Welcome to Hollywood

BY: CONOR BONFIGLIO

At 7:45pm, I arrived at the Taft residence, excited to begin the interview. I knew this would be an easy interview for me because Vladimir, a former Russian citizen, is the father of Ben Taft, one of my best friends from school. I used to visit the Taft house every weekend when I was in middle school, but when Ben switched high schools (to the Menlo School), we began to spend less time with each other. This would be a great time to catch up.

I rang the doorbell and was greeted by Rasia Taft, Ben’s mom. She gave me a warm hug and welcomed me into the kitchen. I felt at ease by now.

I explained to Vlad, “Do not worry about answering the questions abruptly. Just respond with whatever you like. I’d love any information you give me.”

We sat down at the dining room table and began the interview.

We sat across from each other, still very close, as I asked, “When and where were you born in Russia?”

“I was born in Moscow in 1953,” he said, “but back then, it was the Soviet Union, not Russia. It was a tough place to live.”

I acknowledged his answer. I remarked, “It must have been rough living there during the Cold War, right?”
“Correct,” he responded. “Luckily, I was ten years old when I first decided I wanted to leave the Soviet Union, and I had just became a pioneer, the Russian equivalent to a boy scout!” He was very excited on the matter.

“Fantastic!” I responded. I then asked, “So if 10 was the first age you wanted to leave, at what age did you act upon the matter?”

This question seemed difficult for him. He leaned forward in his chair and put his hands on his head thinking. I fixed my posture as I was slouching for the duration of the interview.

“I had just received my degree from the university in the Soviet Union, and I asked my father to help me receive an exit-visa, for I wanted to begin a new life outside of the Union.”

“What made you want to leave so spontaneously?”

“It wasn’t spontaneous,” he retorted. “I had been waiting to leave since I was ten. The oppression of the people was disgusting to me, and I wanted to live in a place where I had freedom. Plus my Aunt Miriam was in New York at the time, so I knew I would have family there waiting for me.”

I was impressed by his answers.

“How did you get your exit-visa?”

He responded, “My father helped me get the document because he was the head of the Academy of Sciences and on the board of the university. Unfortunately, he knew and I knew that if he signed my visa, he would lose his position on the board, which was emotionally and mentally challenging for him.”

I frowned and slouched back into the chair, taking this in for a moment. I then asked, “What made him go through with it, knowing he would lose his position?”

Vladimir explained, “Well, he knew that family came first, and he knew I wanted to start fresh in a different country. So after some turmoil, he agreed to sign them. So I applied for my visa in 1978 and received it a year later in 1979.”

I took a short break to write down notes. I admired his father’s courage and will to help his son succeed.

I finished the notes and asked him, “Where was the first place you arrived in America?”

He riposted, “Well, actually I had to stay in a small town near Rome, Italy, for two years before I could make the journey to America. Luckily after two years, my father’s colleague, who was the head of the department for immigration, signed paperwork and got it processed and I was on my way.”

I wondered, “So did you arrive in Ellis Island or where?”

“Well, actually,” he began, “It was simply JFK airport in New York with a connecting flight to Los Angeles.”

We both laughed over that. Vlad is a genuinely funny person.

“Was it hard making the move to Los Angeles?”

“Of course. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my entire life.”

He took a pause, probably reflecting on the situation he had been in. I gave him some time to think and formulate an answer. He straightened himself in the chair and continued, “When you leave Russia, it is almost like a psychological attack on yourself. They stripped me of my citizenship. They told me I would never be able to come back, never to see my family, friends, childhood pals, etc. They gave me two minutes to change my mind before I left. But obviously I did not change my mind. I withdrew 1000 dollars, which was the maximum amount, and left.”

I took a minute to explode through notes. He had so much to say, but I didn’t want to keep him waiting.

“What was it like when you arrived?”

He explained, “When I arrived in Los Angeles, it was like landing on Mars. Everything was completely different from Moscow, and my English was near terrible. I could read and write but not understand spoken language at all.”

I continued once more, “Did you have anyone in Los Angeles with you to support you?”

He quickly answered, “Luckily, I had a family sponsoring me and helping me stay afloat in tough Los Angeles life. The father of the family was Phillip Harter, who now works at Stanford researching medicine. The Harter family saved me for the first eight weeks, giving me a home and directions to a city radically different than Moscow.”

“What did you do after those eight weeks?” I was curious.

“I actually began my time at the University of California at Los Angeles. I studied there for two years then took an academic leave to stay in a job with the future co-founder of IBM. He gave me a choice. He said I could stay at UCLA and receive my PhD or travel with him to Sunnyvale and work for his company. I moved up to Sunnyvale, and I have lived up in the Bay Area ever since. That was 1982.”

My final question: “Did you or do you have any regrets with leaving your entire family in the then-Soviet Union, or do you think it was worth it?”

He took a second to take it in. He then responded, “At the beginning, I didn’t think it was worth it because I had left my entire family and friends from Russia, but over time I realized how important it was to leave. I now have no regrets, because It has been wonderful for myself to start a family, and wonderful for my kids to have opportunities.”

I concluded the interview with a handshake and a warm hug from both Vladimir and Raisa. I learned so much from the night, and I promised I would be back soon. My first-hand experience with Vladimir provided me with some sympathy for all refugees around the world leaving their families in an effort to better themselves and their life.

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