The long journey from Kyiv to California - opinion

Succumbing to international pressure the Soviet authorities granted over two hundred thousand Jews permission to leave the country with Israeli visas.

 Kyiv after Russian drone attack, 2022 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Kyiv after Russian drone attack, 2022
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It was not long ago that the Pew Research Center asked Americans whether they favored socialism or capitalism. Most of those polled agreed that capitalism was a better economic system than socialism. But half of those adults born between 1981 and 1996 viewed socialism positively, the most of any generation polled.

To dispel this romance with a system that supposedly promotes the worker and equity, I suggest Millennials read Galina Cherny’s personal, emotional, and detailed 2022 memoir Last Train to Freedom. It is a harrowing story of a young Jewish family’s escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

It is must reading for those who romanticize socialism and have forgotten the realities of America’s “Cold War” with the Soviet Union. And it is an important reminder to those involved in the movement to liberate Soviet Jews how important the protests of USSR human rights abuses were.

Galina was born on February 17, 1953 in Kyiv, Podol, in the Soviet Ukraine, eight street blocks from her future husband Yan. But the couple was from families with totally different worldviews. Galina’s parents, Yoseph and Bella Kugel, could never imagine leaving Kyiv for America. Neither could Galina. She loved her native city. Still, despite her membership in the Komsomol – a Communist organization in the USSR for youths 16 years of age and older – she never forget that she was a Jew.

During World War II, the Jews of Kyiv were slaughtered by the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators at the Babi Yar (Babyn Yar in Ukarainian) ravine. Galina went to the site of this mass murder and was greatly affected by it.

BABI YAR, from the German archives. (credit: BEV SYKES/FLICKR)
BABI YAR, from the German archives. (credit: BEV SYKES/FLICKR)

Also, Jews were called by the derogatory name “Zhid” – this was in a Soviet Union that outlawed anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, Galina’s mother cried when the dictator Stalin died in 1953, raced to Kyiv’s Red Square with her daughter to mourn with thousands of others.

Later, Galina could not understand this. Stalin had the blood of millions on his hands and ended his life as a foe of Jews living in the Soviet Union. Her mother said the murder was done without his knowledge, despite that Galina’s relatives were among those arrested and murdered by the dictator.

But Yan Chernyansky’s family had little love for Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and the USSR. When Yan was only 10 he became aware of how evil Stalin was. He refused to join the Komsomol years later. Yan’s family quietly celebrated Stalin’s death.

Galina writes, “By the time Yan was 12, his dream of escaping the Soviet Union was vivid.” Despite the Komsomol’s threats that his failure to join would make his life difficult, Yan did not care. He only dreamed of living in America. And Galina’s love for him convinced her that, she too, would leave the Soviet Union despite the importance of family to her and her sadness at having to leave the ones she loved behind, moving halfway across the world to California.

Let my refuseniks go

IN HER memoir, Galina writes, “Between the years 1970 and 1979, succumbing to the international pressure and the economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the Soviet authorities granted over two hundred thousand Jews permission to leave the country with Israeli visas. Fifty-one thousand of them left in 1979.” That was the year of Galina and Yan’s departure.

They were among thirty-four thousand who desired to come to America – on their long journey out of the USSR they started the process of going to the US in Vienna – with their young son Zhenya (Eugene). Galina relates the reaction of the Komsomol to her emigration – she was treated as a pariah. That was the beginning of the end for Galina in the Soviet Ukraine. She recounts the very emotional leaving of her family but also the shock of realizing she lived in a totalitarian dictatorship.

The author of Last Train to Freedom describes the difficult and commotional journey by train to ultimate freedom. In her words: “The train approached the Soviet border as we shoved our luggage into the sleeping cabin appointed by the conductor. The window was open, but the view outside made me gag, sending chills down my spine. Yan and I froze, staring in horror at the barbed wire fence – curled inward at the top – stretching for eternity. Uniformed Soviet soldiers stood in a row inside the fence about five meters apart, facing the train, each holding an AK-47 in one hand and a dog leash in the other. This could’ve been a set for a movie about Nazi Germany, but it wasn’t. This was real. This was us.”

Galina and Yan settled in Los Angeles. Later, they became parents of another baby boy, Alexander. Although Galina enrolled in English classes, she was very self-conscious about using the new language. Yan (who took the name John) had to encourage his wife to go to the post office and buy a book of stamps. Galina was embarrassed by her English skills. But Galina and Yan pursued their American Dream.

Galina began as a clerk with limited English but worked her way up and has been very successful in technology executive leadership, as a transformational leadership coach and the founding of her own boutique firm. She and Yan shortened their name to Cherny – especially to make it easier on their sons in school.

She wrote her wonderful memoir in English. She and Yan celebrated their forty-seventh anniversary and they are proud of their four grandchildren. They live in Encino, California. She writes, “My story is also a pledge of gratitude and a love letter to America – not a perfect country, just the best there is.”

It would be an error of omission not to include Kyiv-born Galina’s words about being a Jew in America and about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Living in America,’ she writes, I’ve always believed that outside of Israel, America is the safest place for Jews to call home.” And she adds, “After the experiences of my life in the USSR, I could never take friendliness toward Jews for granted.”

As for Putin’s invasion and the suffering of innocent civilians, Galina says that she cries for “my beloved Kyiv as if I were Ukrainian” and “I cry for the Jews of Ukraine and Russia. And I take sides.” Gailna Cherny’s story is harrowing and inspiring, the story of enduring oppression in the Soviet Union and finding freedom in America.

The writer is a rabbi, essayist, and lecturer in West Palm Beach, Florida.