The Ultimatum

The years passed.  My aunts, Nancy and Helen, finished high school and went to work near their apartment in Leningrad.  Nancy worked in a library, and Helen was a tester in a telephone factory.

Dad’s family continued their lives personally unharmed by the effects of Stalin’s purges because they kept their mouths shut like good Soviet citizens.  Dad had little time for pleasures outside of the ballets and operas that he attended on Sundays through school, because he was working toward his goal of becoming a doctor.

My grandfather emphasized the fact that he would not have been able to pay for Dad to attend college in New Jersey, so there was good that came out of the move.  Dad’s college education was free in the Soviet Union.  My Uncle Pete, however, was on a path toward a trade school education, because his grades were not good enough for a university education. His path was determined long ago.

Even the children of the “Communist big shots”, as my grandfather liked to call them, could not attend high school if their grades were poor.  “Those children do have an advantage over you,” my grandfather would say, “but not much.  They are allowed go to high school for one year because their fathers have a lot of pull, but if they flunk out, that‘s it.  It’s off to trade school for them just like everyone else.”

The high school curriculum was rigorous. Dad studied Russian Literature as well as English and Russian Language. The emphasis was on science and mathematics.  He enrolled in courses such as astronomy, chemistry, physics, geology, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. As a high school student, he even took courses in engineering drawing and artistic drawing, and in those two courses, Dad only received average grades.  Overall, his grades were good, so on June 22, 1938, he graduated from High School #7 in Red Military Square with an acceptance letter to go to medical school- the First Leningrad I.P. Pavlov Medical Institute.  He even lived in a dormitory there.

It was during his second year of college when Dad was summoned to the office of one his professors where he was offered an ultimatum: become a Soviet citizen or be forced to leave school.

He went to my grandfather for advice, most likely upset after having worked so hard to get into that school.  He asked whether he should become a citizen or try to go back to the United States.  This was what my grandfather said to Dad:

“I made a mistake in coming here.  But if I tell you to go back, and then the Depression is still going on and you can’t afford to go to school, then you’ll blame me.  But if you don’t go and things are rough here, then you will also blame me.  So you need to make up your own mind.  But consider this: when I left Russia, I could not speak English, so you have a big advantage over me.  So now make your decision and tell me tomorrow.”

Without even a moment’s hesitation, my father responded, “After hearing what you said, I don’t need more time. I already made my decision.   I’m leaving.”

My grandfather responded by saying. “That’s what I would have told you, , but I wanted you to make up your own mind.”

So sometime in early 1940, Dad and his siblings contacted the American Embassy, expressing their desire to return to the United States. They had no passports. Would they be permitted to leave?

Leningrad- August 1939

Leningrad- August 1939

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About kjw616

I am a genealogy detective. I have already written one book about my Irish family's journey from 19th century Ireland to the United States- a family history sprinkled with personal anecdotes. My second book was intended to be a similar story about my Russian ancestors. Instead, it turned into a tale of just my father's immediate family. It is the tale of what happens when 6 children from New Jersey are moved to the Soviet Union by their Russian-born parents during the Great Depression. It details who lives, who dies, and who is able to return to NJ during a time when leaving the USSR was not an easy endeavor, particularly during World War II and the Cold War. It is my hope that those interested in history during this time period will find this story fascinating as well as those fellow amateur family historians who will learn some of the tools such as ancestry.com, visits to the National Archives, and local libraries I used to uncover this story.
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