"There is a very big gap between life and the newspaper!" says recent emigre Josef Gruber about his native Russia and its recent policy of glasnost.
Having no idea they would end up in Salt Lake City, but wanting badly to get out of the Soviet Union, Josef and Yekaterina Gruber and their two daughters Ilona, 20, and Marianne, 12, pulled up stakes and left. They had two suitcases each and a total of $560.The Grubers, who steadfastly refused to join the Communist Party, distrust the Soviet government. Although Gorbachev's more progressive policies made it possible for them to leave, they distrust him, too. They think his policies of glasnost and perestroika have created a dangerous climate and produced "too much freedom."
"Too much freedom"?
That is a shocking statement for most Westerners who continue to watch Gorbachev's transformation of Soviet society with excitement and approval. But if Westerners are pleased by what they see, most Soviets are not, say the Grubers.
This was the most interesting discovery to come out of my long but halting conversation with the Grubers. They are a very sincere, open and gracious couple who are in the intermediate stages of learning English. They are well educated and speak Russian and German fluently, but they became occasionally frustrated as they attempted to communicate their deepest feelings to me.
For people who never studied English until they arrived in the United States only nine months ago, they express themselves remarkably well, and they continue to improve as they continue to study. As Josef so aptly puts it, "Little by little, each word will take its place in conversation."
But politics and culture are filled with subtleties, and more difficult to explain than other aspects of life. So we floundered slightly.
In response to a question, Josef and Yekaterina would talk to each other about it briefly in Russian, then give an answer. I would say what I thought they meant, elaborating somewhat on the thought. Then their faces would light up and they would say, "Yes, that's it!"
So this was no ordinary conversation - but it was intensely personal - and by the time we were through we had established a rare rapport. They said, "Please don't go! You stay - and we talk some more!"
So how could the Soviets have "too much freedom"? I ask.
"There is much crime," says Josef, "much struggle. There is pornography now - in Kiev, Leningrad, Moscow. There was never any pornography before. Too much freedom is a bad situation."
In fact, according to Josef, people no longer have to worry about criticizing the government. "You can say whatever you want!"
The new freedom exacerbates the ethnic struggle. Yekaterina says, "Nationalities are fighting each other. Many want independence and freedom. They don't like communism." To Yekaterina, that is dangerous and makes people feel nervous and worried. They don't know what is going to happen next.
Josef complains that crime is on the increase in the Soviet Union - there is a certain lawlessness that is dangerous. So new freedoms, coming abruptly and completely, are hazardous to the society. In the opinion of the Grubers, the country was not ready for so much freedom so quickly.
On the other hand, the economy continues to worsen. "There are still shortages and long lines," says Josef. "The problem is very prolonged and Gorbachev is not helping it."
Josef and Yekaterina are skeptical about all Russian leaders, whom they consider "shrewd" politicians who enjoy advantages other people don't have. They distrust Boris Yeltsin almost as much as Gorbachev. They think it is unhealthy that Russia has two presidents - Yeltsin and Gorbachev.
And although people seem to like Yeltsin better than Gorbachev, the Grubers doubt that things will be better in 500 days as he promised. "He says people are equal," complains Josef."That is only words!" He also doubts that Gorbachev could win a popular election.
What Josef and Yekaterina say about Soviet politics they believe intensely. They think that other Russians agree with them. And they think most Americans have a major misunderstanding of what is happening in Russia.
By training and experience, Yekaterina is a technical writer who wrote newspaper articles explaining scientific advances. Josef is an electrical engineer in search of permanent employment.
Now living in a modest apartment close to the center of the city, the Grubers are happy to be here. They never considered Salt Lake City when they applied for permission to leave. They had hoped for Europe, but the Tolstoy Foundation "assigned" them to Salt Lake City.
In America - in Salt Lake City - they say "there is reasonable freedom. We like this city. For us it is very good. There is normal life here."
Coming from Chernovtsy, Salt Lake's sister city, they immediately felt at home in the mountains, even though Chernovtsy is "very wet," and Salt Lake City is "very dry - a real desert!" They like the people here and consider them "very friendly."
Their children's adjustment has been even faster as Marianne attends junior high school and Ilona attends Salt Lake Community College.
Their standard of living is a "little better here than it was in the Soviet Union," says Josef. In Chernovtsy, "a beautiful place," they had an apartment in the city and a small "very basic garden house in the country" that they could go to on weekends. There they grew tomatoes and fruit trees that helped them make ends meet. They also bottled pickles, tomatoes and jam.
"The tomatoes in the store here are very small," says Joseph, "and tasteless."
In Salt Lake City they walk or take the bus since getting rid of their "Chevy, which we had for two months and gave us very much trouble." While they had the car Josef, Yekaterina and Ilona all took that important examination for a driver's license and passed it. The license, they say, is "like a passport."
The Grubers have a bright, open demeanor that is infectious. They are determined to succeed in their new life in Salt Lake City. They are contented now and will be even happier as they make more friends, become proficient with the language, find regular work and get on a more sound financial footing.
Sometimes they get expected feelings of homesickness for the Soviet Union, but they are realistic about it and have no desire to return.
"When we watch TV and read the paper," says Josef, "we have confidence that we did the right thing."