Russian immigrant builds a new life in America

Saturday, May 18, 2002



Constantin Kulikov. (Photo by Jerry Olson/Post-Bulletin)



By Douglas McGill

For the Post-Bulletin WEEKEND FOCUS

Konstantin Kulikov is a Russian immigrant with an American dream.

He works out of a sprawling woodshop on U.S. 63 South, a labyrinth of rooms stuffed with every imaginable type of wood saw, piles of lumber, walls hung with architectural designs, and floors sprinkled with sawdust.

In one of the rooms stands the monster machine he brought with him from Ozersk, Russia, to make his American dream a reality. This is the "Kul." It's a computerized wood lathe that spits out mile after mile of pine board molding carved in intricate designs to exact specifications.

A broad-shouldered man with pale blue eyes and boyish dimples, Kulikov, 47, invented the Kul in Russia as a way to speed the production of wood moldings with non-linear designs. The Kul carves wood into paisleys and diamond shapes, waves and peaks like cake frosting.

Today, Kulikov is one of 250 Russians in Rochester, an entrepreneur who represents both the new face of a region growing ever more diverse, and the age-old American dream of hard work and freedom leading to fulfillment.

He couldn't quite make it happen in Russia, although after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, things looked hopeful for a while.

He borrowed money and got the Kul built. "It was a beautiful time, when the finished machine came into our shop. We put in the first board and it worked! The guys ran out in the street to celebrate. They thought the product was so beautiful that someone would immediately put in an order."

But problems cropped up. The 160 percent interest Kulikov had to pay on his loan made it hard to support advertising and marketing for the Kul. Russia's growing economic problems made daily life, not to mention running a business, nearly impossible. Paper money changed colors from week to week, and the ruble was devalued to almost nothing.

When Kulikov won a visa lottery to visit Rochester, he didn't hesitate. And the Kul isn't the only thing he brought with him. At the Ultimate Wood Design woodshop, he is hatching plans for several dozen inventions he dreamed up in Russia but never got a chance to build.

There is an anti-theft device that would foil any car thief in the world. There is a device that "offers human transportation but is fun at the same time -- all-terrain except for water." There is a gadget that helps athletes train for track events so effectively it guarantees their success, he says.

"In Russia there are thousands and thousands of good ideas, but they stay in the air and no one can make them work," Kulikov says. "The bureaucracy is a country within a country. Here in America, I've never met one official who didn't give me a straight answer and let me go on my way."

Living in Rochester since 1997, Kulikov and his wife, Valentina, both remarried, have between them two parents, three siblings and three daughters who remain in Russia. The Kulikovs live in a northeast Rochester apartment, tend a vegetable garden near U.S. 52 North and spend much of their free time studying English. Kulikov has shown the Kul in trade shows around Minnesota and is looking for a good salesman to spread the word.

"In America, if you have a good idea, work hard and lead a simple life, you can build and build and build, go up and up and up.

"A friend once complained to me that American food is not right, American women are not right, the streets are not right, nature is not right. I told him, 'I miss Russian food, I miss Russian nature. I don't like the American police car sirens are going off so much, I don't like this, I don't like that. All those things together are wrong, definitely. But you know what? Put all those things together, combine them and it's beautiful. America is beautiful."

Living in a 'closed city'

He's a patriot with cosmopolitan tastes. He likes Russian novels, French movies and Led Zeppelin played loud while he works. He's got a quick smile, a sly wit and a notch in his right thumb taken out by a joiner.

His hometown is Ozersk, on the thickly forested eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, which divide Russia like a cleaver. Kulikov says he feels at home in Rochester because it's so much like Ozersk, where it snows heavily and is freezing cold for six months each year. Ozersk, which is translated "Lake City," has a population of 85,000.

Like Rochester, Ozersk is also a one-company town, although its business is darker than healing the sick. A complex of factories, the Mayak Combinat, reprocesses plutonium, the fissionable fuel used in nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants. It also stores nuclear waste.

Which is why you don't find Ozersk on maps. It was built from scratch in greatest secrecy in the late 1940s, in response to America's successful detonation of the atom bomb. Today, Ozersk is a well-known part of Russia's nuclear weapons industry, like Los Alamos in the United States, but remains a highly classified national security facility.

"It was a wonderful place to grow up," Kulikov says. "It was in the middle of nowhere, but we had the best food in Russia, a sports stadium, a skating rink, a movie theater, a library and everything was free. But there was barbed wire all around the place, deep in the forest, and only the government knew we existed."

In Russia, Ozersk is called a "closed city."

It was a tough decision, Kulikov said, to emigrate to the United States.

"As a Russian patriot, I tried my best to build my machine there," he said. "But we failed to find a reliable partner." The collapse of the Soviet Union gave him and his team hope that things would turn around. But the ruble's repeated devaluations in the early 1990s delivered blow after blow.

"You went to bed with enough money to buy a car, and you woke up with enough for a pair of shoes," Kulikov remembers. "If you could prove you had earned the money you could get it back, but if you had slowly built your savings year after year, you had no proof and it was just suddenly gone."

Tipping the scales

The years of struggle tipped the scales for Kulikov. "If you don't have money, you have nothing to lose," he said. "And I had no money. The point of life is not to drink beers, to go to the movies, these types of things. It's to find out who and what you are. And if you are able to build something like the Kul, you are obligated to try."

On his first day in America, a friend took him to a barbecue picnic in Lake City. "It was a Saturday. It was so clean and friendly. I looked at the Mississippi River and I thought of Tom Sawyer, a book I knew well. I heard a noise from the road and I asked my friend, 'What is that?' He said 'It's a Harley Davidson.' A Harley! I said to him, 'I can't believe I am in America, in this clean park, eating this delicious food, with these friendly people, across the world from where I was only yesterday. It's impossible."

At first, language was a major problem. Kulikov immediately enrolled himself in the Adult Literacy program of the Rochester Community and Technical College, where he sat in class with immigrants from Somalia, Sudan, Mexico and China, to learn a new language at age 43.

"English sounded like 'wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa,'" he recalls. "I couldn't separate the words." After rising through four levels of English as a Second Language classes, however, he had enough to get by on his own. He remains intensely grateful to the English teachers at the RCTC.

His big break in America was meeting Karim Esmailzadeh. A Rochester businessman, Esmailzadeh owns the Ultimate Wood Designs workshop that Kulikov uses as his base. A native of Iran who emigrated to the United States in the 1960s, he recognized in Kulikov, and Kulikov recognized in him, a kindred spirit.

"He understands me better than anyone," Kulikov said. "He's an inventor and he came here 40 years ago and he knows what it's like to be in the middle of nowhere with no support, no language, not knowing the country, and then to try to survive and be successful. He knows how hard it is."

Having no common language, the two men communicated for months "by making little drawings on pieces of paper," Kulikov said.

Snapshots of America

Since he came to Rochester, Kulikov has written a regular column called "Love Your Homeland" for his hometown newspaper in Ozersk.

In the column he writes about his life in Rochester, whom he meets and what he sees, and offers observations about American character and society.

At first he wrote a lot about food: how Americans love barbecues and enormous grocery stores, and the paradox of the sheer abundance of food in America yet also the difficulty of getting juicy red tomatoes and other fresh vegetables. He spent one column describing in loving detail each dish served at the massive hot table in the Old Country Buffet in Barclay Square.

He wrote about the baby-changing tables in public bathrooms -- even in the men's rooms! "Americans love to spend their free time with their children," he wrote. "They can also have fun without alcohol."

"In America, the music is great, but the lyrics are too simple," he said another time. "In Russia, it's just the opposite. You don't listen to Russian pop music for the music but for the great stories the singers tell."

He was smitten by Minnesota's "right turn on red" law.

"How wonderful it is! How many months and years it would take for that kind of reasonable law to get passed in Russia!"

After a while, Kulikov noticed more about American society and character. To his surprise he discovered that it was far easier in Russia than the United States to get access to foreign books, movies and music.

"In any Russian town, you can go into a video store and get movies from all countries of the world," he said. "My favorites are French comedies and I love movies with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Pierre Richard and Luis de Funes. But I can't find them in video stores here. And the library and bookstores have only a few Russian books."

The biggest problem in American society is loneliness, he said.

"If you go to a bar and talk to a woman, it can become a sexual harassment lawsuit. If she has a strong enough lawyer she can do it. Many people seem to be going into a cocoon. You want to protect yourself. But the cocoon becomes so hard that finally other people can't get in."

Yet the amount of freedom to become what you want to be in America still dwarfs that in other countries, he said.

"There are difficulties, but I am strong. Everything I have ever dreamed has come true. And this dream will also come true. Give me some trees, some lakes and some cold, and I am at home."

McGill is a former New York Times reporter, now a free-lance writer, who lives in Rochester. From 1992 to 1996 he was Bureau Chief for Bloomberg News in London and Hong Kong. Today he produces The McGill Report on the Web at