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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Family's Journeys End In Far East of Russia




Youri Bougartchev remembers leaving Sophia, Bulgaria in 1963. He was 5 years old, and he and his twin sister accompanied his Russian mother on a trip to California to care for the children's bedridden grandmother.


The U.S. government had denied visas to Youri's father and 15-year-old sister so that Kira Bougartchev and the twins wouldn't be tempted to overstay their visa. But that is exactly what they planned to do. Kira and her husband, Blagoy, had agreed to split so that at least some of the family could live in the United States.


Youri, now a U.S. citizen, recently recalled his last glimpse of Sofia. "The train was pulling out, and my sister Elizabeth ran after us along the platform," he said. "And she tripped and fell on something, and I lost sight of her."


Youri, an executive in the Vladivostok cell phone company Akos, is an unusual expatriate. Though raised in the U.S., he never forgot his Russian roots. And his family history gives him a zeal to help post-Communist Russia succeed. After all, throughout his boyhood he used to hear the question, "What are you going to do for Russia?"


Blagoy Bougartchev was a wealthy Macedonian businessman who ran a flour mill until World War II. Kira was a Russian governess who married her widowed employer not long before he lost everything in Allied bombing. During the postwar Red Army occupation, many of their top employees were shot.


Youri grew up in the world of the Russian diaspora. He joined a branch of the Boy Scouts that had formed in St. Petersburg in 1909; they spoke Russian at camp and flew the tricolor long before Russian President Boris Yeltsin waved it from the back of a tank. Many of his leaders were old monarchists.


"They didn't tell us to ride into the Kremlin on a white horse with a machine gun strapped to our backs, but I used to dream of that," Youri said.


Those Bougartchevs left in Bulgaria were hounded by the communist authorities after Kira and her children defected f Elizabeth, the older sister, was refused entry to university. Finally in 1969, Blagoy had a doctor friend secretly operate and destroy the nerves of his one good ear, leaving him deaf. After that, the rest of the family received permission to go abroad so Blagoy could see a foreign medical specialist. He never recovered his hearing.


Youri speaks with a passion that humbles those of us who popped over to Russia to find adventure in a time of woe. He is impatient with anyone who cuts moral compromises because "this is Russia." Some of us, whether businessmen or humanitarian aid workers, like to carp that the locals are insufficiently grateful for the gift of our presence. Youri is more inclined to say, with tears in his eyes, "I love Russia."


So what is he doing to help? Maybe simply believing in her.