Immigrants from former Soviet Union mourn Reagan

Immigrants from former Soviet Union mourn Reagan
By GILLIAN FLACCUS, Associated Press Writer

Fresno Bee
June 9, 2004

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Rabbi Velvel Tsikman remembers a time when the only
link he had to his Jewish heritage was a line in his Soviet passport
that read: “Nationality: Jewish.”

Now, Tsikman – who in the former Soviet Union was forbidden to wear
a yarmulke – watches over a vibrant Russian Jewish community in West
Hollywood from his office at the Chabad Russian Jewish Community

Tsikman says he credits his spiritual freedom to the late Ronald
Reagan, whose anti-missile program drew the Soviets into a costly
arms race, helping lead to the collapse of what Reagan called the
“evil empire.” His 1987 demand to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev
at the Berlin Wall – “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” – was the
ultimate challenge of the Cold War.

Tsikman recalled with emotion the first time a Jewish synagogue opened
in the Ukraine after years of religious oppression. He began to wear
a yarmulke openly and grow his beard; he soon veered from a career
in computers to the spiritual life of a rabbi.

“It was like going from the basement to the street and seeing the
light,” Tsikman said. “(Reagan’s) doctrine, what he did, was very
helpful to destroy the monster that was there in Europe.” Those
sentiments were echoed across Southern California, home to large
Russian and Eastern European immigrant communities. They were also
reflected in poignant signs and flags placed outside the Santa Monica
mortuary where Reagan’s body was taken after his death Saturday at
age 93.

Lithuanian and Polish flags sprouted from the grass. Posters paying
homage to Reagan – some decorated with pieces of the Berlin Wall –
sat propped against a fountain alongside flowers and balloons.

“Sir – You told Gorbachev to ‘Take down this wall.’ We helped. Thanks
for your courage and leadership,” read one sign that was affixed with
two quarter-sized bits of the Berlin Wall.

Another sign, accompanied by a Lithuanian flag, read: “President
Reagan, Thank you for Lithuanian freedom.” Still another said:
“Solidarnosc! With love from Poland,” a reference to Reagan’s efforts
to promote the Solidarity labor movement in Poland in the 1980s.

Pope John Paul II sent a message Tuesday to Nancy Reagan, expressing
“deep gratitude” for her late husband’s commitment to the cause of
freedom in the world and his work to help end the Soviet grip on
eastern Europe.

In West Hollywood, Tsikman has for 12 years watched over the Russian
Jewish community center, an anchor for up to 50,000 Soviet bloc
immigrants in greater Los Angeles. The neighborhood is dotted with
Russian, Ukranian and Armenian groceries, pharmacies and video stores,
and people speak more Russian than English.

Dozens of seniors chatted Tuesday about the impact Reagan had on
their lives.

“This is a guy who changed the world. It wasn’t only his speeches – it
was his actions,” said Aleksandr Shakhnovich, 57, a former shipbuilder
for the Soviet navy.

“He cut down the economy of the USSR and it was one of the main reasons
the country just shut down. He did something that not only changed
my life, but changed the lives of everyone in the former Soviet Union.”

Down the street, Armenian grocer Paul Khostikyan paused from unloading
fresh fruit to remember the man he called “the best president in
U.S. history.”

Khostikyan, 54, who immigrated in 1990, said he remembered Reagan’s
famous speech at the Berlin Wall – and recalled being moved by his
bold words.

“I liked how he talked about freedom,” said Khostikyan, now a
U.S. citizen. “He really meant it, not like other presidents. He will
be in history much more than Clinton or Bush.”

At the community center, Tsikman brushed his finger against his
yarmulke and watched contentedly as dozens of elderly people ate at
long tables, laughing and chatting in Russian.

“They are living in a paradise here. It’s like God is paying them for
a terrible life in Russia,” Tsikman said. “These people were sitting
home waiting to die. When they came here, they came alive again.”