“You never know where you will find your future.” Olga never knew that when she left Russia she would find her future in New York City. The only thing she knew is she had to get out of Russia and find life for her and her family. Now, she cannot see a future anywhere else but here. This is her story, her struggles, successes, and experiences that she wouldn’t want to have happened any differently.
Olga lived in Russia in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, right by the Volga River. With a little over a million people living here, you become quite accustomed to seeing the same faces on the streets. Olga lived here during the Communist regime, meaning life was completely different to that in America. A usual way of life during this time was “living in order to survive,” as Olga says. “In our country, you had to wait in line to buy necessary things like food. Choices were limited, if any at all. Walking into a grocery store, you had nothing. Maybe bread, sugar. There was rarely ever meat, and only one type of alcohol, cheap vodka.” People would have to stand in lines for hours just to get basic goods like eggs, milk, meat and by the time you were finished the chances for these goods still being in stock were slim to none. The result of Communism was most visible among the lower class. For Olga, that meant possible poverty. Not only was there a limited amount of goods, but there was no future in store for Olga.
Olga knew she wanted another child, but she knew it was not possible to have in Russia. “We were scared that we will not have enough money to grow and support one more child and still live not in poverty.” There were multiple reasons for her decision to immigrate, but this was the most important to her. She knew she wanted to raise her family somewhere that had opportunities, especially since she is Jewish. In the Soviet Union, the principle (and only acceptable) religion was Russian Orthodox. The Russian Orthodox church was deeply ingrained in the Russian government creating an unfriendly, to say the least, environment for people of other religious practices. From this strict institutionalization, Olga was exposed to Anti Semitic treatment and knew she could not raise a family that could prosper in such a country. She knew immigration was the best and only option.
Although she knew she had to leave her home country, her first impressions made her regretful of her decision. Olga immigrated to New York on May 27th, 1996, almost 22 years ago. She moved to Pelham Parkway in the Bronx, and lived in a one bedroom apartment of a 6 floor building. Although she lived in a decent neighborhood, there were a few things that really stood out to her.
“The stink from the garbage on the streets in Bronx was toxic. I felt like I was dying every breath I took.” One thing Russia was very fond of was outside appearance. The subway stations of Russia are one of if not the best in the world. The almost 5 minute escalator ride down to this underground world opened up into a large, gold encrusted space that made you feel rich by just standing there. Even if you did not have access to the subways since they were in the capital, the cities of Russia were very clean.
People had jobs taking care of the upkeep of cities, making sure it looked beautiful even if life wasn’t. New York City did not put this kind of emphasis on cleanliness. Especially in the 80s and 90s, New York subways were covered wall to wall in graffiti. Dirt was all over the streets, and garbage would be everywhere you looked. For Olga as is for most Russian immigrants, the sole amount of garbage was something one needed time adjusting to.
From the start, her experience of New York City was completely different to that of Nizhny Novgorod. “Nizhny Novgorod was closed off, it was a military production city. Most of the adults worked only in those factories.” In the 1990s, New York City was bustling with an energy. Living was inexpensive in comparison to now and New Yorkers were always willing to help one another. “It was a HUGE city full of a special kind of energy. They were a lot of people and they were completely different than those we knew in Russia; they were ready to give a helping hand to people.” Although this may seem wonderful, she was always skeptical of people because of where she grew up and lived.
New York City culture is much different than that of Russia as a whole. In Russia, people will not lend a helping hand, they will not do things for others simply because there was not enough for themselves to begin with. Due to the poor living conditions, people were doing only what they could for themselves and if others were suffering, they would suffer alone. The biggest challenge facing Olga was accepting that others would lend a helping hand just because they wanted to. “It was difficult to accept that if somebody smiled at me or told me they would help me that they actually meant it. It took me a while to understand that people were not my enemies.”
Even with this cautious mentality she was able to develop a sense of community. Since her neighborhood was largely comprised of Russian immigrants, she felt comfortable living there. She found others and they would share their mostly similar experiences of immigration, helped one another, and kept their culture alive. “We did not want to lose our culture or memories. So, we would create events, invite guests, and teach our children what it was to be from Russia.” To help others in her situation, her and the acquaintances she made from these events would invite people who just immigrated and gave them advice on creating a better transition from one’s home country to New York. Her community gave her a sense of confidence even though she was uncomfortable in such a new place.
Olga struggled with her confidence, specifically in interviews. “It was very hard to learn how to “sell” myself; how to show my best on interview especially since I am not a talkative person and I never understood how to prize myself.” Coming from a society in which you have to keep your head down and secrets to yourself, opening up was a very difficult task for Olga to take on. Luckily enough, she was able to find the job she has today through her friend’s family. They were looking for somebody with good phone communication skills and well pronounced Russian dialect. This turned into an established international TV company and together, her and her friend’s father opened a customer service phone center for this company. “I’m still a part of this after 18 years. I was moved up to senior manager in advertising and I never regret it, that I chose this way of life.”
Olga’s New York is filled with experiences she would have never received in Nizhny Novgorod. She experienced the diverse culture and energy of New York City by going to places such as Broadway, restaurants, museums, and simply walking the streets with open ears and eyes. She also saw some of the not-so-great aspects of New York City like the filth, crowding, and unfriendly subways. In her own words, she says “Everything we went through left some good and bad memories, but it also gave us a priceless experience.” For Olga, her New York is a nonstop show and constantly bustling people with a good cup of morning coffee.