Why Hello, America!
In the early nineties, in Russia, if you were a foreigner it was as if you had blue blood. It did not matter if you were a simple Italian plumber or an American mover. From our point of view, even foreigners coming to Russia on a tour package that cost them all they had seemed like billionaires. They wore Reebok or Nike sneakers and leather jackets, signs of great wealth during the breakup of the USSR. We called them businessmen. Now I understand that these were low-budget tourists, but in the midst of the rampant poverty, they seemed super rich. That is why everyone wanted to hang out with foreigners. Male university students chased after them, hoping to make a buck; women followed them around so that they could get into US-dollar bars like the ones at the Pribaltiyskaya or the Gavan Hotel. If they were really lucky, they might be taken to the Grand Hotel Yevropa. Better yet, they would get married and move away. Not that every story had a happy ending.
Every Wednesday at the Kirov Cultural Center there was a party for people over thirty. Those parties seemed really lame at the time and now, too, when I am over forty myself, they still seem like a silly idea. I do not know what possessed my classmate Sasha Sankin to go there. Maybe it seemed like it would be easier to meet a woman there and take her to a hotel—because people over thirty are more easy-going. What actually happened though was that he met an American woman over forty years old, they had sex at the dormitory—and she fell in love with him!
She was in love with a poor student twenty years her junior, who had moved to St. Petersburg from Tashkent! In the end she invited him to move to a small town called Santa Rosa, 30 miles from San Francisco, a typical Californian town with a population of about one hundred thousand. Not far away is the famous Wine Country, where there are thousands of wineries dotting the valleys of Napa, Sonoma, Alexander, Bennett, Dry Creek, and Russian River.
Santa Rosa lies along the Russian River; at its mouth, on the Pacific Ocean, stands the town of Fort Ross; it was the southernmost Russian colony during the early 19th century. It was at Fort Ross that the Russian ships Yunona and Avos, made famous by Andrei Boznesensky’s and Alexei Rybnikov’s opera, made landfall. It is not a made-up story: in 1806, according to official records, the Russian aristocrat Nikolai Rezanov actually met and fell in love with Concepción Argüello, the daughter of the Spanish Governor.
The Russians left Fort Ross in 1841. From an economic point of view, there was no reason for them to stay there. In 1867, Alexander II sold Alaska to the Americans for 7.2 million dollars in gold, but the Russian colonies on the Pacific coast were not included in the transaction.
By a twist of fate, then, Sankin ended up in a place that had been historically Russian. He had been living there for a year already, but I had no idea; I was simply sitting in my Petrosib office, wearing a raspberry-red blazer. As soon as I found out he had moved there, I got hold of his telephone number. At that time, it was not easy to place a phone call to America. I went to the Central Post Office, waited in line, and got through to Sankin. It seemed miraculous—just as placing a phone call to Mars would now.
“Hi, Sasha! This is Oleg Tinkov. So you’re really in America? That’s awesome!”
“Hey, Oleg! Yeah, I’m slowly getting settled in here.”
“How’s your American wife?”
“We recently got divorced…I got a Green Card and am official here now. I brought my dad here from Tashkent. I’m renting an apartment. I work a power lift at Friedman Brothers. We sell home hardware.”
“No way! Can I come visit you?”
“Fly on over. I’ll help you out when you first get here. You can stay at my place.”
Getting my visa was a headache and a half. I tried everything. For a small fee—or maybe out of the kindness of his heart (I don’t quite remember the details)—a friend from the Leningrad Army Sports Club hockey team set things up to appear as though I had been hired as support staff. My height, at six feet, four inches made me convincing. In December 1992, I came to the consulate for an interview.
“Okay, we’ll give you the visa, but how are you going to pay for living expenses?”
“I have a credit card.”
When I was in Singapore, I broke Russian law by opening an account at Citibank. I got a Visa Gold card. By then, my credit card history went back 18 years. This made an impression on on the consul: in St. Petersburg, out of a population of five million, there were perhaps a thousand people who had a card like that. How did someone who worked as part of a hockey team’s support staff end up with a Gold Visa? The consul refrained from asking and gave me another visa—in this case an American one.
I partied over New Year’s Eve. Then, in January 1993 I got into an Il-86 airplane on an Aeroflot flight from Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow to San Francisco via Anchorage. My surroundings shocked me: there were Jewish refugees, crying children, and a bunch of mesh bags. I was stunned by the smell of the San Francisco airport. Anyone who has flown in America knows that unique airport smell. There were a lot of iron doors and police shouting into megaphones:
The movie Gangs of New York with Leonardo Dicaprio reminds me of the imposing feeling I had then, at the beginning—the sense that America resembles a big prison. At the airport, if you are an outsider, they immediately make sure you know that everything is serious, that everything is under the government’s control. Big Brother is watching you! Sasha Sankin met me and drove me around San Francisco in an old Toyota. I was sleepy because of jetlag, but nevertheless we went to a bar to have a beer. At first glance, I did not like the city. It seemed strange, unintelligible, and unkempt. Today I think that it is the most European and the most beautiful city in the US. I spent close to 5 years there. If I ever decided to move to America permanently, I would settle in San Francisco.
We drove thirty miles to Sasha’s small house in Santa Rosa, past the famous Golden Gate Bridge, which I had often seen in Hollywood movies. The house really did look like it was made of cardboard, which is something people usually say about American houses. I was also surprised to note that Sasha’s father was very angry, aggressive, and bitter. Towards himself, towards Sasha, towards me—he resented everyone. They would get up at six in the morning and leave the house, making sure the heater was turned off, because they wanted to save money. The intense cold would wake me up. I realized I would not be able to sleep, so I got up right after they did. Welcome to capitalism!
But these were minor details, and they did not bother me. I had come to America for new experiences. I did not find America as shocking as I had West Berlin, even though I was awestruck by a lot of things. First of all, the infrastructure was astounding: the roads, bridges, airport, and transit system. Secondly: there were the prices. The market system works in America: everything is really cheap. Now that is capitalism! That is the West!
When I arrived in America, I knew practically no English. I gawked at my surroundings, dumbfounded. It was hard to learn the language. Now, though, my speaking and writing skills are not all that bad. I make mistakes, but I doubt that my written Russian is much better.
Now, naturally, simply having a good time was not my only reason for being in America. I wanted to start something. That same January I went to a government office in Santa Rosa and registered a company, California Siberia Enterprise. Between the paperwork and getting a stamp made, the procedure took about an hour. Next I went to Kinko’s, where you can pay for office services. I leafed through the free templates and found an image of a Siberian Bear, which I decided to use as my company logo. Everything fell together: the bear symbolized Siberia and the yellow and green motif represented California. I had a bunch of business cards printed, right away, which read:
California Siberia Enterprise
I began sending all kinds of goods to Russia—fireproof safes, for example. At first, Sankin and I sent them as cargo. Later on, however, we started began sending full containers. My junior partner and general director of Petrosib, Andrei Surkov, would receive the freight in St. Petersburg. To this day he continues to sell electronics in St. Petersburg—Bang & Olufsen and Loewe brands, among others. I had met him on Nalichnaya Street, in the dormitory where Rina lived. I always saw this young, enterprising man wearing glasses. He always had some kind of offer for me, whether it was cosmetics kits or cases of cassettes. During the day, the little shit would buy the cases cheaply, in the store, and then he would try to sell them to me the same evening. Even so, I was able to get still more for them in Siberia and so I used him as a supplier. We got to know one other in the course of these speculations and, when the time came to appoint a general director for Petrosib, I of course chose Andrei. He fit in: with his glasses and suit, the bankers trusted him.
In 1993, for my part, I had a lot more than business on my mind. I was trying to find a way to stay in America. In order to get a Green Card (i.e. permanent residence), I had to go often to the INS (the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service), the authority that handled immigration.
* * *
In America, I became authentically Orthodox. I had already been baptized in Leningrad on December 25, my birthday, in 1988, but I seldom attended church. In Santa Rosa, a lot of local Russians gathered together at church. I found that I enjoyed going there as well. It was an outlet, the only place where I could speak Russian. The priest, congregants, and I would drink tea and eat crêpes after the service. I fell even deeper in love with Russian culture, the Orthodox religion, and the church. I was drawn to it.
Through the church I met a lot of “Old Russians,” descendents of White émigré families. Like me, most of them traced their roots to Siberia. Their ancestors had escaped the Bolsheviks by moving to Harbin, China. When China had its own revolution, they left by ship, traveling to Brazil and Venezuela, eventually settling in California. I hung out with these old timers who spoke three languages: Russian, Chinese, and English. I saw Russian ladies wearing veils. There, in the USA, in church, from the mouths of these old Russian immigrants, I heard the most articulate and beautiful Russian I had ever heard. In that atmosphere, I came to be even more convinced that Orthodoxy was my religion. Most importantly, however, I was able to meet a “different” kind of Russian, people that had not been affected by the Soviet system. They counseled me on how to adapt and took pity on me. One even gave me a mattress so that I could sleep better on Sankin’s floor. It was in America that I realized what Russia had lost.
In reality, the Russians had no relation whatsoever to the Russian Mafia—a popular topic of conversation in the States. There was a gang, for instance, active in San Francisco, that had been responsible for several murders. After they were caught, the newspaper printed a picture showing them with the Russian church in the background. The headline read, “Russian Mafia finally decapitated.” The article featured surnames such as Zimmerman and Lerner. This was offensive and insulting to the Old Russian intellectuals. Between the late eighties and early nineties, members of the noveau riche began immigrating to the US from the USSR, including Jews, Ukrainians and Moldovans, among others. Their Russian was grammatically incorrect and they hated the Russians, but the Americans still referred to them as Russians. The public automatically attributed all of their unsightly actions the “Russians” in general and the “Russian Mafia” in particular.
Let me talk a bit more about the so-called Russian Mafia. In 1993, shortly after I arrived, I went to the Russian restaurant StageCoach, which was a dance club on Saturdays. As usual, some of the local big-shots tried to pick a fight with me. They had watched a lot of post-Soviet movies were trying to look like the gangster characters in them. Really, they were trying to look like “brothers in arms” from their historical homeland, but in San Francisco they just looked cartoonish. There were some serious types there, mind you, like Pasha Ulder, whose brother was shot dead by the Chinese the night before I first met him.
When they started harassing me verbally at the bar, I was wearing black Versace from head to toe. I wore a diamond signet on my little finger and I had a scar on my face. In other words, by their standards I was a “dude” and maybe even a big-timer. I played along. I started talking like an ex-con. They decided I was one of them, befriended me and, in the end, they did not touch me.
And of course His Majesty Luck helped me out. A fellow Siberian, Nikolai Nikitich Zhuravlev, had come to visit me and, in accordance with Siberian tradition we decided that we wanted to visit a bathhouse. We found out that some Jewish immigrants ran a Sauna in downtown San Francisco, which was supposedly similar to a real Russian bathhouse. So off we went. The service was revolting, though, the place was a sanitary train-wreck, the temperature only reached 50 degrees, and so forth. It was a scandal. I started making demands and got into a battle of words with the owner’s wife. She turned out to be the sister of that same Pasha Ulder I mentioned above. On top of that, she was the girlfriend of my good friend from Odessa, the legendary Zorik. Zorik is an interesting specimen in that, even after having spent 25 years in the States, he still could not speak English at all. He is also well known for some interesting stories involving drunkenness and experimentation with drugs.
At the same time, however, Zorik is the most talented barber I have met in my entire life. He cuts hair without looking, very fast and with great confidence. I have known him for fifteen years and have never heard of him having an unsatisfied customer, man or woman. His shaving skills are to die for. If you are ever in San Francisco, make sure to visit him at the Backstage Salon on Green Street.
But let us get back to the sauna. After we left, the place burnt to the ground. The next morning, Pasha called me and said that, bro-to-bro, he realized that the proprietors had been in the wrong, but that he thought my reaction over the top. This was really and truly funny, but I did not try to set him straight. In the end I became a legend in San Francisco, and I never had any trouble with the local gangsters again.
* * *
Between January and March, 1993, I was madly in love with Rina. I missed her and called her constantly. She simply could not get a visa through the same hockey team—not even as a nurse or some such thing. It was hard enough to get into the country as a man; they were especially reluctant to issue visas to women. Dozens of other men were waiting for their women, just as I was. A lot of them were from Vladivostok. (On a side note, I would strongly advise Vitaly Savelyov, Aeroflot’s director, to resume service on the Vladivostok-San Francisco route, in consideration of the fact that a lot of immigrants from Siberia and the Far East live there and given that traveling via Moscow is inconvenient.)
In April, the long-awaited day arrived: I arrived at the airport in the ten-year-old red Ford that I had bought for four thousand, shaking with anticipation. I do not know how I drove her back to Santa Rosa. Can you imagine? Three months with no sex. We had a most authentic Parisian wedding and, 9 months later, on December 31, 1993, our first little miracle, Daria Tinkova, entered the world.
In the morning Sankin’s dad came into the room and told us with anger in his voice,
“We couldn’t sleep all night. Our walls are like cardboard. It’s over, get out of here.” He was also waiting for his wife. He was a very strong man somewhere between fifty and fifty-five years old, and his heart and other organs could not handle our sex—so he just kicked us out. There we were: Rina and I, the mattress, the fax machine, the Ford, and couple thousand dollars in our pocket. Where did we go? To the church of course. We only spent one night in the home of an acquaintance. Immediately, they helped us to rent a room for 300 dollars a month. Sankin and I stopped talking to each other because he had not stuck up for me when his dad kicked us out. Later he admitted that he had been in the wrong: sure we had kept everybody up, but that was not the right way to react… Without his help, I had been left with no interpreter, in any case, and, as a result, my skill in English began to grow more quickly.
In the summer of 1993, I bought a house in Santa Rosa. An Armenian guy named Dzhavayan sold it to me. Like the Armenian he was, he just had to sell me something. So he sold me his house, which cost 120 thousand dollars. I paid 20 thousand up front and borrowed the rest from a bank. My monthly payment was 600 dollars. I bought a massive two-storey house that I really had no need for at all. I sold it later for less than I had paid for it and so lost money—but no matter. The important thing to notice is that this dark-skinned Armenian managed somehow to dump the place on me. I still cannot figure out how he pulled it off.
* * *
While we were trying to get our bearings in America, things in Russia began to turn sour once again. President Yeltsin got into trouble with the Supreme Soviet. The deputies were displeased with Yegor Gaidar’s reforms and blocked the initiatives attempted by the president and government. The president felt that, as guarantor of the Constitution, he did not have sufficient power to actually guarantee it. In the end, the banal power struggle stretched on for a year. On September 21, Yeltsin signed a decree Concerning Gradual Constitutional Reform in the Russian Federation, whereby parliament was dissolved and elections to the State Duma were set for December 11-12. The Supreme Soviet, however, staged a protest, which ended with the White House being stormed on October 3-4. Soviet Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, Vice President Alexander Rutskoy, and some of Yeltsin’s other opponents were arrested.
We flew into Moscow on the very day that tanks were shooting at the White House. We watched the events live on CNN at the Olympic Penta Hotel where Andy, my partner from Singapore, had gotten a room. He got phone-call after phone-call from his friends that day, asking if he was okay. After a couple of days, Andy left, saying that he would never come to Russia again.
“It’s better if I send you containers. You guys have tanks shooting at houses there,” he explained.
The country was suffering true political and economic ruin. The quality of health care was on the decline and we just could not risk dealing with a Russian maternity clinic. An acquaintance recommended a clinic in downtown Prague. We took a train to Lviv, Ukraine, which turned out to be just as messed up as St. Petersburg. I was surprised to find that all of the restaurants there were closed, but that for a small bribe we were nevertheless allowed in for something to eat. We got back on the train, rode to Prague, and rented a small apartment, for pennies, not far from the maternity clinic.
Right before the New Year, on December 31 at 8 p.m. local time (10 p.m. in St. Petersburg), Rina gave birth to Daria Olegovna Tinkova. The end of yet another fortuitous year was marked by true happiness.
Zorik, from San Francisco, is the best hairdresser on the planet Earth.
In this photograph, Daria Olegovna Tinkova is only 5 days old.