Citizen Sergei

By Shannon Tan / March / April 2000
October 29th, 2007
I am like a newborn," Sergei Khrushchev said one day last July as he emerged from the Bishop McVinney Auditorium in Providence. A few minutes earlier, he had stood with 245 other men and women ­ including his wife, Valentina Golenko ­ holding a tiny American flag in his hand and reciting his first Pledge of Allegiance as a U.S. citizen. One friend commented that the symbolism was as if John F. Kennedy Jr. ’83 had decided to become a Russian.

To most observers, the journey from the Soviet Union to the United States seemed like a long one for this son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. But not to Sergei, who came to the United States in 1991 to accept a visiting scholar post at the Watson Institute for International Studies and then simply decided to make Brown his home. (He is now a senior fellow at the institute.)

In fact, he says, the similarities between the Soviet Union and the United States were rather striking to him at first. Growing up in the Soviet Union, he shared the prevailing fear that the United States would jump on any sign of national weakness to crush the Soviet people. Later, after Khrushchev had moved to New England, he was amazed at how similar the attitude of Americans had been toward the Soviet Union. “In fact,” he wrote in last October’s American Heritage magazine, “each Cold War power came very close to seizing the other by the throat in a fit of righteous indignation.”

For Khrushchev, becoming a citizen was accompanied by the fast-moving media frenzy that seems a peculiarly American phenomenon. It startled him. To Khrushchev, the step was a purely personal and practical matter that made it easier for him and his wife to live in their ranch house in Cranston, Rhode Island, and to travel back and forth to Moscow, where the couple’s three children and three grandchildren live. In his office one day last fall, he agreed to reflect on that first Pledge of Allegiance and the reaction to it. His newest book, Nikita Khrushchev: Creation of a Superpower will be published this spring by Pennsylvania State University Press.

Could you explain why you think your decision to become a U.S. citizen is not as important as Americans seem to have found it?
After seven years, we first of all asked ourselves ­ my wife and I ­ will we return to Russia or not? And the answer was that if nothing changes, we prefer to live here. And the second reason is that my understanding of the life here is that if you want to live in this country, you have to be [a] citizen, so we decided to become citizens. It is like the saying, “Some people like to live in their own home, and some of them prefer to live in the hotel.”

What was your reaction to all the press interest in your becoming a U.S. citizen?
Of course, I was very surprised, because I thought it more a private matter, and the press, of course, overreacted. But from the other side, for me as I am writing about the Cold War, it was very useful and interesting, because it shows that American society, on all levels, is living still in the Cold War. [Americans are] still behaving in this way because they talk about irony, and they talk about everything, but really that means that they accepted me.

Stalin’s daughter, she defected here [during the Cold War]. My case was a clear signal that the Cold War is over, because I came here, not defecting, not running away from somebody else. I was invited to the institute, and I applied for the citizenship after working here for seven years. It really shows that we have no problem in the communication between countries. Before, you could live here or there only if you’re Russian or American. Now, it’s only a question of buying a ticket.

Why do you think the reporters were so interested?
Of course, it’s my name. It’s a simple answer. The son of Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, is working in Texas. If he would apply to American citizenship, maybe it’ll be five lines [in the newspaper].

Second, I think maybe it’s the press creating the case and the event. And all these things took place during the summer. When I asked one of the journalists, he said “It’s no big events now.” So maybe [there were] no big events they can cover.

Why did their reaction surprise you?
For me, the Cold War is over.

How disruptive was the press reaction to your life?
My rule [is that] I answer all the questions of all journalists, because it’s helping us better understand each other. But of course it’s affected me, because I planned to begin the work on my new book about Russian reforms and had to spend these two months in the library. But I answered the same question maybe more than a hundred times to different people, so it just moved the book to sometime in the fall.

From whom have you received the oddest responses to your decision?
People from the different countries ­ it was even published about this in New Zealand. A playwright writing a play for children about Khrushchev, he wanted to send me this play to read. I think in this case you have to do it, because [there’ll be] less mistakes in the play, also. Some of them went to my house; the big companies just come with all this equipment; they make life very complicated, especially CNN and BBC. They’re adjusting all the lights and everything for two to three hours.

What kind of a reaction did you get from the non-U.S. press?
Most of them depended on the American press. American reaction is leading the role. In many cases, even in the Russian press, I get the feeling that they’re not so much telling the story by themselves but just rewriting it from the American press.

Do you see any parallels between reactions to your decision and the response to the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., whose father was so linked to yours?
Of course, in such cases you have similarity, but I think that you cannot compare the things. It’s very sad when somebody dies. [My situation is] only fun. You’re just trying to answer all these questions: what your father would say about this, what you think, what American food you like. I don’t think that it is possible to compare these two. They’re on very different levels from the human point of view.

Did his death affect you?
Of course, it affected me. My father and others had very deep or strong respect for John Kennedy, and it’s such a sad fate for this family that so many people died.

How did your children, grandchildren, and other relatives in Russia react to your becoming a U.S. citizen?
For them, the Cold War is also over. First of all, I talked to our children before applying. They said, if we want it, to do this. We didn’t expect to have any complications. Most of the Russians are really neutral. But of course, for some of them, they were negative. They said, “Why he’s going to America?” For Russia, it was a bad time. Especially during the winter, there was growing anti-American feeling among Russians. They begin to think once more that the West is plotting against Russia, that the hostile forces are there. Even now, they are talking that all this money-laundering scandal is not money-laundering scandal ­ it’s political plot of the United States against Russia.

Have you asked your children to come to America, or have they asked you to return to Russia?
You know, as I told you, it’s not a political decision. If somebody would offer them some position or job, then there would be discussion. They’re young enough, they have to work, and they are not expected to be living in my house, and I [am] not earning too much money that I can just support all of them.

There was no such practical discussion. In this country, if you come here without idea of what you’re expecting to do, it’s very difficult to find some job. They have their position in Russia, so I’m not trying to bring them here. Sometimes I’m worried about them, because it’s a very chaotic situation in Russia, and something might happen. But they prefer to be there. And for the same reason, they did not ask me to come back, because I’m working here; I’m happy here. Why I should have to go back?

Are you going to register to vote? Do you have a preference for any particular presidential candidate?
I think, yes, we hope to vote. For me, it’s not party-wise. I voted many years ago party-wise, and I think I can make my decision not on the party, but on my understanding of the politician who will run and on his ideas, and how he will correspond with my thinking.

Anthropology concentrator Shannon Tan is a news editor at the Brown Daily Herald and a former BAM intern.

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March / April 2000