The Soviet parliament's approval of the long-awaited emigration law calls to mind a joke from 1988 when the bill was first being discussed.
The story went like this: In Red Square a parade is passing to commemorate the October Revolution. Many foreign journalists are watching the tanks, missiles, cannons pass. In the parade march the paratroopers, Marines and sailors. At the end is a strange regiment wearing dark business suits and ties.
"Who are they?" a journalist asks a Soviet general who stands nearby. "These are our newest superpower troops -- Soviet economists. If we will allow them to go to any capitalist country, the economy there will be destroyed in just a half year."
The Russian humor is not altogether fantasy. When the new emigration law goes into effect in 1993, an estimated 20 million Soviets will rush to find their "promised land." As many as half of these might try to come to the United States.
Why do so many people in the Soviet Union imagine their future in America? First, about 80 percent of all Soviet schools offer English classes -- although only a small percentage of the students who study English can actually speak it well.
Second, many Soviets sincerely believe that Americans are like themselves, despite differences in language and economic systems. Of course, they want to live in a place they believe is similar to home.
So millions of Soviets are already setting out their luggage waiting for the moment when the gates will be open. But Americans should consider the kind of people likely to emigrate. These people may end up being the new "superpower troops."
This might seem like a bold prediction, but I am a Soviet citizen who lived all my life in the Soviet Union. I worked as a journalist for Trud, the largest daily newspaper in the country, and I know the people and the life as well as any American Sovietologist.
I believe the first wave of immigrants will include large numbers of criminals and con artists. They are the richest people now in the Soviet Union and the most able to purchase the expensive airplane tickets to the U.S. If necessary, they will pay a bribe to any Soviet official who can help them leave as soon as possible.
Don't expect them to change their ways once they get here.
America already has seen Cuba dump criminals in Florida. The Soviet emigration could be even more large-scale.
The first signs of the Soviet criminal influence appeared seven years ago in New York City. The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Russian emigres on charges of counterfeiting $13 million. In 1989, federal agents smashed another counterfeiting ring in the Bronx, but not before it had passed $600,000 into circulation. Some of the money turned up in hotels in Eastern Europe while other phony bills washed up on the shores of New Jersey. Soviets had the idea of copying money, food stamps travelers checks and other documents after one look at America's high-tech copying equipment.
I have talked with Soviets who were just visiting the United States, and they were amazed at the gullibility of Americans. They told me about cases in which they changed labels on jeans in American department stores in order to pay less. "Can you imagine? They absolutely didn't look at me," one Russian said after a visit to Washington, D.C. Of course, the department stores employ security guards to catch such thieves, but it is impossible to catch everyone.
On the one hand, it's possible to sympathize with the Soviets. Consumer goods are in such short supply in their own country and they are allowed only a couple hundred dollars when they leave. They of course try to get as much for their money as possible.
But the other problem lies deeper in the Soviet psychology. Soviets are used to trying to beat the system because the system works so badly. One popular Russian saying is, "Even a (( horse will be dead from hard work." And many Soviets don't know how to work. For decades the Soviet socialist system tried to kill any private initiative of the people and the desire to make money in a legal way. The people are products of the system.
This is not to say that everyone in the Soviet Union is unskilled, lazy or dishonest. The Soviet system of education is generally good, and many citizens are talented in their fields. They could contribute much to the American economy.
But many of the best businessmen and specialists may stay in the Soviet Union because, with the liberalization of the economic laws, they frequently can succeed there. They have good jobs and good money. In the United States, they would have to begin from zero, and most will not risk such a move.
In 1989, 11,128 Soviets immigrated to the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization. That was a time when most Soviets could only dream about living in the United States, yet still it was nearly four times the number that immigrated the previous year.
This October, the new U.S. immigration law will go into effect, and increase the numbers of foreigners admitted because of job skills from 54,000 to 140,000 a year. Unmarried children and spouses of U.S. residents will continue to get high priority, and account for about 520,000 immigrants. Only 40,000 immigrants in other categories will be allowed.
How will the United States react to the clamor that will arise from Soviets trying to gain admission after 1993?
For many years, the United States has demanded freedom of emigration for Soviets, promising in return to grant the USSR most-favored-nation trade status and lower the tariffs on Soviet products. Now the law has passed.
But is the United States willing to receive the unqualified, the unskilled and uneducated who will apply for immigration? Is the United States willing to risk opening its doors to the criminals and con artists?
America is in a precarious position. After years of pressing for the law, can it now say it doesn't want to accept these immigrants?
Democracy always has victims. The Soviet parliament accepted that it might lose some of its brightest minds. Now we wait to see what the U.S. will do. Is it going to be willing to take a risk in order to turn the words about freedom into direct action?
Alexei Vinogradsky is a former reporter for Trud, the Soviet labor newspaper. He now lives in Baltimore.