1992 | Kiev, Ukraine | Age: 32
I was an engineer, and I worked on what was called “The Box” which was part of the Ministry of Defense. I had a security clearance to work with classified projects. I had heard that it would be difficult to get permission to leave if you had a security clearance. So when we started to prepare to emigrate - about 2 years out - I left that job so that I wouldn’t be connected with it by the time we applied for exit visas. I then taught computer classes to school kids at one of the Palaces of Young Pioneers (youth activity centers). There weren’t much resources to teach computing at the time. I had learned Fortran in the early ‘80s at University, but that was inapplicable to PC’s.
At the same Palace, there was a class/club for model making, where kids, with the guidance of teachers, would make highly detailed models of cars and ships. This is a detailed replica of an actual fire truck that I made myself there. I took it with us because I’d heard that handmade items were valued in America. I was worried about how we would earn money, how I would support my family. On the one hand, I had read about America, and I thought that we’d figure things out within a few months. On the other, there was definitely the fear of the unknown, so I was trying to prepare for anything.
I wanted to continue working in my field, but I understood that the USSR was behind America in electronics technology. We had been mapping out microchips, the plans for which were routinely stolen from the U.S. Then they were reverse-engineered, which of course produced much poorer quality microchips. My area was specialized. I studied the effects of radiation - both blast radiation and prolonged exposure to cosmic radiation - on microchips. When we had been here for about 2 months, I got a call from the CIA requesting a meeting with me. I naively hoped that my experience would be useful to them and that maybe they’d offer me a job. The agent that met with me was well acquainted with my previous work. He knew all the classified project code names. I wasn’t the first person that the CIA questioned. They were just monitoring and already knew quite a lot. So my career in the CIA never got off the ground.
We bought our dacha - our summer home - in 1988. It was in a little village 120 km from Kiev, and we were one of only a few families who were not local inhabitants. We knew nothing about gardening or horticulture, so I would read books on the topic. At first the locals laughed at my efforts because I went by the books, rather than by how they had been cultivating the land for generations. But by the second or third harvest they had stopped laughing and started observing what I was doing. On the property were a few blackcurrant bushes, and before we left for America, I gave my dad a few of the cuttings, which he then planted at his dacha. He came to visit us a few years later, when we bought our first home with a backyard. He wrapped 4 of his own cuttings in a wet towel, and he basically smuggled them through customs in his carry-on. Not only is it prohibited to bring in plants, but blackcurrant farming at the time was banned in the U.S. because I think it was a threat to pine trees. Anyway, I planted them at our first house, and they thrived into 6 bushes. Then when we moved to our current home, we dug them up and replanted them here. My uncle and my mother-in-law both have blackcurrant bushes on their properties, grown from those smuggled cuttings. Every year I give some cuttings to friends and neighbors too. So all the blackcurrant in the area originated from the little village outside Kiev. We collect about 15 kilos of berries a season and make jam, preserves, compote, or just eat them raw. And the aroma of the plants always reminds me of my childhood - my grandmother also had blackcurrant bushes.