A Promised Land
Estonia, Tallinn. Year 1984. Alex Reutov and a group of nearly 90 believers in an underground Christian church had secretly gathered at the city’s edge in an old house for religious worship. The group had just begun praying when a lookout warned the state security police (KGB) was coming to arrest them, and the worshippers suddenly had to flee. The church members emptied the house in about three minutes, escaping through the building’s doors and windows.
Reutov, who is now 53 years old, has been living in the US since 1989; however, most of his life was spent in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The USSR was established in 1922 as a number of republics controlled by a single government that ruled according to the communist ideology outlined by German socialist Karl Marx, who advocated for the abolition of religion. Under this ideology, religious practices were forbidden in the USSR and consequently, more than 100 million Christian believers were harassed, abused, terminated from jobs, and even executed.
Alex Reutov was raised in a Christian family and like millions of others, experienced persecution. Since his childhood, Reutov dreamed of moving to the US to escape what he called the “Prison of Nations.” It’s been 23 years since his dream came true. Reutov now lives in Eugene, Oregon, where he works as a bus driver for the Lane Transit District. He is grateful to be a US citizen and treats each day as a blessing.
Xenia Slabina: Why did you want to live in the US and when did you start dreaming about it?
Alex Reutov: As far as I remember, I started dreaming about the US when I was six. I learned from other people and from movies that the US was a country with unlimited possibilities, with the most freedom available, and hoped one day to move there. I did not believe the anti-American propaganda to which I was exposed. I was always waiting for the opportunity to leave, even though I knew that in the Soviet Union it was easier to become a cosmonaut and fly to the moon than to move to a foreign country.
XS: How was your family deprived of freedom when you lived in the Soviet Union?
AR: We were constantly persecuted by the state security police because of our faith in God. The only religion that was tolerated was atheism. My parents were members of an underground Christian church. Every Sunday up to 100 people met at each other’s houses for worship services. There were times when people gathered in our house also. To prevent suspicion, no more than two people at a time were allowed to enter the house. One could be easily arrested for practicing their religion.
XS: Have you ever been personally discriminated against because of your beliefs?
AR: I was, but I don’t feel like a victim because spiritually, I’m strong. But when I was little, schoolteachers often asked me to stay after classes for special talks. They questioned me about my family, told me that my parents were wrong, and tried to make me abdicate my faith. They ridiculed me in front of other classmates for believing in God. My siblings were psychologically bullied in the same way.
When I returned from the army after serving in Kazakhstan, I had a hard time finding a job. Among the first questions employers asked were whether I was a member of a communistic party, and if not, was it because I was religious.
XS: What about other family members of yours? Were they persecuted in any way?
AR: During World War II, my grandfather was killed because he declared himself a Christian. He refused to pick up a gun, believing it was sinful to kill people, believing that only God had a right to take lives. For that reason, a KGB truck stopped by his house late one night and carried my grandfather in an unknown direction. Witnesses said he was put alive in a mixture of white lime liquid and his body corroded in minutes. That was like martyrdom.
My wife, who is also a Christian, was locked alone in her elementary school after classes and was forced to learn Communist poems. Her grades were intentionally lowered when it became known that her family practiced religion.
XS: The USSR was in a cold war with the US until 1990. How did you and your spouse, being Soviet citizens, manage to gain asylum in the US?
AR: People who expressed their intention to flee were regarded as betrayers of the Motherland and risked being sent to prison. It was extremely hard to go somewhere outside the territory of the USSR. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev struck a deal allowing Christians and Jews to leave the Soviet Union. I did not want to miss that opportunity. In 1988, the year we fled, we were ordered to voluntarily renounce Soviet citizenship. We were given 48 hours to leave the Soviet Union and never return.
XS: Where did you go after leaving the Soviet Union?
AR: First, my wife, our one-year-old son, and I departed to Vienna, Austria, where we spent over a month. Then we were transferred to Italy and spent three months there. During our stay in Italy, we learned a little bit of Italian. The next year, on January 11, 1989, we came to Burlingame, California.
XS: What languages do you speak?
AR: At home we speak Russian. I speak English, Russian, and Ukrainian. I can also understand Italian, and most of the Slavic languages, which are interrelated with each other. Recently I learned Polish by listening to the “Polskie Radio.”
XS: How has your life changed since you fled Soviet Russia?
AR: I’m living my dream now. Every day we wake up and thank God that we live in the US. This nation has an amazing ability to survive and overcome all difficulties. I had a chance to travel a lot around the globe [Reutov has been to 16 countries]. I saw how different people live in various parts on the planet, and can say that the US is the best nation in the world.
XS: What, for you, is the meaning of life?
AR: It’s important for everyone to find his place in this world. For me, the meaning of life is to talk to people and encourage them. It’s encouraging to have hope. For example, I’m telling you the story about the fulfillment of my dream so that it will inspire those who will know about it. If I could realize my dream, then others can actualize theirs also. Even if you have to wait for years, at the end it’s definitely worth it.