Among the US diaspora, Gorbachev leaves a mixed legacy

Mikhail Gorbachev lifted restrictive policies that enabled hundreds of thousands of Jews to seek futures in the US and Israel. PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (NYTIMES) - Decades after immigrating to the United States in search of freedom to live and pray as they chose, without state control or discrimination, members of the Russian-speaking diaspora expressed gratitude to Mikhail Gorbachev for ushering in a new era for Russia and the republics formerly in its orbit.

"I and others who like freedom, we are thankful that Gorbachev did everything to bring freedom to our country," said Konstantin Chvouim, 74.

Chvouim emigrated with his family in 1993 from Odesa, Ukraine, to the United States, where he started two successful Russian delis in Los Angeles called Babushka Grandma's and pursued his interest in jazz.

Gorbachev lifted restrictive policies that enabled hundreds of thousands of Jews like Chvouim to seek futures in the United States and Israel.

"Thanks to Gorbachev, we came to America,'' he said. "We could travel to other countries."

About 1.2 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union called the United States home in 2019, according to tabulations of census data by the Migration Policy Institute.

The vast majority speak Russian, and the two largest groups, Russians and Ukrainians, number 392,000 and 355,000.

Whether they arrived in the United States decades ago, or just last year, Russians and others from the former Soviet Union said that they admired the last Soviet president for ending the Cold War without bloodshed.

"I respect Gorbachev for putting Russia on its knees without firing any single shot," said Mark Goren, 75, another Russian speaker who immigrated to Los Angeles from Kyiv decades ago.

Vadim Grigorian, 38, a Russian of Armenian descent, reached the United States last year after flying to Mexico, fleeing a crackdown on public dissent by the government of Vladimir Putin. He and his wife, Tatiana, are among thousands of Russians, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who have crossed the southern border in the past year and requested asylum.

"My generation thinks Gorbachev was a good guy," said Grigorian, a former restaurateur who is awaiting a work permit in Los Angeles.

"He gave freedom," said Grigorian. "He let Latvia, Estonia and other countries choose their own path."

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But others said that they could not forgive Gorbachev for the economic hardship provoked by his reforms and the disintegration of an omnipotent Soviet Union into smaller, independent states after perestroika (restructuring).

"Before Gorbachev, all these former republics, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, their factories, everything was connected," said Vasily, 66, a kitchen worker at a Russian grocery in the San Fernando Valley who asked to be identified by his first name because of concerns about backlash. "We were the same people, speaking the same language."

Recalling food shortages and dwindling living standards, Vasily, who arrived in the United States five years ago from Lviv, Ukraine, said, "He ruined everything. The countries couldn't exist separated, and everything went to trash."

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