A Russian Brother and Sister Grab the American Dream

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

Rochester, MN -- Six fat envelopes from the most prestigious universities in the United States recently dropped into the mailbox of Ghennadiy and Nataliya Batrachenko, a Russian immigrant couple who moved to Minnesota from Moscow in 1999.

Harvard University. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The California Institute of Technology. Thump ... thump ... kabump.

First to arrive were three letters for the Batrachenko's 18-year-old daughter, Anastasiya, who graduated from John Marshall High School here this spring. The envelopes contained  acceptances everywhere, with generous financial aid.

Then came three letters for 16-year-old Pavel Batrachenko, who applied to the same three colleges as his sister, and who also graduated this spring from John Marshall. A winner of Minnesota math and science competitions the past three years, he graduated the same year as Anastasiya because he tested into her class when the family first arrived in Rochester.

"Wow!" was Anastasiya's reaction to her goods news -- understandably so. After only four years in the United States, she and Pavel, with their parents' unstinting support, have climbed one of this country's highest educational summits, an achievement to be savored for generations.

In an online autobiography he wrote for the 2003 U.S. Physics Team, of which he is one of the top five members, Pavel lists fishing, biking, hiking, Frisbee, and reading books as hobbies, although "I don't have a lot of time to pursue these interests" due to the time spent studying physics and mathematics.

Anastasiya recalls seeing only three movies in the past four years in Rochester, with the rest of the time devoted to homework.

Both got perfect 800 scores on the mathematics portions of their SAT tests.

But Pavel and Anastasiya's strong study habits and supportive parents only partly explain their success. Ultimately energizing were the values and traditions of a culture, that of the former Soviet Union, that was fanatically devoted to scientific achievement. It's a commitment that all of the Batrachenko's are continuing today -- only now to the great benefit not of their home country but of their adopted land.

Viktor Kalushkin, the chairman of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told a Moscow news conference in 2002 that more than 500,000 Russian scientists left the country in the 1990s, most of them never to return. He said the average monthly salary of a Russian scientist was $100 a month, compared to between $3,000-$7,000 in Western countries.

Most scientists in Russia were forced to take jobs as taxi drivers, office workers, and business people - or to emigrate.

"We did well during the Cold War," Nataliya remembers with a chuckle. "We both had good jobs, we defended our country, we were proud, and we made good money. Then one day it all ended, and we had to find other jobs."

The Batrachenkos took odd jobs while Ghennadiy put his resume on the Internet. By 1998 he was working for the Mayo Clinic as a computer programmer, a job he still holds. A year later, his family joined him.

"There is no stability in Russia and we wanted give our children a chance to achieve their goals," Ghennadiy said. "Because I am sure that in this country they can have more success."

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report