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Russian poet lives in two worlds

Discussion / Activity

August 20, 2001 Posted: 7:25 PM EDT (2325 GMT)
Rakhlis says it is a shame American children do not know about the wealth of Russian literature written for youth
Rakhlis says it is a shame American children do not know about the wealth of Russian literature written for youth  

By Carol Clark

(CNN) -- When you point a camera at Lev Rakhlis and ask him to smile, he grimaces.

"It's a problem," he admitted. "I need to learn how to smile. Many Russians don't know how. They can do it only when something is funny. But Americans smile always. I like it."

Optimism does not come easily to most Russians, said Rakhlis, who moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1993 from Chelyabinsk, an industrial city in the Ural Mountains on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

"When you ask an American person, 'How are you?' the answer is always 'fine,' " Rakhlis said. "But if you ask a Russian person, they will say, 'Bad, very bad, I have some troubles,' or 'So-so.' Only very rarely will they say, 'Fine.' I accept the American philosophy about giving an optimistic answer. It's better. Nobody needs to know my troubles."

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Rakhlis, 65, is the editor of Russia House, a Russian-language newspaper with editions in Atlanta and Miami, Florida. The tabloid, which is owned by another Russian immigrant, is filled with news about the former Soviet Union as well as the Russian-American community in the Southeastern United States. It also is brimming with ads placed by area lawyers, doctors and real estate agents fluent in Russian.

Editing such a commercial enterprise is a big career switch for Rakhlis, who was a poet and teacher of Russian literature in Chelyabinsk.

Civil engineer

"I worked at the art and cultural institute for more than 20 years," he said. "Everything was OK for me. I like to teach and the students liked me. Everything was OK, except that it took a lot of years to publish my book of poetry for children because my name is Jewish. I met many barriers."

Despite the obstacles, Rakhlis managed to get his book published and would have been content to live out his years in Russia. Many members of his family, however, felt otherwise.

"Before I came to Atlanta, my brother and sister lived here many years," he said. "They came from the Ukraine, and anti-Semitism was very strong. That was one reason they came."

Later, Rakhlis' daughter, along with her husband and their daughter, decided to seek a new life in the United States. Rakhlis and his wife, Tamara, opted to join them. "It is important to be together," he said.

"It is not easy for me, but my daughter and her husband have many more opportunities here," he said. "She teaches at a middle school. He is a computer programmer. They were very poor in Russia and didn't have the opportunity to have a good home. Now they have an excellent house. They live very well."

Rakhlis still struggles to master English, but his granddaughter, Dasha, 12, speaks it like an American.

"I like to go to the bookstore and look at the many, many books in English," he said. "I try to read some of them. I respect Dr. Seuss. We have a very rich culture of children's poetry in Russia. Unfortunately, American children don't know about it."

In his spare time, he is working on his second book of children's poetry, which he said he hopes to publish eventually in Russia.

Asked if he will one day consider himself an American, Rakhlis grimaced again.

"It's hard to answer," he said. "I don't know. I will try. I'm living here, but my soul -- my poems -- will live in Russia."



upbeat, positive attitude



someone who moves into another country from his/her country of origin



a prejudice against Jewish people and/or the Jewish faith


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Updated September 21, 2002

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