was graduating this past May, she had a comparatively puritan request: a family trip to her parents’ homeland, Russia.

“I was a bit surprised – pleasantly surprised – that she was asking for this for a graduation gift,” says 53-year-old Kuts, a Township of Washington resident.

In front of the Kremlin complex in the heart of Moscow, Inna Kuts poses with her family during their vacation. It has been 30 years since Kuts and her husband, Sam, came to the U.S. from Russia. This summer, the couple decided to take their twin daughters to visit their home country. From left are Hannah, Inna, Becky and Sam Kuts.

In front of the Kremlin complex in the heart of Moscow, Inna Kuts poses with her family during their vacation. It has been 30 years since Kuts and her husband, Sam, came to the U.S. from Russia. This summer, the couple decided to take their twin daughters to visit their home country. From left are Hannah, Inna, Becky and Sam Kuts.

Kuts, who grew up in St. Petersburg when it was still called Leningrad, left Russia 30 years ago when it was still the Soviet Union. She was 23 at the time and her departure from the USSR marked the end of a two-year ordeal to secure an exit visa and join the throngs of Russian Jews emigrating to countries like Israel, France, Germany and the United States, where they were granted refugee status.

“There was a big exodus of Russian Jews out of the Soviet Union from the ’70s to the ’90’s. There was international pressure to let us leave because of the prejudice,” explains Kuts, 53.

“At that time it was very difficult to leave the country in terms of bureaucracy,” she continues. “My mother, father, sister and I all applied, but I did not get an exit visa. The Soviet Union decided someone in the family had to stay behind – refusenik,” she says, referring to her status by the Russian term for those who were refused exit visas. “I kept applying every six months and hoped that they would change their minds.”

Finally, in 1980, two years after the rest of her family left, Kuts was granted her own exit visa and, in joining her parents and sister in Brooklyn, N.Y., became one of 2 million Russian Jews who left the Soviet Union – 600,000 of whom settled in the United States.

Four days after arriving in New York, she met Sam Kuts, a fellow expatriate. The pair fell in love, married, and raised twin daughters, Becky and Hannah.

“My husband and I are both Russian, but we’ve only known each other in America,” says Kuts, a marketing manager at Provident Bank in Jersey City. “Our daughters know the Russian language, but they don’t know the country, the people, the culture. Our home together is here [in America]. But Becky and Hannah wanted to experience the history and culture firsthand.”

And so, for two weeks in June, the foursome set off for the former Communist stronghold, memorialized in popular American culture as the land of nuclear warheads, food rations, and drab clothing in the 1980s, and, more recently, as a playground for mob bosses in the 1990s.

But what the Kutses encountered at the end of their 10-hour flight bore no resemblance to either the reality of the Soviet Union of their youth or to its pop culture representation.

Long gone were the food ration lines, replaced by upscale restaurants and designer boutiques. Even the propaganda songs were different: Gone were the militant songs of yore. Now, beautiful girls in perfectly lacquered makeup and skimpy, colorful outfits sing a techno-pop ditty characterizing Vladimir Putin, Russia’s former President and current Prime Minister, as a dream man: “I want a man like Putin, who’s full of strength. I want a man like Putin, who doesn’t drink. I want a man like Putin, who won’t make me sad,” lilts the duo Singing Together. The song, which first appeared in 2002, quickly went on to top the charts and became a karaoke favorite among Muscovites.

“It was almost like a different country. It was a different country,” says Kuts. “It had changed beyond my expectations.”

But, if the thriving propaganda machine is an example of anything, it’s that there really are some things that never change – namely, a rich history and culture that the Russian people have held on to.

The Kutses visited the Kremlin in the heart of Moscow (Sam Kuts’s hometown), the official residence of Russia’s president, and the famous State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. They visited Inna’s high school in St. Petersburg and Sam’s university in Moscow, and walked the streets of the cities they grew up in. Becky and Hannah reveled in St. Petersburg’s famous “white nights,” so called because for a period each summer, the sun doesn’t set.

But perhaps the most emotional moment of the trip was Kuts’s reunion with a childhood friend who she hadn’t seen or spoken to in the 30 years since leaving for America.

“Thank God for the Internet,” gushes Kuts. “We were able to find each other through the Russian equivalent of Classmates.com. It was very emotional and now we talk every day.”

Still, Kuts doesn’t regret waiting so long to go back. “This was the right time. My daughters are old enough to appreciate it now,” she explains. While she doesn’t have any plans to return to Russia in the near future, she says it’s not out of the question and treasures the experience of returning this past June.

“We probably would never have gone back if my daughters hadn’t asked for it,” says Kuts. “It was very emotional for us.”

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