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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Journey From Broadway to Borscht

He was a starry-eyed shoeshine boy in New York City in the 1930s, earning a dime from the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Mexican painter Diego Rivera.

But Nick Burlak's dreams of seeing his name in bright lights were cut short at the age of eight, when his parents took him and his two brothers to live in the Soviet Union.

Sixty-two years later, Burlak's life story may seem like a Soviet drama, but his flamboyant red shirt, swept back hair and theatrical poise are all Broadway.

Burlak, who now lives in an apartment block in southeast Moscow, fought as an American volunteer in the Red Army in World War II, and later survived Stalin's repressions to become chief producer of state concerts, putting on the closest Soviet equivalent to Broadway musicals.

In the late 1970s he turned to writing and producing plays and with the onset of glasnost began his own performances, reciting tales from his life as an American in the Soviet Union for audiences across the country and later in America.

It is an extraordinary story.

Burlak, born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was living with his family in New York City in the 1930s, when Stalin began offering jobs and housing to thousands of skilled workers in his grand plan to transform his backward agricultural country into a world-class industrial power.

Burlak's father needed no persuasion. A convinced socialist from Ukraine, he had taken part in Russia's 1905 revolution and, escaping execution, had fled to the United States. Later, unemployed and blacklisted for leading a steel workers' union during the Depression, he was drawn by the promise of a new life in the Donbass, Ukraine.

The rest of the family was less keen on the move. Taunted by Ukrainian school children, Burlak remembers asking his father, "Why did you bring us?" His father just told him to study Russian.

During World War II, Burlak was accepted reluctantly into the Red Army, where he fought in tank battles across Poland, liberating over a hundred American and British pilots from a POW camp along the way. "When they heard this soldier in a Soviet tankist's uniform shout 'You're free,' they couldn't believe their ears."

Four times wounded and 12 times decorated, he returned to the Soviet Union with a Russian wife, the daughter that a dying comrade had begged him to find and look after. He passed up the chance to go to the United States at the end of the war -- "I was still a fool," -- and returned to a time of terrible repression and hardship.

His wife was paralyzed by a brain tumor. His brother Michael was sent to the gulag for ten years for voicing a wish to go the United States. "He still cannot tell me about it," says Burlak.

Burlak's status as a decorated war veteran helped but as an American he was, he says, "walking on the sharp side of a razor."

He believes it is his sense of humor that has helped him survive. At the age of eight, he had a portrait of Lenin tattooed on his chest and one of Stalin on his shoulder. "I was a crazy kid," he shrugs.

Burlak remains close to his older sister, who stayed in the United States, and he holds both U.S. and Russian passports, something which causes endless complications when he wants to travel. But his exceptional place in both societies made him a key participant in three Soviet-American peace marches in the late 1980s -- Leningrad to Moscow, Washington to San Francisco and Odessa to Kiev.

Still, he admits to feeling divided.

"I saw America all my life in my dreams," he says, "but when I go to America my stomach needs borscht."