From Moscow to Miami

When Cuba's top students were sent to the Soviet Union, no one could have guessed they would change from revolutionaries to refugees.

The six little wood-framed paintings, modestly Impressionist in style, depict a street scene, a shady lakeside park, historical monuments. They are glimpses of Odessa, a port city of two million on the Black Sea. They hang in Alvaro and Ludmilla Alba's sparsely furnished living room in Little Havana.

Alvaro Alba, who is Cuban, misses Odessa. It is where he met his wife and where he studied history at the State University of Odessa in the mid- and late-Eighties, the early years of glasnost and perestroika, when the Ukraine was still part of the USSR. Where he watched the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union and of Soviet communism. And where everyday life, buffeted though it was by political and economic tumult, retained a simplicity and openness he grew to esteem.

In his time there, Alba was supposed to be in the final stages of his transformation to socialism's New Man, el hombre nuevo, the selfless, intelligent, top-of-the-line product of Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution who would be expected to lead the future Cuba. He was among the continuous waves of young men and women sent from the island to study -- to hone their revolutionary fervor along with their intellectual acuity -- at universities in Soviet bloc countries. For Alvaro Alba and many of his contemporaries, the uncurtaining of the Soviet system prompted by glasnost led them to question and ultimately to reject Castro's model for Cuba, the opposite result expected by their revolutionary families back home and a step not lightly taken because of the Cuban government's probable retaliation.

But few of the Soviet-educated, perestroika-inspired Cubans thought their decisions to renounce fidelismo would propel them to the United States. They had grown up privileged and happy, for the most part, with no special hunger for their superpower neighbor's materialistic excesses, alluring pop culture, or uneasy race relations. Their frame of reference extended farther east than north. Twenty-nine-year-old Alba, a devoted scholar of Russian and Cuban history who dreams of being a professor at the University of Havana, never cultivated the notion of living in the United States. Yet here he is, along with the thousands of other exiles who can't go home until Castro falls. Waiting in Miami, where, as Joan Didion put it, Havana vanities come to dust.

Alba arrived with about 100 other young Cubans who landed in several groups at Miami International Airport this past January, February, and March after twenty-hour flights from Moscow. They are here because they were lucky enough to be classified as refugees by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, under an immigration program conducted by the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation. Most of them couldn't have returned to Cuba without risking ostracism or imprisonment because of their active opposition to Castro. They were trapped in Moscow, unable to work legally, many under deportation orders, many with passports confiscated by the Cuban embassy, some in hiding. They had no way out other than the foundation's privately funded immigration program, called Exodus, which assists Cubans living in third countries to relocate to the U.S.

Twenty miles north of Alvaro Alba's squat white bungalow on SW 22nd Terrace, in a third-floor walkup just off the Palmetto Expressway in Hialeah, Natalia Perez guards her own reminders of Odessa. Chief among them is her daughter Maylen Rodriguez, who was born there three years ago this past January 17, the day she first touched U.S. soil. Maylen, her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother also are in Miami thanks to Exodus. Like the Alba family, they saw emigrating from Moscow to the U.S. as their only alternative. Taking that alternative, though, has cost them dearly; neither Natalia Perez nor her mother, Tamara Danilchenko, expect to see their husbands again.

They don't have a car and seldom socialize with their friend Alvaro Alba, but the two transplanted families stay in touch. Their ties go back to Havana, before their lives and their society began coming unmoored. Danilchenko, a 52-year-old native of southern Russia with deep-set blue eyes and blond hair, spent more than two decades in Cuba, where she taught Alba Russian literature at the preparatory school affiliated with the University of Havana, before he left for Odessa in 1983. Three years later her daughter Natalia began her studies in linguistics at the State University of Odessa, as Alba was in his last year there.

While in Odessa, Natalia fell in love with another Cuban university student, Jorge Rodriguez. They were married in 1988; Maylen was born two years later. Rodriguez, an archaeology student, was disturbed by the chaos of the Communist system breaking down around him, according to his wife. He was glad to leave the Ukraine when the couple graduated in the spring of 1991. But the world had changed by then, even if outwardly the Cuban revolution remained intact. Moscow was drastically reducing its material and financial support of the Castro regime, which emphatically rejected glasnost and perestroika. Life in Cuba had taken on a new desperation. "It got worse and worse," Natalia Perez says. "We lacked so many things, and Castro continued to talk as if all we needed to do was believe in him." She repudiated the revolution and came to see Castro's intransigence as a symptom of insanity. She wanted to leave Cuba forever, and since her mother was Russian, she knew she could eventually obtain a tourist visa to Russia. At least that would get her out of Cuba; she'd figure out what to do from there. Her husband, while not enthusiastic, agreed to make the move with her.

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