Skip to comments.U.S.-style capitalism impresses newcomers
Posted on 12/15/2003 9:39:07 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
Natia Samkharadze doesn't recall ever thinking about money when she was growing up in Soviet Georgia.
Housing was subsidized, education and medical care were free, and lifelong employment was guaranteed -- so paying for things wasn't a big concern. Now an Atlanta resident, the 30-year-old insurance agent and mother of two says she and other immigrants from formerly Communist countries are, like the rest of us, intensely interested in financial matters.
Few immigrant groups would seem as ill-suited to American-style capitalism as those from formerly Communist countries where words like "entrepreneur" and "speculator" were insults. But Atlanta has become home in the past decade to the vast majority of the more than 22,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia who have settled in Georgia -- and anecdotal information suggests they're adapting remarkably fast.
"America has been like a good stepmother to me and my family by taking us in and caring for us," Samkharadze (pronounced SAM-car-odd-zee) said. "America isn't a paradise the way some immigrants expect it to be. But it's a place where you can be yourself, where you can work toward your goals and where a person can do so much good."
Atlanta has become a business center for Russian and Eastern European immigrants in the Southeast.
Russia House publishes a bimonthly newsletter here, printed in Cyrillic characters, and distributes it throughout the region. An informal network of Russian-speaking professionals here helps new arrivals with everything from obtaining automobiles to green cards.
Samkharadze says she and her contemporaries have had an easier time dealing with the uneven economic recovery and a persistently sluggish job market because they've endured far worse elsewhere.
The current U.S. unemployment rate of 5.9 percent is a picnic, she says, compared with chronic jobless levels of 18 percent or more in her native country -- the place she calls the "real Georgia." The adjustments have been difficult at times, but she says she's frequently struck by similarities between today's United States and the late Soviet Union.
"I'm part of the last generation to grow up under the old Soviet system," said Samkharadze, whose first language was Georgian, her second Russian and her third English. "I see the old Soviet character in many things here. When someone from the main office comes to visit a factory, all the workers hurry to clean up and get ready so the visitor doesn't see how things really are. It's like a joke! And the bureaucracy here? It's as bad as anything in Soviet times."
Back in the air again|
Alexander Ratchev, 40, a former fighter pilot and squadron commander in Bulgaria who emigrated last year and lives in Marietta, dreams of becoming a flier again.
Soon after arriving in the United States, he placed an ad on an aviation Web site offering flight instruction for U.S. owners of the kinds of Russian planes he used to fly as an officer in the Bulgarian air force.
"Former First-Class Fighter Pilot; Squadron Leader," Ratchev's ad reads. "More than 17 years of experience. Looking for full-time employment. Experience in MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-21."
Weeks after posting the ad, a Silicon Valley technology baron who had just purchased a supersonic MiG-21 fighter jet for personal use hired Ratchev to teach him to fly it.
"As soon as I sat in the cockpit, I felt like I was home again," said Ratchev, a compact, wiry flier. "I had flown the MiG-21 extensively and was completely comfortable."
Ratchev was trained as an electrical engineer at the Bulgarian air force academy and is a second-generation military pilot. Here, he has worked as an electrician and taxi driver and currently works 12-hour shifts at a chemical plant. The long hours allow days off for him to fly.
Ratchev has obtained a U.S. commercial pilot's license and is working toward other advanced ratings at nearby McCollum/Cobb County Airport. Even though about 9,000 U.S. airline pilots have been furloughed in the past two years, Ratchev says he's confident he'll eventually become a professional pilot here.
"Even if it's Cessnas flying banners, I don't care," he says with a shrug. "I'm a pilot. I belong in the air."
Dedication to work|
Insurance agent Samkharadze's office at an Allstate agency off Johnson Ferry Road is decorated with photos of Georgian castles and antiquities. But she says she's looking forward, not back.
She has developed a niche market selling insurance to immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. About 500 of her clients fit that description.
Census figures showed 22,645 Eastern European immigrants resided in Georgia in 2000, and Samkharadze says that number is growing rapidly. There are no reliable figures about their employment rates here, but she says she doesn't know a working-age man among them who doesn't have a full-time job.
Work -- and the ability to send money to family members and friends in their native countries -- is the reason they came. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates foreign-born workers earn 76 cents for every dollar U.S. natives make when they hold similar jobs and have comparable education levels.
"I couldn't wait to start working when I got here," said Samkharadze, who earned advanced degrees in economics and sociology before coming to the United States in 1997. "I felt an overwhelming need to find work. Baby-sitting, cleaning. Even though I have university degrees, there was no shame for me in work. People here respect work."
The concept of a "work ethic" seemed odd at first to people who grew up as she did in a centrally planned economy where the state created jobs just to keep people busy.
"We learned discipline -- but we didn't have a chance to use our abilities," she said. "Now, when I come home after a long day and I'm tired, I feel so much pleasure because I've accomplished something meaningful."
Samkharadze's husband, Nicholas Razmadze, an engineer, likes to say when times are tough that, as a veteran of the Soviet army, he can survive anything. The couple lived through civil war and hunger in their native land, and they follow international news about civil unrest in their country with deep concern.
Their sons are 8 and 4 years old. The boys speak Georgian at home and English at school.
Samkharadze earns about $40,000 a year, and she and her husband are shopping for their first home -- a goal she said would have seemed impossible a few years ago. Still, she's impatient to do more.
"I don't think I've accomplished very much yet -- but I know that I will," she says. "I'm starting to feel that I can be something in this country."
``I would have thought, in my ignorance I guess, that it would have run in one of New York's avant-garde performance theaters. Or, whatever the word for avant-garde is these days. I think they're totally insane for not wanting it. I found her an enormously likable and sympathetic performer and was particularly struck by the writing, which is touching and smart. I would have thought the American left stopped being sympathetic to Castro when they figured out Stalin wasn't Santa Claus.''***
Bump to that.
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