It’s a quiet afternoon in the Macaulay Honors lounge of the Hunter College library. Students are gathered in groups studying for exams or conversing in the minimalist white and blue room. Down the hall, Lev, the director of Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, sits in his office. It’s full of books, photos, and scholarly accolades, including his D.Phil. degree in inorganic chemistry from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.
Looking around his decorated office and speaking to Lev himself, one could never even imagine how strikingly different his previous life was from his current one. Lev was born in Moscow in 1982, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. It had the perks of being an urban center, as the capital of a large country, but at the same time, there were a lot of downsides.
He grew up under a communist dictatorship with his single mother, who was a screenwriter, a film critic, and a radical. Overall, he described his early life under communism as “a very odd existence.” His mom was a member of the writers’ union but struggled to publish because she was blacklisted. Since the essence of communism involved growing and living as a commune, the two of them lived together in a small communal apartment. “There was no such thing as private property. Everything belonged to the state; the state, in theory, belonged to the people, and so there was nothing that was uniquely yours, it was everybody’s.” At the heart of that idea was the practice of putting different families into the same housing units and just seeing how things worked out.
Unlike all of the other kids who would go into kindergarten to “learn the ways of the party,” Lev was raised at home. His mom was not a fan of the party, to say the least, so all of the kids would go into the camp and he was the only one outside the wire fence. It was like a strange, parallel existence.
While he had an idyllic early childhood — spending most months of the year at film studios, shoots, or theaters, and staying with his grandparents in the Ukraine during the summer months — he also lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1988, the Soviet Union underwent a major economic collapse, and by 1991, the Soviet Union had formally collapsed. In the buildup to the fall and after the fall, there was severe hyperinflation to the point where currency was absolutely useless, and there were such bad supply shortages that there was just no food.
At six years old, Lev was spending his days waiting on line in the cold wearing a massive coat, with a government-issued coupon book tied to his hand in his little glove, hoping to secure any food in the course of a given day. “Whether your food was rotten or not was irrelevant, you just needed to have it. And it was miserable,” he said. “You’d stand in this line all day and get nothing, or occasionally you’d have this wad of money and you had to commoditize it right away.” If his mom came home with money she’d earned that day from doing whatever work she could, they had to spend it immediately to get it off their hands as soon as possible; otherwise, by the end of the day, that currency had absolutely no value. As Lev put it, “It was tragic, in many respects, but it was a complete systematic breakdown of distribution.” The food lines weren’t just miserable; they were dangerous. He watched kids get trampled. He saw people die in these lines because they had been standing out in the freezing cold all day.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Lev’s mom saw that the people who were rising to the top of the new government were former KGB members. As Lev said,
In many respects, the KGB provides the best professional training of any institution in the Soviet Union. They are the smartest, best trained, and best educated people in the country. At the same time, one of their primary purposes was to engage in the active murder of citizens, so while they may be the best, they don’t belong in government structuring policies that affect people.
In response to seeing these former KGB members moving up in the new government, Lev’s mom founded a show called “Top Secret”. Every week, she would go into the national archive and pull up former spies’ cases, taking down members of the government by exposing these people as former spies and causing them to resign out of shame.
By 1992, she had built enough of a reputation and professional network internationally to decide where she wanted to go. She applied for and received three fellowships at Toronto University, Duke University, and New York University. Both Lev and his mother came to the United States on April 9th, 1993 for what was meant to be a 6-month period where his mom would be a visiting researcher and Lev would just “bum around.” However, the day they were supposed to leave the U.S. for Russia, they watched in horror as a coup happened in Russia and was broadcast on live television. “We were literally packing to go to the airport when we saw her film studio on fire, some of her friends being murdered, and you could see it all on live TV,” Lev recalled. “Looking at all of this—her being a single mom and facing essentially a binary choice of the certainty of death versus the uncertainty of Western life—in that moment we decided to give the plane a miss and see if we could make a life here in America.”
Life in the United States obviously involved a huge cultural shift for Lev, who was at this point 10 years old. It was like a different world; there were so many different foods, colors, sights, and sounds. One of his first memories of America was from when him and his mom landed in Vermont. “You have to understand, I was raised in the school environment to believe that the U.S. had one purpose in existence and it was to nuke me,” he prefaced. In Russia, they practiced duck and cover, and were told things like if you held your breath underwater for two minutes, then the nuke wouldn’t have an effect on you. None of it made sense, but that was what they were raised to believe. So, when Lev and his mom landed in Vermont to visit some of his mom’s friends and Lev woke up at 4 in the morning because of jetlag, he was confused when he saw nothing but fog and cows. He woke up his mother and asked, “Mom, this is America?” She responded, “Well yes, why not?” And he simply asked, “Well where are the nukes?” He thought they would be everywhere because all they ever heard about the United States was “America will nuke you.”
His first impression of New York City itself was actually from when he was transiting from Canada to North Carolina through JFK. Back then, before 9/11, planes would fly right across the city. They would start going down over the city and would land in LaGuardia or JFK. Lev’s first impression was just flying over New York City, looking down at this anthill of a place and saying to himself, “this feels right.” For Lev, just upon looking over New York City, he immediately knew, “That’s my place, but I don’t know how to get there yet.” In regard to life in the city, Lev said,
The whole thing was surprising. It was unusual to simply be out in a town, and it was unusual to engage with people openly in the street and to talk to strangers without being in a place where you felt safe. That was a huge cultural difference. In the old country, you were constantly being watched and listened to and spied upon, and you never knew at what point they would show up and arrest you and off you go to a detention center or a labor camp. So no one actually talked, whereas here people just wouldn’t shut up.
Everything about America was so shockingly different to him after spending his whole life up until that point living under a communist regime. For example, Lev described his first experience walking into a supermarket. The first thing he saw was the meat section, and to him, there was no higher food commodity than chicken. When he was growing up, he hadn’t had meat for about 4 to 5 years. They just couldn’t afford it, and when they could, the money was useless. “There were bags and bags of chicken, and the old instinct kicks in: we must commoditize our money. And I’m literally taking all the chicken and just pulling it into the cart. And all these people are just watching this 10-year-old kid putting chicken in the cart, filling the cart.” His mom was standing there crying, trying to explain to him that the chicken would all be there tomorrow and everything would be fine, but he insisted that she didn’t understand and that they must take all of this now. All of these people were watching him as he had a complete meltdown, before his mom ultimately calmed him down and put it all back.
“So when you ask me what was shocking, I don’t know where to begin. The whole thing was shocking. How can you have this much food? How can you have this much excess?” It was a complete disconnect between the communist world of standing in lines just to obtain a meager portion, if any, food, and the capitalist world of having too much food to even fathom the idea of consuming it all. To come from such an extreme shortage of goods and go to such an unlimited excess of supply was so inconceivable and overwhelming for Lev at the time that he just could not wrap his head around it, and in that moment at the supermarket, it just was too much to comprehend.
Consumerism wasn’t the only stark contrast that Lev experienced upon arriving in the United States. The first place he and his mom lived in in the city was on Barrow Street and 6th Avenue, which Lev described as “the fanciest address I will ever associate with.” It was a huge, glamorous, 1-floor apartment belonging to a friend of his mom’s. The family portraits in that apartment were done by Mark Chagall, a major Russian artist. It was particularly glamorous for someone who came out of a 15 square meter communal apartment, a TV with no more than two channels, and a shared bathroom where you had to take your toilet seat to prevent it from getting stolen by your neighbors. The neighborhood of Greenwich Village was also vastly different from everything Lev knew and understood in Soviet Russia.
The Village of the 1990s was wild. And when you come from the Soviet Union where you don’t know what jazz is, or rock, and there’s no culture of gay or straight nightlife, none of that exists. It’s all underground, and here all of a sudden, it’s all in the street. You have no idea, you’ve never seen such things. You’ve never seen so many colors, so many different foods, so many different smells, so many different sounds. It was like a different world.
It would be difficult to choose two more culturally disparate places than Moscow under the Soviet Union and Greenwich Village of New York City. However, Lev and his mother only lived there for their first year in New York, when his mom was a sort of high-flying visiting researcher. When they decided to stay, her passport expired, they overstayed their visas, and they were effectively undocumented.
At this point, the two of them had no legal documents and the Russian authorities refused to issue his mom a new passport because she was very anti-government. They essentially said that if she wanted a new passport, she would have to come back to Russia and get a new passport, which she refused to do. So, for about a year and a half, Lev and his mom were homeless. “In our first year we were really just in a state—I don’t want to say comatose—you just don’t know what to do. You can’t just do nothing but at the same time you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. We went from that fancy apartment to the streets of New York.” They did their best to couch surf as much as they could but there were some nights when they were just in the street. When they had first come here, they would walk around at night; Lev’s mom had normalized that. When they were homeless, they would do about the same thing. They’d walk around at night, and during the day try to find somewhere to nap—usually in a main library or somewhere like the bus terminal. “You sort of try and create a routine under conditions where you can’t have a routine. Mom did a great job of trying to make that feel as normal as if we were just being tourists. At the same time, you know it’s not normal, but you try and make the best of it.” This was one of the biggest challenges they faced in the beginning of their time in New York, going from having money, food, and housing with Chagall paintings to sleeping in the George Washington Bridge bus terminal. But Lev and his mother persevered, and looking back at that time now, he said,
There’s a great Churchill quote, which is “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” It was about the same thing because you have to maintain your dignity, your sense of self-respect. At the same time, you know you’re at the point of no return. You have to remind yourself that the choice is really a false one. You either live with the uncertainty of staying in the West or you go home to a certainty of death. It’s very straightforward.
Despite their dignified perseverance, they only had so much emotional reserve to live in that kind of state and condition. They didn’t have any money, but luckily Lev’s mom was a prominent journalist and she found an organization called “Lawyers Committee for Human Rights”, which is now known as “Human Rights First”. Human Rights First is a nonpartisan human rights association based in New York and Washington, D.C. which has a pro bono legal representation program which matches good lawyers who understand the system with asylum-seekers who would not otherwise be able to afford high quality legal representation. His mom went to their offices, interviewed, and qualified for the organization to take their case. Ultimately, that case succeeded—not for political asylum but for extraordinary abilities in the arts—and his mom got a visa. That was how they finally broke out of that state of homelessness, and how Lev was able to move on to be educated and become the accomplished, admired, beloved, and respected man he is today.
When asked about the first time he really felt at home in New York City, Lev immediately answered that it was right away. Despite all of the cultural distinctions between his old life and his new one, Lev was almost instantly certain that this was and always would be the place for him.
It was, it is, and always will be I think one of the most magical places on Earth. It’s almost like a mental condition. You either are a New Yorker or you’re not. And I bought that bug, disease, whatever it is a long time ago. It’s dirty, it smells funny, it’s loud, it’s expensive, but at the same time, in many respects it encapsulates life itself. There is no such thing as a straight path, there is no such thing as being neat throughout the day. If you intend to live, you should be willing to get dirty, and this place makes you really dirty, whether you intend to be dirty or not. I really think it’s an extraordinary place.
One of the best examples of just how extraordinary this city continues to be for him is his regular hobby of playing softball on field 4 off of 64th and Central Park West. As he grew up, he started to play there and has consistently been playing there for 25 years. He now plays with grandkids of the people he started playing with. “It really was incredible. Those guys took me in. We had nothing. They taught me how to play; they used to buy me food,” he said. “It’s the incredible capacity of generally asshole New Yorkers to be kind to one another that makes this place like no other, and I think we saw the very best of that after 9/11. And every time we face a crisis we remember that ultimately we’re New Yorkers first and everything else is just bullshit.”
Looking to the future, Lev believes that his future is tied to the success of New York City in many respects, as is the case for every resident of this city. “We do have our own microeconomic environment as it were, where our unemployment figures and things are very different from national trends and other types of considerations.” But for himself specifically, he doesn’t know what exactly the future holds. He doesn’t have tenure in Macaulay Honors College, so he may be here at the end of the year or he may not. “That’s neither positive nor negative, that’s just reality,” he states matter-of-factly. “I’m very much pragmatic with respect to trying to forecast things and can operate in many different environments, and I think that effectively what makes me a New Yorker is the ability to adjust my skill sets to meet whatever needs I’ll be hired for.” The important thing to him is the ability to apply his skill sets to meaningful work, and he consider what he does now to be meaningful work. “I know how privileged I am right now to do what I do—to work with our faculty, to work with my great team, to work with our kids,” he says. “As long as I enjoy this and the outcomes are positive, and as long as the administration sees value in what I do, I guess I’ll be here and maybe that’s optimistic. We’ll see what the future holds.”
“Asylum.” Human Rights First, www.humanrightsfirst.org/asylum.