Suffering the American Immigration System, Part 1
This is Part 1 of a series documenting, in retrospect, my family's long and difficult journey from Russia to the United States through the American immigration system.
I had just marked five years in Russia much in the way you might mark a birthday or other holiday in that country — a get-together with family and friends and a barbeque out at the countryside cottage. This countryside cottage was a little more than an hour’s drive northeast of Moscow in the small cottage village Mavrino, where my friend Pasha had build a small home and where my wife and I had just recently bought an almost half-acre plot land to do the same.
The celebration was the latest in a series of celebrations I had during those five years for other important milestones along the way — such as marking 1,000 days just prior to my third year there, and 50 months just after my fourth year. Pasha bought chicken and pork to make shashlik — Russian shish kebabs — and potatoes to cut up and fry in his outdoor wood fire oven stove known as a Kazan. The potatoes ended up like traditional breakfast home fries and the meat was always delicious, cooked over a flame and marinated in vinegar and onions. My contribution were chicken hindquarters which I cooked on the grill with Heinz barbeque sauce, making our get-togethers a wonderful mixture of traditional Russian and classic American cuisine.
Living in Russia made me proud and I was generally happy there, not in any small part thanks to these barbeques with my friend. Regardless of the various inconveniences that come with living in a country outside of the so-called First World, and, yes, regardless of the bone-shivering winters where the daytime temperature stays around -5 °F for months at a time, I was in for the long haul. Nevertheless, there was always a lingering doubt about how long I would actually stay which, I suppose, is why I kept track of the days, months and years as they passed.
That lingering doubt came and went with the ebbs and flows of time. There were moments of great joy when returning to the United States was the last thing on my mind and there were moments of deep sorrow — such as when my grandfather died — when I felt a sense of regret about leaving the United States in the first place. Yet the reasons for staying in Russia always outweighed the reasons for leaving.
For instance, I always had a well-paying, meaningful job as an ESL teacher that I enjoyed, particularly when I moved from teaching in private language schools to teaching in kindergartens and elementary schools. As a native speaker of English, there were always teaching opportunities that gave me independence, responsibility, and respect from students (or at least their parents) and colleagues, but there were other opportunities as well, such as in copywriting, editing, and translating, all of which I pursued, including a stint as a news editor for Interfax, a Russian news agency.
There were boundless opportunities for travel in the largest country on Earth and most Russians would tell you that I’ve seen more of Russia than have most Russians. From Karelia along Russia’s borders with Finland to Buryatia along its borders with Mongolia, from Russia’s western Siberian petroleum basin, the largest hydrocarbon basin in the world, to the North Caucuses in southern Russia just north of Georgia, I visited over a hundred different towns, cities and landmarks during my time there, the stories of which I shared in my own travel and lifestyle column in a local newspaper where I wrote about my life as an American in Russia.
Besides the obvious benefits life in Russia afforded me, there were real reasons why I left the United States and those reasons were as pertinent during each of those five years in Russia as they were the day I boarded a plane to move there. An entire series could focus on the details of those reasons but they can be summed up in one word: hopelessness. Hopelessness in the decay of American society.
I speak of the transition Americans have made from ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country to an entitlement mentality of what can my country do for me? I speak about the loss our values, the breakdown of the nuclear family, the sexualization of society, the normalization of deviance, and the sheer public indecency of those dedicated to radical social transformation. I speak about the dysfunction of government, the corruption of our leaders, and the growing divide between the political establishment and the American people.
If anything, the decay of American society worsened during the time I was in self-exile in Russia — and I considered myself to some extent a political refugee, although I never sought political asylum there. I was never afraid to return to the United States, I just did not want to. I increasingly felt myself a foreigner in my own country, for it seemed that nobody was willing to fight to restore our values, rebuild our society, and save our Republic. Looking back, I think this feeling was somewhat unwarranted, but having lived all my life in blue states, I never had the opportunity to live among a community of patriots with whom I shared common values.
Although I enjoyed my life in Russia and had a genuine desire to never return to live in the United States, each moment of sorrow, each moment of regret, frustration, and occasional loneliness trickled down, drop by drop, until the sum of their collective weight tipped the scales away from Russia. It took a little over five years but those scales tipped in October 2021, though I must admit that it was not only bad moments that pushed on those scales. The birth of my daughter (and the desire for her to grow up near family) was not just a drop, but a constant stream — a waterfall even — weighing heavily upon those scales on a daily basis.
I cannot recall now what the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was. It may have have been the prospect of another bone-shivering winter or the increasingly frequent and brazen violations of civil liberties perpetrated by the Russian government. Or maybe a taxi driver was just a tad too disrespectful. Whatever it was that finally tipped the scales, I no longer wanted to live in Russia anymore and I no longer wanted my child to grow up there, either.
As such, the wheels started turning and on October 11, 2021, Day 1856 in Russia, I filed an I-130 immigration petition for my wife. Although it wasn't exactly clear when we would move to the United States, with the filing of this immigration petition I was crossing another border and entering the stage of acceptance that I would not be settling permanently in Russia as I had been planning to do for the previous five years. There was no sense of urgency at the time, but it made sense to file the petition, as the process of obtaining an immigrant visa to the United States is a lengthy one.
I was able to file the petition and pay the $535 filing fee online. Our USCIS receipt notice had a section at the bottom which read: NEBRASKA SERVICE CENTER along with its address in Lincoln, Nebraska. There are five other service centers, but it appeared that ours had been assigned to the one in Nebraska — a welcome development for which I felt fortunate, considering the processing time for I-130 petitions at that center at the time was only 4-7 months, while other centers, such as the one in California, were taking 2-3 years.
Ten days later — on October 21 — we received our first update from USCIS. Our case status was changed to indicate that our petition was under “active review.” It seemed things were moving along smoothly. Dare we imagine that our petition might be approved in just four months? Could we actually make it back to the United States by next summer? We looked at the calendar. Four to seven months meant our petition should be processed as early as February but no later than May 2022. The question suddenly became less about when we would go to the United States at some point in the abstract future, and more about what to do during the next 4-7 months.
While our house was being built by three construction workers from Uzbekistan on that plot of land in Mavrino, we paid cash to rent a cheap apartment in a Soviet-style apartment building called a Khrushchevka in a nearby village. Khrushchevkas were typically built in the 1960s when their namesake, Nikita Khrushchev, was Premier of the Soviet Union. They are representative of a time when housing in Russia was mass produced as cheaply and quickly as possible in order to fulfill the right to housing under their communist system.
Thus, they were assembled with concrete panels mass-produced offsite and pieced together on location, effectively creating rectangular cuboids stacked on top of each other like shipping containers. Little effort and even fewer resources were put into their beautification. One of the main characteristics of these Khrushchevkas is that they were all less than five stories high, an intentional architectural feature meant to avoid the legal (and costly) necessity of adding elevators.
Luckily, we were on the ground floor, so we did not have to climb flights of stairs everyday. Unfortunately, being on the ground floor meant the floor was a little squeaky in some places — and that it was often cold from the outside air. Other than that, the apartment itself was small — another characteristic of a Khrushchevka. The kitchen was big enough for one person at a time, but a second person could be seated at the table in the corner. The bathroom was even smaller — the sink and the bathtub shared the same faucet that you had to swing to the left or right, depending on where you needed the water. The bedroom and living room made up the majority of the apartment’s 270 square feet.
Since the lease on our apartment was up in December, we decided to leave Russia that month and do some travelling for what we expected would be 3-5 months. Russian immigrant visa cases were being reassigned to the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, because the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was severely understaffed. If we were going to have to leave Russia when our petition was approved anyway, why wait these 3-5 months in the bone-shivering winter in this tiny Soviet-style apartment when we can travel in warmer climates and gradually make our way to Poland by spring?
We created an itinerary that would take us through Egypt to visit Luxor and the Pyramids at Giza, Jordan to visit Petra and the Dead Sea, and then Turkey, were we could stay for up to three months without a visa. I had always wanted to visit Turkey but the chance never presented itself and then the pandemic made it virtually impossible. With countries closing their borders to non-essential travel, I was permitted to remain in Russia even after my work visa expired, as the Russian government universally extended all visas that expired during the pandemic. Thus, when we left Russia, even though many pandemic era restrictions had been lifted in Russia and elsewhere, I knew there was no going back.
I vividly remember my last night in that small village. It had started snowing earlier that evening. Mother Russia was saying goodbye but not letting me leave without one last taste of Russian winter. As I packed our suitcases into our car, my wife fastened our daughter into her car seat. Then, before we hit the road, I ran across the street to toss our garbage bags into the dumpster. Some of the bags were garbage, others were full of things that just didn’t make the cut. We actually threw away quite a bit of our personal belongings. Walking away, I thought to myself: whoever rummages through that dumpster tonight is going to hit the jackpot.
I stopped in the middle of the road under the street light and took a selfie in my American cowboy hat. I sent it to my mother and told her, referring to the snow, to show me that picture if I ever expressed regret about leaving Russia. It was the first day of winter 2021. Nearly two months had passed since we filed our I-130 petition with USCIS and we had not heard from them since October 21. We would not hear from them again until January 4, 2023.