Odysseys: From Russia to Pittsburgh with classical music
July 6, 2014 10:02 PM
Courtesy of Mikhail Istomin
Mikhail Istomin and his cello.
Courtesy of Mikhail Istomin
Mikhail Istomin in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the Winter Palace on the background.
By Steve Mellon / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Something about the day seemed odd.
For more than a week in September 1989, Mikhail Istomin and his fellow musicians from the Leningrad Conservatory String Quartet had traveled along the East Coast, playing concerts on their first tour of the United States. They did nothing to arouse the suspicions of their KGB handlers.
So on this final day in the U.S., before returning to Russia, Mikhail and his colleagues were given a bit of money to buy souvenirs. A van was scheduled to take them to a shopping mall near Baltimore, where the musicians were staying.
Strangely, violinist Yuri Alexov was not around. "Where was he?" Mikhail wondered. He had a peculiar feeling that he should forgo the shopping trip.
So as the van drove off carrying only half of the quartet, Mikhail remained in the musicians' suite with his cello and music.
A short time later, Yuri abruptly entered the suite with a young Russian-speaking American whom the musicians had met a few days earlier.
"Let's go," Yuri said to Mikhail. "Let's do it."
In an instant, Mikhail's mind became a "boiling soup" of thoughts.
Defection? That's not why he'd come to the U.S. He was here to play music.
What about his wife, Galina, and his young daughter Katerina, both back in Leningrad?
What about the job he'd recently been offered as a junior member of Kirov Theater, one of the most prestigious orchestras in Russia -- and in the world?
But, oh, what he had seen in the past week. New York City, especially -- it was stunning. And that stop they made along the highway. He would always remember the name of the restaurant: Burger King. The food was immediately available, and it was perfect. It was so different from home.
"Let's go," Yuri implored. There was no time to think. Either you do it, or you don't.
Mikhail quickly packed a few personal items into a handbag, grabbed his cello and his music. Within moments, he and Yuri were in a car headed toward the immigration bureau in Baltimore.
"It was one of those moments when you're not in control," Mikhail recalls more than 20 years later. "The factor of the unknown, the X factor, is so large that it overpowers you. Your previous self, who you are, who you were, is reduced to the zero point. You have to be reborn."
Mikhail was granted political asylum and hired as a member of the Richmond Symphony in Virginia.
Through what he describes as a miracle, Mikhail's wife and child joined him in 1991. In 1992, he became a part of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
The marriage didn't survive, but Mikhail remains with the orchestra and lives in Squirrel Hill.
Mikhail has grown to appreciate Pittsburgh as a great place to raise a family, with a low cost of living and a number of cultural offerings.
Yet he misses Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city and the country's cultural capital. His life there was difficult but thrilling.
"It's a hard city to live in. It sucks the life out of you, especially when I was living there, but the music, the architecture, the music: I really miss that, in a big way," he says. "It's still a void."
Shortly after defection, Mikhail came across a book of old Chinese proverbs. He opened to a random page and found an entry that epitomized his experience. "Leap ... and the net will appear," it read.
This article is part of the Odysseys project through which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is trying to track immigrants from 193 countries in the United Nations, folks who made Pittsburgh their home. Read about countries we have found, and help us with those we are yet to make a connection at post-gazette.com/odysseys.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
email@example.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.