TOMILINO, Russia — Back in the Great Depression, in the days when communism was a gleaming red star that beckoned working-class dreamers from across the sea, 24-year-old Rose Kostyuk packed her bags and moved to Russia.
It was an exciting adventure for a spunky young social worker from Philadelphia. Thousands of miles away, the first real socialist state was being hammered together. Idealists everywhere felt a magnetic pull toward this utopian land of Lenin. All the possibilities of a lifetime lay ahead. The year was 1932.
And then came reality. Kostyuk fell in love with a Russian Communist and left her American husband. She married the Russian and had children. But all around, the workers' paradise was sinking into a world of terror and paranoia. Finally, there was no escape.
America--safe, familiar, rich America--drifted as far away as a childhood memory.
"Why I survived, I don't know," Kostyuk, now white-haired and in a wheelchair, tells a visitor to her log cabin home in this rustic community north of Moscow. "Can you explain it?"
They journeyed from the United States to the Soviet Union by the thousands in the 1920s and early '30s, an assortment of political radicals, Depression refugees and restless spirits, enchanted by the promise of a society more just than the one they were leaving behind.
Some brought modern machinery. Union members packed their hand tools. Others lugged little besides idealism. Those with Eastern European roots felt as if they were going home. And for a brief, now forgotten interlude, these pilgrims were welcomed, several thousand in all, scholars estimate.
But the season of goodwill was fleeting: By the late 1930s, those Westerners remaining had become a people displaced, often shunned by Soviet neighbors and co-workers, feared as subversives, in some cases jailed or even executed.
A few of the wanderers and their children survive in the old Soviet Union to this day, having outlived the country that proved a false utopia. Their personal tales are remarkable and often troubled--stories of tragedy in the severe Russian landscape, of noble fantasies and brutal letdowns, of innocent choices with heart-breaking consequences.
"He died in 1946, his last words about me and my children," Kostyuk wrote recently of her father, a druggist, who once cautioned her about expecting too much from human nature. Even now, "I cannot put these words on paper without tears."
Although a few of the Americans have clung to the goals of their youth, a larger number acknowledge lives of cruel disappointment. The atrocities of Josef Stalin's regime and the corruption that became epidemic are widely seen as a betrayal. Today's messy, final collapse of the Soviet Union comes almost as an anticlimax.
"I think a lot would agree that the dream was a fantasy, that their lives were lived in vain," said Paula Garb, a researcher at UC Irvine and a former Soviet resident, who chronicled their experiences in her 1987 book, "They Came to Stay."
Benjamin Leib, a weaver from northern New Jersey, was one of the many who came to stay in the land of Lenin. As a young man, he had moved to the United States from Poland but never found the home he was looking for. He was jailed for organizing a strike at a textile factory in Paterson, and his Communist labor activities landed him on an employers' blacklist.
Out of work in the Depression year of 1933, he sought refuge in the Soviet Union. His sad odyssey, and that of his family, illustrate the hardships that befell many of the emigres.
His son, Gary, who left grade school in New Jersey to make the long-ago trip, still recalls his father's disappointment in the Soviet Union; how the hard, lonely life in the "workers' country" contrasted with the excitement of New Jersey's radical labor movement.
"In America, he was a leader," said Gary Leib, now 70, a friendly, balding man with twinkling eyes who lives half an hour from the center of Moscow. "A lot of people wanted to be with us. Here, he went to work and went home, went to work and went home. People weren't interested in politics. They were afraid. You say the wrong thing, and they take you away."
Ultimately, the hardships of Soviet life proved overwhelming. Benjamin Leib died of starvation during World War II. In the 1950s, when Soviet authorities imposed a mass crackdown on foreigners, his daughter--Gary's sister--was arrested and held in a northern town for a year.
"Someone squealed that she was going around with the wrong people," Gary Leib said of the trumped-up charge.