Part 1: 'I think our heart is here ... My life is here'
June 24, 1999
PROVIDENCE - He may be the son of a late Soviet leader, but he's about to become a real, live nephew of our Uncle Sam.
Sergei Khrushchev, son of the late Nikita Khrushchev, a Communist party chairman who ruled the Soviet Union during the Cold War, took a big step toward becoming an American yesterday by correctly answering 19 of 20 questions on a U.S. citizenship test.
The one he got wrong: "What kind of government does the United States have?"
Khrushchev, 63, wrote, "executive, legislative and judicial." The correct answer is: a republic.
His wife, Valentina Golenko, 51, answered it right, as she did all of the other questions.
"You won, you won," Khrushchev teased her, during a sunny, post-exam news conference at the front door of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The couple will be sworn in on July 12.
"We are happy, happy," said Khrushchev, throwing an arm around her. She responded by letting her shoulders sag and her arms dangle in relief.
Journalists from as far away as France leaned forward with microphones and notebooks. It was an occasion suffused with the kind of irony that reporters love: Imagine. The son of the man who vowed to "bury" the United States is becoming an American. What would Nikita think?
"Ask him!" Khrushchev had instructed an Associated Press TV reporter earlier in the day.
He was more expansive after the test.
He's sure his father would approve of his decision as being "for the best," he said, because that was then and this is now. "You cannot mold the historical person where you want. You can do that only in the movie."
As for irony, he said, there is "no irony at all. It's just a sign of the changes in the world."
Asked whether the test was difficult, he said it wasn't, but then, he said, as his students know, that's easy to say once it's over.
He and Golenko had been up until midnight, cramming, said their friend, Seattle immigration lawyer Dan P. Danilov, who accompanied them. "Valentina was writing all the sentences in the English language: Today is a nice day. The sky is blue. The store is open. And she did beautifully."
She was nervous, nonetheless.
They were scheduled to take the test at 2:40 p.m., but arrived well before that, taking seats with the dozens of other applicants in the INS waiting room. Approached by a reporter, Khrushchev readily moved his belongings off of the seat beside him, and said, sit down. But his wife was mindful of the authorities and their rules, "You have to go! You have to go!"
A few minutes later, the pair and their lawyer were ushered behind a door that locks with a security code. When they emerged again, it was 2:59, 20 minutes earlier than expected, and they were smiling.
The couple had answered the test questions, and had written a simple sentence in English. (Khrushchev's sentence was, "The store is open," the lawyer said later. He couldn't remember Golenko's.) After that, an official went over their applications, looked at their green cards, made sure they had no criminal record, then stood up, shook their hands, and told them when to return to swear an oath to the United States of America.
Why do they want to become citizens? And why now?
Three years ago, Khrushchev was noncommittal when asked whether he would apply for citizenship. He said that he and his wife had three grown sons in Moscow, an apartment and a country dacha, or vacation cottage, and that if the political situation stabilized, they might return to Russia.
But yesterday, he told reporters that they like their life here, and that, "if you are living in this country, you have to be the citizen." It means "everything," he said. It's all tied up with "civility" and obeying the laws, and working for the interests of the country.
"We will be good citizens," he promised.
Khrushchev has lived in Rhode Island since 1991, when he joined the faculty of Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies. He was granted permanent resident status in 1993, thanks in part to some high-level support, his lawyer said.
The INS typically denies green cards to applicants with dubious political connections, the lawyer explained, as in, "people who are Nazis, who persecuted other people."
"He has not done any of those things," said Danilov. He said Presidents Nixon and Bush, as well as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, vouched for as much.
Khrushchev is a rocket engineer and computer scientist who once headed the Soviet Missile Design Bureau. He has published several books about his father and about the Cold War. His mission, he said yesterday, is to explain what happened in Russia to the world - "Then we will make less mistakes."
Does he think he might run for public office?
"Oh, no," he said. "I have office in the university. I think it's best place for me."
Asked how Russia and the United States are different, Golenko jumped in. "American people are just the same," she said. "Is the same people. Even the same emotional people, same good people, and that's why very easy for me to stay here. But when I was in other countries, it is not so easy."
Khrushchev elaborated on this, saying that Americans are "of course, much more friendly people than anywhere in the world."
To illustrate his view that the two cultures are "different not in the big things, different in the small things," he noted that Americans require happy endings to their movies.
What will Russian friends, family and other countrymen make of his decision?
Khrushchev shrugged. During the Cold War, it would have been a problem because there was no hope of ever seeing those people again. "Now, we can live here and there. Is only question of buying tickets, nothing more."
Isn't their heart still in Russia?
"I think our heart is here," he replied. For one thing, he's always watching Russian news and reading Russian newspapers, "More than I want. My life is here."
Golenko, who taught graduate-level computer design in Russia, said she gets back there about four times a year, so her mother, sons and grandchildren "don't feel I'm very far from them."
She said she is happy, living quietly in the Garden City section of Cranston, typing up her husband's handwritten manuscripts, though "actually, I am a housewife now."
"We have very good neighbors, and they help us. They taught me American life."
They explained to her, for instance, about safety deposit boxes, which don't exist in Russia.
But no, they haven't taught her to bake a traditional American apple pie.
She doesn't like pies, she said. Unlike Russian pie dough, which is dry and light, she said, American dough is too wet and heavy. They did teach her to make an Italian specialty of broccoli and garlic wrapped in dough. It's one of her favorite dishes.
"It's faster to cook," she explained, then laughed at herself. See, "I became a real American!"
* * *
Here are some sample questions of the type put to Sergei Khrushchev and his wife yesterday:
What do the stars on the flag mean?
What country did we fight during the Revolutionary War?
Who elects the President of the United States?
Who elects Congress?
What is the Constitution?
How many Senators are there in Congress?
Who becomes President if both the President and Vice President die?
Who is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?
Who nominates judges for the Supreme Court?
Why did the Pilgrims come to America?
Answers: One for each state; England; the Electoral College; the citizens of the United States; the supreme law of the land; 100; the Speaker of the House; William Rehnquist; the President; to gain religious freedom.