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Moving Experiences : Muscovites Learn of Quakes and Other Facts of Life in L.A.


ARCADIA — When the earth shakes in Moscow, it is more likely the result of drinking too much vodka than the eruption of an undiscovered fault line beneath the Russian capital.

So, when the Korobov family was jolted awake June 28--their second day in Arcadia--by the 7.5 desert temblor, the lifelong Muscovites did not know what to do.

No one had told them to crawl under a strong table for protection lest their second floor apartment collapse. And when they peered down to the darkened courtyard, there were no neighbors milling about to compare notes with.

Somewhat disappointed, Mikhail Korobov, 42; his wife, Helena, 41, and their 20-year-old daughter, Olga, chalked up the shake up as their first big California experience and went back to bed.

The last three months have brought many more California experiences for the Korobovs, who are living in the San Gabriel Valley for a year while Mikhail works as a visiting chemist for the Southern California Edison Co. in Irwindale.

"I think I don't really know this life yet," Mikhail Korobov said. "We are exploring the area around us. . . . Everything is so interesting."

Lacking a car, they depend on the bus system and their feet to get around.

There was the first trip to the consumer paradise of Pavilions supermarket. And the first visit to the Arcadia Public Library to get library cards and learn why July 4 is so important to Americans.

And recently, mother and daughter took a trip to that bastion of capitalistic splendor, San Marino's Huntington Library and Gardens. Picking their way, gingerly, through the cactus section, the women marveled at the spiky succulents that towered over them.

"I feel like I'm walking through a fairy tale," said Olga Korobov, a third-year molecular genetics student at Moscow State University. "I never imagined they would grow so huge."

For Helena Korobov, the cactus evoked memories of the deserts of Turkmenistan, which she visited when her job as a computer programmer for the defunct Soviet state took her to the Middle Asian republics. When told that the flat, wide leaves of some cactus varieties are a Mexican delicacy called nopales , she exclaimed, "Oh yes, I also ate the leaves of cactus when I was in Tbilisi," the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Although America holds much that fascinates them, the Korobovs, who are fluent in English, told tales of post-communist Russia that would fascinate most Americans.

"Today in Moscow, everyone is trying to get something to eat," Olga Korobov said. "Some people have set up apiaries on the balconies of their apartments so they can collect the honey. As you can imagine, their neighbors don't like it one bit."

The high wall surrounding the gardens prompted a story about a university student who decided to test security at the Kremlin. In Moscow's Red Square, the Kremlin is like the White House and for more than 70 years functioned as the beating heart of secretive Soviet communism. The young man waited until night, then scaled the tall barrier and lowered himself into the Kremlin's recesses, where he wandered the halls, poking into unused rooms.

"Finally after some hours he got tired," Olga Korobov recounted, "so he ran along the corridors, screaming at the top of his lungs. He wanted to be caught, he wanted to prove that the Kremlin guards didn't do any thing but sit and drink wine all night. Finally he encountered some guards."

Did the state forces hustle the foolhardy student off to the gulag?

"Nothing happened to him," Helena Korobov answered. "It was such a time. It was perestroika. You could do anything."

You could, for instance, buy almost any classic of Western literature, a formerly unheard-of thing. As a result, Olga Korobov is better-read in American and British authors than many U.S. university students.

Inside the Huntington Library, she pored over a gilt-edged and leather-bound collection of works by Edgar Allan Poe. Her mother murmured with pleasure as she came upon volumes of Anthony Trollope. Together, their eyes devoured a 1623 first edition of William Shakespeare's "Comedies, Histories and Tragedies."

The Korobovs were equally impressed by the museum's smiling and courteous staff. In Russia, they were accustomed to young militiamen and hunched babushkas staring suspiciously at museum visitors, sometimes scolding them heartily for the slightest infraction.

American paintings are also better hung and lighted than in their homeland, the Korobovs said. Russian museums contain some of the world's great riches but are often crammed, with paintings hung too high or too close to each other, they said.

In the museum gallery, mother and daughter immediately recognized Gainsborough's "Blue Boy."

"We know Gainsborough. He's very famous," Olga Korobov said, pointing to the well-known oil portrait. "And this picture, it was in Moscow."

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