Aleksandr Gibalevich: “Reagan is strong. He says to whole world, ‘We are strong but don’t touch us.’”
It is September on an airless Sunday morning with the mercury registering a dripping ninety-eight degrees at eleven o’clock. Adams Avenue is virtually empty except for the few hundred patrons outside the Ken Cinema. The marquee reads. The Forty-first. It is a 1956 Russian-made film that depicts the ideological and physical struggles between Red and White Russia during the Revolution.
Aleksandr at Ken Cinema: “Save yourrr stubs. We will soon have lottery.”
Emma Gibalevich, a tall thirty-seven-year-old tinted blonde with soft brown eyes, sits in the box office selling tickets. An intense-looking, animated man, her husband Aleksandr is standing several feet away tearing up the tickets. “Save yourrr stubs,” Alex Gibalevich advises each patron. “We will soon have lottery” he announces, exaggerating each syllabic and elongating every vowel, making these words as golden as some of his teeth.
The small lobby of the Ken becomes an informal social club for San Diego’s Russian emigres.
He pauses often to light a Marlboro or to hug or to kiss or to backslap as he exchanges greetings with patrons in Russian and in English, but his broad smile is as consistent as the cadence: “Then you verrry mach,” resounds the warm, husky voice. “Save yourrr stubs for lottery.’’ The Gibaleviches’ eight-year-old daughter Luba stands in the lobby wearing shorts and a T-shirt and trendy pink plastic shoes. Embracing a Cabbage Patch doll, she covets a package of M&M’s inside the glass candy counter.
Lidia Gibalevich barely had time to bury her husband before leaving Odessa.
“Kak vi pojivaete?” (How’re ya doin’?), her father’s greeting booms across the lobby to Vytas Dukas, professor of Russian at ' SDSU. “Khorosho!” (Very well!) Dukas replies as the two shake hands and hold a brief, invigorating conversation in Russian. Only five feet seven or eight inches tall and of medium-stocky build, Alex’s opened-to-the-chest safari shirt reveals a thick, gold neck chain. “Come, let me introduce to you new cocktail I just invent,’’ he beams, as he turns on two spigots of soft drinks simultaneously. “Here, it is wonderful! Try! You will love it — I guarantee!” The surprise “cocktail” is a combination of Squirt and Dr Pepper. Who can resist?
Mark Likgalter: “Without oppression from the government, I never would have left. Russia is so beautiful.”
Some of the patrons at the Ken Cinema that morning had seen the film before — in Russia, where they grew up and were educated. Yet they go to the Ken on the first and third Sunday mornings of each month to see the Russian films that Alex Gibalevich has been bringing to San Diego since last spring — not just for the air-conditioning or for the film’s quality or theme, but because they simply want to hang around.
Aleksandr and family. "What we had? We had 200 bucks and a baby with diapers."
Not only do they want to be with Alex Gibalevich, but even during the films, the small lobby of the theater becomes an informal social club for some of San Diego’s Russian emigres. Of the 600 Russian families now living in San Diego who emigrated during the past decade — doctors, accountants, musicians, biologists, engineers, teachers, machinists, hairdressers, office workers — Alex Gibalevich estimates that about ten percent come to the Russian film series he has brought to the Ken. “These lobby meetings provide us with the opportunity to mingle with each other,” says Mark Likgalter, who left Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, seven years ago. “We exchange ideas on current United States marketing systems. We like to hear our native language and to speak it, and we just want to be with each other. The film is the excuse.”
In Tbilisi, Likgalter was the foreign-language editor for an art publication, and until two weeks ago he was a book designer in the trade division of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. He had moved with the company from New York City when they established an office in downtown San Diego. He met his American-born wife, Nina, while she was singing Russian songs on a cruise ship that had sailed from New York City, and he met Gibalevich at one of the early film showings at the Ken. “After the movie we make arrangements to meet in each other's homes. There we drink vodka Russian-style — straight and cold — and with good conversation for dessert,” Likgalter explains. “We also help each other out. If any of us needs money, we lend it without interest. Russians don’t charge interest.” Likgalter describes his love of the Russian language, of the people, and of what he considers their strong, undefeatable spirit. “Without oppression from the government, I never would have left. Russia is so beautiful,” he says wistfully. “Today there are two homes where I belong — one in Golden Hill, the other in Tbilisi.
“For Russians there are three symbols in San Diego,” he continues. “Avocados, tequila, and beaches. For us the avocado symbolizes home; tequila is our symbol of relaxation; the beaches symbolize for us the enjoyment of life. To Russians, money is not a symbol of materialism — it is for us the symbol of freedom.” Like many Russians, Likgalter speaks not only of symbols but of traditions. “With my [American] neighbors in Golden Hill — one is a plumber, the other is a professor of computer sciences — we get together every third Sunday for a barbecue. I love this tradition.” Likgalter smiles, making it apparent that whatever initial uncertainties he had when he arrived in America, his adjustment has been solid. (“You never get rid of the dust of Russia,” Russian emigres say. “It stays in our shoes forever”) Likgalter describes his compatriot Gibalevich as an impresario, a Sol Hurok. “Sascha [diminutive of Aleksandr] is always in a hurry. Whatever he wants to do in San Diego, he will find a way to do it, and he will do it quickly. You see, Sascha never misses an opportunity.” Likgalter laughs as Gibalevich now stands in front of the Ken distributing movie flyers to passers-by. Along with the flyers they get an enthusiastic unsolicited biography of the Bolshoi Ballet’s prima ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya. “Sascha has Hurok’s talent, his energy, and his ability to make things happen. What Sascha hasn’t got is Hurok’s money.
Not to be deterred by lack of cash, Gibalevich enjoys telling the tale of his nearly penniless arrival in San Diego on August 27, 1976. “Even before the plane land, from window even, I say to Emma, ‘Look, isn't it beautiful?’ My heart says me it is my city. I always listen to my heart.
“When we arrived we had no language, no relatives, no jobs. What we had? We had 200 bucks and a baby with diapers. That's it! From Russia we shipped some paintings, some crystal and silver and family heirlooms, a samovar, a piano, maybe a thousand books, and my scuba diving equipment,” Alex continues. “It took a year for things to arrive. I had large icon collection but government forbid me to take out of country so in my suitcase I smuggle out two small pieces, just for sentiment. My diving equipment? I have unusual diving tanks made only in Russia. Nobody in America has them. They are collector’s items!” He beams and his eyes crinkle with obvious delight. Although his small mustache has begun graying and his middle indicates the beginnings of a small paunch, and at age forty-one he has the appearance of a middle-age businessman, when Alex Gibalevich speaks of diving, his face changes and he becomes a young man. “In Odessa I began diving wearing rubber suit I make myself in 1958 when I was fifteen years old. Later I am diving instructor at Odessa Sea Club. There I teach thousands of Russians to dive,” he says. “I was one of pioneers of diving in Russia. I was invited on diving expeditions to Bulgaria.”
During the time Alex was diving with a commercial diver’s license, he was also performing as a pianist and vocalist with symphony orchestras in Odessa, he says. “Sometimes I played piano ten hours a day. Classics I like and Russian music and jazz and Forties and Fifties music. Especially Gershwin and Glenn Miller. I saw Glenn Miller Story in Russia long time ago.” Today, with only a little encouragement, Alex sits at the Russian-made upright in the living room of the five-bedroom University City home that he and Emma bought last spring. He plays “Sorrento” and sings the words in Russian, followed by gypsy songs, songs of love, and many, many glasses of vodka. And toasts. Toasts to druzhba, to friendship. Alex's definition of druzhba is different from jovial San Diego fellowship. It's deeper. “Druzhba is not just for parties and for good times,” he explains. “Druzhba is when you call someone in the middle of the night, even if you don’t see each other for six months. You say him you need help and he comes right over. That is druzhba,” he says, offering more vodka to strengthen the sentiment.
Between songs and toasts, the Gibalevichcs describe life in Odessa, a lively Ukrainian port city about the same size as San Diego. By Russian standards their lives appeared quite pleasant. Emma and Alex shared an apartment with his parents. His father, Arkady, was an economist; he had been a major in the Russian army during World War II. His mother, Lidia, whom Alex describes as “very famous lawyer,” has two master’s degrees — one in finance, the other in law. She was working for a large food company where she drew up contracts with manufacturers, handled labor disputes, rental agreements, and criminal cases (shoplifting, for instance). “We shared kitchen and bathroom with in-laws but a bedroom we had to ourselves,” Emma says. “There was marble fireplace. We were only ten minutes walking from the Black Sea, from beach. Also near Shevchenko Park. It is like Balboa Park with Sunday concerts.” In Odessa the tolchok, which Alex describes as the most prestigious swap meet in all Russia, reflects the black marketeering and moonlighting that characterize the Russian countereconomy. “At Odessa tolchok you buy whatever you want. Plenty of jeans. From all over the world art objects. Better than Spring Valley. Better than Sports Arena. Because it is big seaport, naturally. In Russia no one can survive on salary alone, so people speculate. It is not altogether legal, but one must make extra kopeika doing something,” he explains.
Although Alex was licensed as a commercial diver, his master's degree in mechanical engineering from Odessa’s Polytechnical Institute won him a position as engineer for a machinery plant that made injection molding machinery. His job sometimes involved travel throughout Russia by land and by sea in the dead of winter. Emma had graduated from college with a diploma in winemaking, but at the time of their marriage eleven years ago she was working as an estimator in the cost accounting department of a project design institute. “The Armand Hammer fertilizer plant near Odessa was one of our customers,” she says.
They didn’t have a car. “Getting parts is a big problem. It can take months. Sometimes impossible,” Alex says. “Getting gas is also problem. The whole economy of Russia, even huge factories, entire system, everything operates on principle of hlat. Blat means connections. Not what you know but who you know. Blat controls life. For hotel reservations, for ballet tickets, for getting a good surgeon, for getting your child into a good school, for finding a good cemetery plot, for buying shoes or a car. It takes constant energy. If you have car, government doesn't let you park at beach. So what good is car? We had enough rubles to take taxi.” Growing weary of corruption as normality, of invoking hlat even to buy a kilo of meat, Alex knew in his heart that one day he would leave Russia and come to the United States. “From student times, we read many books about United States and we talk in secret about leading technical country in world. It is long-time dream,” he says. His decision to act was triggered when he returned from an official visit to a factory in Riga, the Latvian capital on the Baltic Sea. When he reported to the director of his factory in Odessa a big cover-up in shoddy, unsafe production methods in the Riga factory, his boss called him a liar. “Even though I had started on my Ph.D., I knew I had to leave. There was no future,” he says. Frustrated and exhausted by constantly trying to beat the system, he discussed with Emma and her elderly parents the pros and cons of leaving Russia. In late 1975 they started the paperwork in motion, and within five months’ time their exit visas came through — at a cost of the United States equivalent of a thousand dollars each, which Emma and Alex borrowed from his parents. (During these years of detente under Brezhnev, emigration reached an unprecedented height; since then it has decreased markedly.) By then Emma was nine months pregnant. “All we could take from Russia in cash was equivalent of a hundred dollars per person,” Alex remembers.
Aided by HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aid Service, one of the oldest resettlement agencies in the world), Alex, Emma, and her parents arrived in Vienna and immediately made their way to the Russian Emigrant’s Reception Center. In a Vienna hospital, a week later, Luba (“love” in Russian) was born. Emma never complained about leaving her homeland forever and having her baby the following week in a foreign country among strangers who spoke a language she didn’t understand. “Having a baby in Russia would be worse. Hospital conditions are so primitive and unsanitary,” she explains. “For childbirth you stay in hospital for a week and don’t change sheets unless you pay under table. If you want hospital gown it costs ruble. There is always shortage of supplies. Here what is for granted, in Russia is impossible. There is paid rubles underneath table for every little thing. The smallest thing, you need blat."
In the few months they spent in Vienna, Alex earned Austrian schillings teaching Russian and translating from Russian to German. HIAS furnished health care, housing, food, and transportation to the United States and made arrangements with San Diego's Jewish Family Service for the Giba-lcviches’ arrival. “Our first choice was to come to L.A.,” Alex remembers, “but they tell us that San Diego would be better for jobs with my technical background.” When all their papers were processed along with those of Emma’s parents (whose two older children had left Russia in 1972), they all flew to San Diego with Luba in their arms, in diapers.
Emma’s fantasy was that San Diego would be all warm water, palm trees, and elegantly dressed people, “just like at Del Coronado Hotel,” she laughs. Alex fantasized about a modern city with a skyline. But their beginnings were in a modest one-bedroom apartment in East San Diego. Their monthly rent of $200 was initially paid for by San Diego’s Jewish Family Service, which sponsored them and eight other Russian families that year. These new immigrants were not considered to be defectors. Under the Soviet Union’s repatriation policy, four national groups are theoretically permitted to leave legally — Armenians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans.
Within two weeks of their arrival, while Emma’s parents stayed with the infant, Alex and Emma enrolled in English language classes and studied at an intense pace. Under the federal government’s CETA (Comprehensive Education Training Act) program, they received the minimum wage — it was then $2.50 per hour — to attend classes to become competent enough in English to get a job. Sandia Tuttle remembers the couple from those first days. Tuttle taught English to foreigners at the Occupation Training Consortium on Thirtieth Street in North Park. “Besides learning basic English, the [students] also learned the facts of life — how to fill out a job application, how to write a resume, even how to fill out an income tax form,” she recalls. “The first Russians enrolled in that program were Alex and a Russian seaman who had jumped ship. Alex had so much energy. He was in such a hurry to become an American — 200 percent, he said, and he talked so fast that he didn’t stop to learn English. In class he talked constantly. He had too much to say to worry about how it sounded. For Alex, grammar and syntax were just in the way.”
Besides learning words, phrases, and job-hunting skills, Emma and Alex learned how to go to banks and stores. In the beginning it was confusing. “One day when I was in Newberry’s wheeling Luba in stroller,” Emma recalls, “a woman came to me and asked, ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Time to do what?’ I asked her. *I don’t have too much time because I have small baby.’ I began to explain but the woman already disappear. So' many things were confusing. Today even, I still don’t know what is in all the jars in the supermarkets. There are here so many varieties.”
In the beginning they visited the Russian club at SDSU, where they met Russian-language students who became their earliest friends. Among those friends was Michael Cronan, who is now an artist on the San Diego Union staff. With Cronan's master’s degree in Russian and his interest in diving, he and Gibalevich became fast friends. Cronan recalls a night in the fall of 1976, a month or so after Gibalevich arrived in America. “It was a beautiful warm night during a Santa Ana and Alex and I had been diving off the jetty in Mission Beach, and then we were just lollygagging around in the water in our diving suits, speaking Russian. Some fishermen were in a boat nearby. Alex was very anxious to try out the new language, but he could hardly speak a word of it. He swam over to the boat and said in a very thick accent, ‘How are you?’ The fishermen were terrified. They must have thought we had just slipped off a Russian U-boat. ‘Let’s get outta here,’ one of them said, and they left without a word. Alex was puzzled,” Cronan remembers. “He was a little homesick then and he said to me, ‘An uprooted tree always remembers native soil.’ ”
From the small stipend they received through the CETA program. Emma Gibalevich was able to save $300. It was enough to buy a 1967 Dodge Dart, their first automobile. At that time Alex got his first (temporary) job in San Diego. For seven dollars an hour he scraped barnacles off tuna boats in San Diego Harbor. Then, in May of 1977, Alex was hired as project engineer for United States Divers in Santa Ana. That meant renting a room in Santa Ana from “a very famous Orange County lawyer,” but after all, he now had a real job. He came home to San Diego on weekends.
Alex quickly made friends. He managed to speak enough English to accept an invitation to address an Orange County Lions Club meeting on the subject of contemporary life in Russia. Alex was impressed by the company he was working for. “Jacques Cousteau is chairman of the board. He speaks perfect Russian, without accent,” Alex says. While he was employed as project engineer for United States Divers, Alex delivered pizzas in the evenings to earn extra money. Then he was promoted to project manager and then he fell victim to a big layoff. By the end of 1978 Alex was selling vacuum cleaners to people in their homes in San Diego. He sold so many within four months that he says he was about to be made a sales manager, but he left to become an engineer at INESCO, the local fusion research company. Wherever there was work, there was Gibalevich. “We don’t have rich uncle in America,” Alex says.
Emma’s job history is less colorful. When she applied for work cleaning a convalescent home, she was turned down because she was unable to work nights. When her English was good enough to acquire more marketable skills, Emma enrolled in Mesa College in 1979; in one year she completed a two-year program that resulted in an A.A. degree in medical office occupations. “It was so easy. All test questions were multiple choice. You just can guess. In Russia you must know answers,” she says. “Still, it wasn’t so easy to get a job, especially when employers heard my accent. In San Diego a Spanish accent is fine, not a Russian accent.” Eventually she became a medical secretary at Internal Medical Group on El Cajon Boulevard. “There were many Russian patients who came in because they heard I could translate for them and help fill out papers,” Emma says.
In 1979, when Alex was still working in Orange County and coming home to San Diego on weekends, he received word of his father’s sudden death in Odessa, two months before the elder Gibaleviches’ visas were to come through. Lidia Gibalevich barely had time to bury her husband, sell or give away what family treasures the Soviet government wouldn’t allow out of Russia, leave the job where she had worked (up until the last day) for twenty-eight years, pack the family photos that represented generations, and take a last look at the graveyards of Russia before she joined her only son and the grandchild she had never met. She was forced to pay taxes on the personal belongings that she took with her and had to sacrifice her retirement pension of 120 rubles a month, which, equivalent to 150 U.S. dollars, is considered a lot of money in Russia. In addition, she was subjected to a humiliating strip search by a Soviet immigration official. Like Alex, Emma, and Emma's parents, Lidia arrived in the United States as a political refugee rather than an immigrant. According to Cindy Jensen, regional director of the San Diego office of the International Rescue Committee, and La Jolla immigration attorney Ivan Dirkes, classification policy is on an individual basis and each case is judged on its own evidence before determination of immigrant or refugee status is determined. Because she is a senior citizen with no clear means of support and because she suffers from high blood pressure and chronic asthma, Lidia Gibalevich became eligible for Social Security Supplemental Income payments of $400 a month. Like Emma and Alex, Lidia began taking ESL classes five days a week continually since her arrival in 1979, and last May she passed her United States citizenship test. More recently she passed an interpreter’s exam and she is now on call at the municipal court as a freelance interpreter for civil cases.
What impresses Lidia Gibalevich most about San Diego are the activities available for senior citizens. “In Russia when you retire there is nothing to do but die," she says. “Nothing is organized without permission from government. Here there are many clubs and activities. The first time I saw Fashion Valley I was amazed, but now I am accustomed." Despite the variety of food in San Diego supermarkets, Lidia keeps a Russian-style kitchen in her comfortable one-bedroom apartment on Collwood Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street. “My stomach is not made for Mexican food." she winks. “It is still made for borscht. Here I have full life but still it is hard to take an old tree to new earth. I tell myself to be brave, to be inside strong, to get on bus." Although she misses the boardwalk on the Black Sea and her lifelong friends in Odessa, when Lidia Gibalevich walks with her family along the boardwalk in Seaport Village and gets a whiff of the sea air, she is reminded a little of the old life, the old city, the Russian landscape, and the dust of her motherland.
Alex Gibalevich quickly absorbed himself in San Diego’s popular culture and quickly peppered his speech with idioms: “No problem!" — “No big deal!" — “I must now split.” The Gibaleviches have acquired an answering service, a call-waiting telephone device, and credit cards which Alex likes to call “plastic money."
Through a travel agent friend, they got a “terrific deal" on a ten-day Hawaiian vacation and another “deal" on a ten-day vacation in Mexico at the beginning of the last peso devaluation. When they were in Las Vegas they stayed at the honeymoon suite at Caesar’s Palace on a “half-price deal" (“We went especially to see Tom Jones," Alex explains), and when they wandered into the gambling palace at nearby Circus Circus, they met a Russian dealer. “I am born gambler," Alex laughs, “but I never win. In Russia we have also blackjack. Here Emma wins right away in machines and then we lose everything at tables. Only once did we ever win something. We have country-western bumper stickers on cars we get from Pic-Nic chicken place, and when I am driving car pool to Torrey Pines a truck from radio station KCBQ stops and says me that I win two tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof at Fox Theatre. When I say him my name, he says me, ‘Next time I pick someone named Smith or Jones.’” Alex grins.
Gibalevich attended a black-tie dinner at the Hotel del Coronado in honor of Jacques Cousteau (although he rented a tux for that occasion. Alex now owns one). He met Yul Brynner. Ivan Rebroff, and Charles Aznavour when they each performed at the Fox. and in 1980 he developed a friendship with the late local TV film reviewer, Greg Dumas. As Alex reports it, he had telephoned Dumas at Channel 10 to recommend a restaurant, and when Dumas said he was intrigued by Alex’s accent and suggested that they should meet some day, Alex immediately countered by extending a specific dinner invitation, which Dumas accepted. After that, they called each other from time to time, and Dumas was one of the guests invited to the big backyard bash (catered by the French Gourmet restaurant) that the Gibaleviches threw for a hundred of their friends in July, 1982, four days after they officially became citizens of the United States. “To be citizen here means very much. I am free like bird without borders and whole world is open," Alex told his new friends and those who helped him and his family at the very beginning when they first arrived in San Diego. “San Diego is like small diamond he says. “People arc warm and trusting.” Gibalevich says he’s had job opportunities in other cities — in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, he says — “but my heart says me this is my city."
Emma is now working five days a week and every other Saturday in the credit and collections department of the Allergy and Lung Medical Group in Hillcrest. Alex’s checkered job history includes six months at Underwater Kinetics in Kearny Mesa and later at Chem-Tronics in El Cajon. He is now working as a free-lance mechanical engineer for Volt Technical Corporation in Kearny Mesa. “But I have unlimited energy for permanent job. I can turn mountains upside down if someone would just give me mountain, give me big job,” he brags as he and his wife Emma sit at the formal dining room table of their 2500-square-foot home. On the heavy, dark sideboard that was shipped from Odessa to San Diego, among the collection of Czechoslovakian crystal and European cloisonne, next to one of three cuckoo clocks they shipped from Russia, sits an ashtray from the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. Upstairs in Luba’s bedroom, on the beautiful hand-crafted lac-querware table and chairs that her babushka brought from Odessa in 1979, sits the prized, authentic Cabbage Patch doll that the young girl had waited six months for on a Toys R Us waiting list.
The Gibaleviches say that their future is tied up in their house but, like many other American families, they are choking on the payments. Through Emma’s frugality and Alex's knack for getting “deals," in 1978 they were able to buy a 1350-square-foot house in the SDSU area for $60,000 with only a couple of thousand as a down payment. Since Alex is handy and has acquired handy friends, including the architect husband of his former English teacher, Sandia Tuttle, he was able to install hardwood floors and make many other improvements. When they sold it in order to buy their present house at $30.(XX) under market value (it was a foreclosure), their original equity was worth considerably more. They saw their new house at eleven o’clock in the morning and by six that night their offer was in. “Life flies fast, like MX missile. When you see what you want, move fast,” he says. “It pays off as investment.”
Although he admits that the present house payments are well over a thousand dollars a month, Alex’s reluctance to reveal the purchase price of the house is a throwback to his thirty-three years in Russia. “If you have rubles, people are suspicious. Then government is suspicious. Then KGB is interested. It means trouble. People think you are in black market and that is big crime in Russia. Even if you have rubles, in communal kitchen you cook simple food, potatoes. You eat caviar in your bedroom,” he explains. “In Russia there is only small opportunity to spend rubles. There are maybe only ten nice restaurants in Odessa, with same population as San Diego. There is room only for tourists. There is long waiting list for car. You can’t buy condominium if you are small family because government allows only certain number of square meters per person. There are small choices only. Sometimes no choices. Taking a nice vacation is a joke. There are no hotel rooms available, only for tourists.
Alex pauses for a moment, then continues. “You know, in Russia it is illegal to handle dollars. To me, dollars represent freedom to do what you want, buy what you want, protect family, and take a good vacation. Money is money everywhere in world, but in Russia you cannot enjoy it. If you show good lifestyle, you will have trouble. Here, I am the same as everyone else — but I push harder because I had many lost years in Russia.”
Along with the pressures of “moving up” San Diego style, Alex creates other pressures. Last March when he and his wife were visiting friends in Los Angeles, they bumped into an old classmate of Emma’s from Odessa. “What this guy Anatoly was doing in L.A.?” Alex asks rhetorically. “He is promoter! He brings Russian movies to L.A. Aha! My brain goes, click! You know, Russians are always complaining. Wherever they are, they complain. They say me, Sascha, how come there is no Russian culture in San Diego like there is in L.A., in New York, in Miami, in Chicago? Click! That's it! Anatoly says me, ‘Sascha, don’t do this thing. Your shirts you will lose!”
But the Soviet system breeds living by wits, operating with blat, earning extra kopeike. “No one survives on salary alone,” Alex reasoned with his wife, and he ignored Anatoly’s warning. With his penchant for superlatives that easily give way to hyperbole, the engineer from Odessa contacted ten San Diego movie houses and he struck a deal with one of them. On May 6, without advertising or formal public relations, but by word-of-mouth alone, Ekipaj, the Russian version of Airport, was shown at San Diego’s first exclusive art theater, the Ken, to an audience of seventy Russians. Since Ekipaj was a fairly new
film, it had no subtitles and thus did not appeal to mixed audiences. “It was disaster!” Alex remembers. With a minimum cash outlay of a thousand dollars to bring a Russian film to San Diego through Anatoly’s New York and Los Angeles connections, and with seventy patrons at five dollars per ticket, with students and seniors discounted (the theater has 520 seats), Gibalevich not only lost his shirt as Anatoly predicted he would, he also lost his socks and shoes.
So Gibalevich changed his approach and looked for older Russian films with subtitles. The Ken's manager, Eleanor Durham, was enthusiastic about the project. “Alex cannot be ignored. He made an impact on all of us. He even had me reading Dostoyevsky,” she says, and Jim Gillan, then the assistant manager, helped keep the project alive by suggesting promotional ideas to Alex.
“I never worked with anyone like Alex before,” Gillan says. “At first it was like doing a SALT negotiation in the typical stereotypic Russian style — what's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable. Once he recovered from the shock of having to pay a flat rental fee for the theater, things went smoothly. We both had a lot to learn about each other beforehand.” Through Anatoly’s connection, Alex began renting all sorts of older Russian films — Chekhov and Dostoyevsky adaptations, ballet films, classics, and comedies. He carefully avoided showing any film that might be misconstrued as propaganda, for fear of being identified as a communist sympathizer. As a film promoter Alex’s expenses include the cost of film rentals, film shipment, advertisement costs, art supplies for posters, printing and photocopying costs for flyers, renting the theater, paying the projectionist, and holding press screenings. He buys champagne and Stolichnaya vodka at the Price Club and uses them as lottery prizes. After work, both Alex and Emma have been delivering flyers advertising upcoming films to libraries, bookstores, several movie theaters, and a few small restaurants where Alex has formed friendships with the owners.
After eight years in San Diego, Aleksandr Gibalevich has become a small legend. One of the early resettlement social workers has described him as a Russian Yuppie. And there have been whispers that Gibalevich drives a 280-Z when, in fact, he drives a 1979 Datsun B-210 station wagon bought on time payments. Today this 1984 version of a Horatio Alger character with an appetite for herring is standing in the lobby of the Ken Cinema with other emigres and, as usual, the discussion is animated.
Now that Alex and his companions have officially become United States citizens and they are voting for the first time in their lives for a United States president, they are understandably excited. “In Russia,” Alex says, “no one cares about voting because there is no chance to express opinion. But government sends workers to knock on apartment door to go and vote. If you are sick, they come to apartment with ballot and make you vote, but there is no point. It is pre-arranged. Here I know it is important to vote, to make real choice.” Like other Russian immigrants in San Diego, Alex is glib, well-read in foreign affairs, strongly opinionated, and strongly in favor of President Reagan. “When I arrived it was 1976, it was election year. We hold mock election in English class. In our class. Carter won. He was brand-new horse in stable. I vote for him also,” Alex says. “Then I watch most powerful country in world drain down, going from big hill at very high speed downhill. Americans are sometimes naive. They trust Soviet government to honor signature on international agreement. It is joke. They trust too much. Reagan brings oxygen to whole country. He brings new life and pride.”
So when Alex became a citizen of the United States he registered as a Republican, as did all the members of his family. “Many Americans are like turtle. They sit in turtle shell and think they are safe. They say home is fortress and they don't care what's going on outside,” he says. “Reagan is strong. He says to whole world, ‘We are strong but don’t touch us.’” The discussion continues outside the theater and spills onto the sidewalk. Now Aleksandr Gibalevich, engineer, musician, diver, raconteur, impresario, consumer/citizen 200 percent, surrounded by some of his American and Russian friends, is leading another discussion. What are they talking about with so much passion? Food, of course! “Naturally I like a good pizza!” says Alex Gibalevich. “But every Sunday morning — what we eat at home for breakfast — you know what is it? That’s right! It is herring with onions and boiled potatoes. Tradition, eh? You know what it is I am thinking?” Gibalevich’s eyes crinkle and his voice beams across Adams Avenue. “I am thinking it is time maybe to start Russian restaurant.”