MOSCOW--The last time I was at Sheremetyevo International Airport, I arrived early for my flight, inched through a five-hour customs line, and napped on an inflatable mattress. It was March 1991, I was 3 years old, and my family had made the difficult decision to leave our home in the Soviet Union and move to America to escape the political and economic instability of the USSR, anti-Semitism, and the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident not too far from our hometown of Kiev. Now, nearly 22 years later, I was at Sheremetyevo airport again, dark-blue American passport in hand, going the other way through customs. It was my first time in Moscow since 1991.
Back then, as a toddler, I didn't even have my own passport. I was a handwritten entry on my mother's Soviet one: "In conjunction with: daughter, Olga, 1987." It was a period of mass migration, and everyone in the country, from government officials to thieves, was using this moment to take advantage of emigrants. As advised, my parents hired a mafia van to take us to the airport and protect us from the robbers targeting emigrants, who traveled with all of their most valuable possessions. We were allowed to leave with only two suitcases and $150 per person; customs officers seized anything else that looked valuable, including two of four anniversary silver spoons, handed down in my family for generations, and several collectors' ruble coins from my older sister's wallet. The USSR dissolved nine months later.
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This time, it's 2012, and I'm returning as an American journalist, much to the consternation of my parents and their friends, who bombarded me with admonishments: Don't get into gypsy cabs. Keep a low profile. Don't write anything political. Don't talk to strangers. By way of exhorting me to dress warmly, my mother even sent along a Wikipedia article about how many military invasions had faltered during the long Russian winter. And, anyway, why would I go back to a country they had given up so much--family, friends, possessions--to escape?