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Changing Lifestyles : A Homecoming to a Different World : Separated 20 years ago in Ukraine, two cousins reflect on how their lives might have gone.

June 27, 1995|EMILY HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KIEV, Ukraine — They do not look alike. They have lived different lives in different lands. But cousins Yana Kushner and Yana Gold have shared a rare opportunity--the chance to look at another person's life and see, quite realistically, how one's own might have been.

Kushner, a 25-year-old naturalized American citizen, and Gold, a 24-year-old Ukrainian, share great-grandparents, childhood memories and a native village in Ukraine.

Their grandmothers were sisters, Jews who were kicked out of town after town across southern Ukraine during World War II. Kushner and Gold grew up in Chernovtsy, about 300 miles southwest of Kiev.

After early childhood years of shared meals and games, they parted 20 years ago when Kushner emigrated with her family.

Now reacquainted as young adults, the cousins sized up differences between each other as clues to understanding their pasts, their futures and the powerful influence of culture.

Kushner's family waited four years for an exit visa and left not knowing whether they would ever see their relatives or set foot in Ukraine again. The American, 5 years old at the time, pieced together the moving day from old photographs and family stories.

"In 1976, when a Russian family left it was a big deal," she said. her eyes distant in faded memory. "The whole town turned out at the train station to say goodby. Tons of people, everyone crying and laughing. I think I knew I was never going to come back."

But after growing up in a Jewish immigrant community in the Bronx and graduating with a history degree from UCLA in 1992, Kushner defied her childhood expectations and returned to Chernovtsy.

Her first visit was a spur-of-the-moment departure from a business trip to Poland for a Los Angeles consulting firm. She saw her original home--a two-room clutter, she said--and met her cousin, Gold's parents and a few other relatives again.

"A lot of emotional things came out," Kushner said of the reunion. "I found myself feeling very close to them and wanting to do anything I could for them."

She also wanted to be part of the changes sweeping her homeland since the breakup of the former Soviet Union.

Against the wishes of her parents, who never want to return, she took a job last year with the International Finance Corp., helping privatize small businesses in a town in Belarus, now a neighboring, independent country.

But now the changes that enticed Kushner back are driving her cousin to leave, the two women said. Gold and her parents have just received permission to emigrate to the United States.

"The average monthly wage in Ukraine is $20," said Gold, a kindergarten teacher in Chernovtsy. "It's difficult to live here."

Gold plans to finish graduate studies in education before leaving, although she is not sure her degree will be recognized in the United States. So much about America, is uncertain, but she is ready to go.

"I'll miss my friends," she said. "And I like my work. But on the other hand, different opportunities will come up."

During a recent visit in Moscow, the cousins reminisced about taking baths together and getting their ears pierced. They rebuilt childhood memories, one filling in when the other's recollection faded.

Apart from snippets of occasional letters between their parents, the cousins had lost track of each other over the past decade.

Comparing their lives now, both said, has shown them the powerful effects of their different environments. Kushner sees more clearly where she came from; Gold has a better idea where she is going.

The smells and tastes of the Old Country are homey to Kushner, as is the household decor. Familiarity with simple customs gives her an advantage over other Western consultants working here, she said.

She is sure that one of the strongest influences of her American upbringing--feminism--would have been missing had she stayed in Chernovtsy.

"When I hear [Gold's] mother say things like 'You have to find yourself a nice husband in the U.S.; go over there and find a man to protect you,' that really upsets me," Kushner said. "But what if I had grown up here? I probably would have been like them. I probably would never believe in this. I'd probably be in a kitchen somewhere."

Gold, recently divorced after four years of marriage, lives with her parents in a three-room flat in a Soviet-era building in Chernovtsy. The depth of the cousins' different lives hit her after she saw Kushner's spacious apartment, which was built for the aristocracy of pre-revolutionary Minsk.

"Then I realized there's no particular future in my life," Gold said.

Kushner finds the contrast of income and lifestyle embarrassing. But she noted that, in Soviet days, Gold's family apartment offered enough security to keep the family from emigrating. Many relatives followed the Kushners west over the years, but Gold's family chose to stay.

At tea in the Minsk apartment, Kushner said, Gold's mother joked about having to eat in shifts at home.

"I felt really bad," Kushner said, who tries not to discuss her job with her cousin or her aunt. "But she [Gold's mother] did make a big mistake. Her daughter could be where I am. Her daughter could have been living in the U.S. and been able to come back here and work."

When Gold finally moves to the United States next winter, she and her cousin will be heading to the same place: back to the classroom. Kushner plans to enroll in business school in the fall. She said she might return to Russia or Ukraine later and try to help businesswomen.

Gold wants to concentrate on learning English before she tries to find a job. She doubts that she will return to her homeland.

But that is just what her cousin said 19 years ago.

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