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By Sean Pendergast
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Vladimir was always more of an artist than a dissident. He went to art school and learned brush sizes and brushstrokes, portraits and landscapes, still lifes and stained glass. When he turned 19, Vladimir entered the army as an official artist. He painted generals, politicians and educational posters, but most of all he painted Lenin. Lenin's face had to be everywhere. He painted what he was told to paint. "You could not think," he says. "The Communist Party thinks about you, but you don't need to think."
When Vladimir was in the army, his father came to see him. John was going to be allowed to emigrate as a result of the Jackson-Vanick rider to the Soviet grain trade bill of 1974. Congress had made the release of 35,000 Jews a contingent of trade relations with the Soviet Union. John asked Vladimir if he wanted to go with him to the United States. Vladimir thought it was a weird idea. He didn't want to leave home. "In Russia," he says, "everybody was building communism. I was building my own communism."
Vladimir's communism was a lot like capitalism. After the army, his required official job was doing artwork for a furniture factory, but he made his money on the black market. He became known in Moscow for his copies of Salvador Dali's paintings, which were banned in the Soviet Union because of the Spanish artist's anti-Marxist politics. Vladimir's copies were very much in demand because he could re-create Dali's visual tricks. He could make 1,500 rubles, an engineer's yearly salary, in just one month. He always had a car, an unusual luxury in the Soviet Union, and he lived in the artistic quarter in the center of the city, in an apartment across the street from one of Russia's finest restaurants. He would grease the palm of the maitre d' and have dinner sent over on a silver platter for himself and his guests. Friends say that Vladimir was always good at working the Soviet system of connections and influence and favors.
Life was good until Vladimir tried to visit his father in the United States. He was not a scientist and had no state secrets, but he was not allowed to go. He couldn't even speak openly with his father by telephone or mail. He knew that the KGB was listening to his conversations and opening his letters. He lost his job at the furniture factory because he was attracting too much attention. He was contacting family in the United States, and that made him dangerous. "I felt like I was in a big, huge, comfortable jail," he says.
When Vladimir couldn't go to his father, his father came to him. In 1984 John and his second wife took a cruise of the Baltic Sea that docked in Leningrad. John spoke broken Russian with an American accent and lied to officials about his emigration in order to throw the KGB off track and secure permission for an inland excursion. Vladimir followed the tour bus in his car. When they got to a museum, John put a USA baseball cap on his son's head and smuggled him inside with the group. They didn't look at anything in the museum. They just sat and talked about America. Vladimir asked his father to help him get out of the Soviet Union.
John sent letters to every U.S. senator and 50 members of Congress asking for help. Only one responded. "Gary Hart was my angel," says Vladimir. Before the Donna Rice scandal, the Colorado senator looked like he was going to be the next president, so Soviet leadership was eager to receive him in 1987. Before Hart met with Gorbachev, he invited 12 aspiring emigrants to the American embassy in Moscow for interviews. After speaking with Vladimir and the others, Hart presented a list of names to Gorbachev. Why, he asked, were these people not being allowed to join their close family members in the United States? Vladimir thought he was going to be arrested as soon as he left the embassy, but a couple of weeks later he got word: He would be allowed to emigrate, but to Israel, not America. There is no emigration to the United States from the Soviet Union, officials told him.
Emigrants to Israel were stripped of their Soviet citizenship and passports. If he left this way, Vladimir would never be able to visit Moscow. He would never see his mother again. The KGB gave him another option: He could emigrate directly to the United States if he agreed to become an informant. The prison bars would follow him to his new country. Vladimir says it was the hardest decision he ever made. He chose to emigrate to Israel. He hoped that the officials were wrong, that he might see his mother again. But he suspected that they were probably right.
He left Moscow with $38 and one suitcase. Customs officials broke his shoes looking for diamonds or gold hidden in the soles. Vladimir worried that they would plant contraband on him and ship him to Siberia. When he got to Vienna, technically on the way to Israel, he tried to breathe in his first taste of freedom. The air was the same, he says, but the feeling was different. He felt like a newborn; he was 34 years old. When he got to the United States, he thought, he would create political art, anti-Communist art.