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Russian Defectors Find American Dream in South Carolina

 

Independence Day concerts are especially sweet for the conductor of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra.

"This 4th of July, I will perform a concert as usual with my orchestra and I will celebrate 20 years of my independence from the 'beauty of socialism,' so to say," Edvard Tchivzhel said with a laugh.

Tchivzhel first came to this South Carolina town in 1991, during the turbulent final days of the Soviet Union. It was his first stop on a month-long U.S. tour with the U.S.S.R. State Symphony Orchestra, in which he served as associate conductor.

It was also the first scheduled orchestra performance for Greenville's newly built Peace Center for the Performing Arts.

I met Tchivzhel as a local reporter covering the event. In need of a translator, I invited Lena Forster (formerly Jankowsky), then the executive director of the Greenville Ballet, who spoke fluent Russian.

In a rare move, the Soviet government had allowed Tchivzhel to bring his wife Luba and 4-year-old son Arvid on the tour.

"They used to keep relatives as hostages to make sure that artists came back," the conductor explained.

Forster, who had three young children of her own, invited the Tchivzhel family to the local Chuck E. Cheese's. It was there that the conductor announced his desire to stay in the U.S.

"I said, 'Well, that's fine with me, but I'm not 007,'" Forster recalled. "'I would love to help you out, but I definitely need to contact an attorney or somebody.'"

Forster called her friend Larry Estridge, a Greenville lawyer specializing in corporate real estate. After hearing the Tchivzhels' story, Estridge said he and one of his law firm partners immediately began research.

"We mastered this one particular part of the immigration laws having to do with defection," Estridge said. "If we had waited around to search for others to assist us, we probably would have run out of time."

Despite his distaste for the Soviet regime, Edvard Tchivzhel remained loyal to his orchestra and insisted on completing the U.S. tour. That made planning his defection all the more delicate.

"He also understood that the KGB would be in the orchestra," Estridge said. "He wasn't sure who they would be. But there would be someone in the orchestra watching him and his family to make sure they did not attempt defection throughout the entire tour."

To avoid potentially bugged hotel rooms during the orchestra tour, Tchivzhel stopped at pay phones during his routine jogs.

In three-way calls with Estridge, using Forster as a translator, Tchivzhel was able to prepare the documents he would need to submit to U.S. immigration officials to initiate his family's defection during the orchestra's last stop in Washington, DC.

FBI agents had planned to escort the Tchivzhels from the airport to the Washington office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). But they were rerouted to an INS office in Baltimore on suspicions that a car was following them.

"They made sure we stayed in the vehicle because there was still somebody following us," Forster said. "They happened to have been Russians and they said, 'We weren't following you. We were just driving the same direction.' But they did take off eventually because (the FBI agents) made them."

After obtaining political asylum, the Tchivzhels returned to their Greenville lawyer's office, where they held a news conference to announce their defection to the U.S..

"I was feeling the most strong I ever felt in my life, that I don't have to go back to a socialistic prison," Edvard Tchivzhel said.

Following the news conference, the conductor and his wife stepped outside the downtown law office, where they said they experienced a magical feeling.

"Greenville is just beautiful! We love it!" Luba Tchivzhel said. "We just came out to Main Street and I just felt like fresh air was coming into my body."

Forster opened her home to the Tchivzhels for a few months, while they adjusted to their new lives in the U.S. Donations from residents and businesses helped them get on their feet.

Luba Tchivzhel started earning income as a violinist. And her husband was soon making guest conducting appearances with the orchestra in Greenville, as well as orchestras around the U.S. and the world.

In 2003, he visited Russia to conduct in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), where he was born and raised. Although the conductor was warmly received by audiences there and enjoyed happy reunions with old friends, Tchivzhel said he felt like a foreigner in his native country.

"I just felt that, at that time at least, Russia was a much better country for tourists than for local citizens, unfortunately," Tchivzhel said.

Edvard and Luba Tchivzhel said their favorite city remains Greenville, which they refer to as their "American cradle."

They received U.S. citizenship status along with their son in 1999. That same year, Edvard Tchivzhel became the music director and conductor of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra. He is credited with improving the GSO's quality and prestige, inspiring musicians and audiences alike with his energetic conducting and charismatic personality.

"I kid him about it. He's a rock star," said Ken Johnson, who recently retired as executive director of the GSO. "In addition to his incredible musicianship, just the human drama of his story has been extraordinary with people in this community."

On this 4th of July, Edvard and Luba Tchivzhel celebrate the birth of a nation that made the American dream possible -- not only for themselves, but for their son.

"Even after 20 years, I think we still have the same enthusiasm of being here," said Arvid Tchivzhel, now a Furman University graduate working as an economic analyst for an Atlanta consulting firm. "I am fairly confident my quality of life would have been much different in Russia. The respect for human rights and the opportunities given in this country far surpass any other place, including today's Russia."

Although the conductor's son has little memory of his arrival in the U.S. at the age of 4, he appreciates the risks taken by his parents, and those who helped them, 20 years ago.

"It was such a bold decision to tell the Soviets, 'I am not coming back and you do not control my life anymore,'" Arvid Tchivzhel said. "Without the help of our friends in Greenville, it is difficult to say how things would have turned out."

The Tchivzhels remain close friends with lawyer Estridge, who still specializes in corporate real estate in Greenville, and Forster, who now directs the International Ballet, a dance company and academy based in the neighboring town of Greer, SC. Throughout the years, Forster and Tchivzhel have held joint performances with their respective organizations.

The conductor said the community's enthusiasm and support for the arts, as well as the excellent acoustics of the Peace Center, now in its 20th year, provide an ideal environment for his work.

As Upstate South Carolina residents gather in an outdoor amphitheater for an evening Independence Day concert, many will likely reflect on what America means to them. The conductor's wife offers some advice.

"Just appreciate your country," Luba Tchivzhel said. "This is the best country in all the earth, I think. This is the best country."

Jonathan Serrie joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in April 1999 and currently serves as a correspondent based in the Atlanta bureau.

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