Sole Man

Russian immigrant's journey from economic investigator to shoe repairman

"My jail!"

That's how Yakov Shalomaef describes the place where he spends his weekdays, the workroom at the rear of his shoe-repair shop. It seems odd to hear an immigrant from Russia describe his circumstances thus, rather than with the usual immigrant's litany of: "My God, there's so much opportunity here, you Americans don't know how lucky you are."

But this is no ordinary Russian immigrant. Yakov was, by his own account, part of the elite power structure in the old Soviet Union. He was, he claims, an "economic investigator" -- not a spy, he points out, an investigator -- for a certain government agency he prefers I not mention by name.

Yakov Shalomaef
Yakov Shalomaef

Today, the unrepentant "prisoner" is entertaining visitors for lunch in his cell -- brewing green tea and setting out a dish of Russian coleslaw and a bottle of cognac. I've brought our main course with me. When I asked what Yakov wanted to eat, I was told, by the mutual friend who set up the interview, simply "chicken and vegetables," and was advised against bringing him anything from the area's Russian restaurant, Gourmet of Russia on 16th Street.

What Yakov would prefer is to try some traditional American food, so that's what I've brought: barbecue chicken and beef ribs, with vegetables and a roll, from that reliably tasty 19th Avenue cop hangout My Mother's Place. Apparently I got good advice. When I mention Gourmet of Russia, he shakes his head grimly. "My wife make much better Russian food," he says.

I bet she does. Yakov is incredibly Russian. Yakov is so Russian that if he were an American actor auditioning for the role of a Russian, the director would tell him to tone it down it a little. He speaks badly fractured English, slowly and with frustration, in an accent as thick as a St. Petersburg -- excuse me, make that a Leningrad -- snowdrift.

Here's Yakov, for instance, on what he regards as the unfortunate effect of Gorbachev's policies on the Soviet Empire:

"What I can tell you? My opinion. He let open business, own business, then law need stay strong, strong! If people open business, own business, then people little by little grow up. 'Cause mentally different, you understand? He give talking free, then, any country want what they want! Then country talk, 'We want to separate!' You see, how many countries? How many immigration? How many tragedic life? Then they try to take out him, in '90, then came Yeltsin, he don't have that much power, because army destroyed, police destroyed, everything destroyed. Yeah, he make big problem for country." Then he shrugs, and admits, "For America, good!"

Or, on a more theological topic, here's Yakov on the paradox of the natural concupiscence of humankind:

"Many people are egoist. Because God make wrong us! God make wrong us! God big power, he make world. This special air, if this little different, world die! How he smart? Yes, I think. Big mind! Why he cannot make people correctly? Very few people really honest."

But Yakov's Russian-ness goes deeper than his rather charming grapples with the language. No Dostoyevsky character could beat Yakov when it comes to exuding that classic Russian melancholy.

He gives a more prosaic name, though. "I have depression," he says. "In my heart, I still angry, I still have patriot for my country."

He wouldn't mind returning to Russia, but he says he can't, for the same reason he left in the first place -- his life, and the lives of his family, would be endangered. He says his principal duty as a government agent was investigating organized crime in Soviet states that have since become independent republics, such as Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and his native Tajikistan.

As we sip green tea and eat chicken, Yakov endeavors to tell me the story of how he came to this country when the Russian "Mafia" put a contract on him. It's hard to make it out in detail, but it has something to do with him making powerful enemies when he was ordered to investigate corruption in the hydroelectric industry. He says he lost his government job in 1988, and by 1991, shortly after the mob-emboldening fall of the Soviets, friends were warning him to get out of the country. He and his beautiful wife and daughters -- he proudly shows me their pictures, and they really are beautiful -- arrived here with no money and less English.

His daughters have since gone to work, married and supplied him with five grandchildren, and his wife works as a hairdresser. "My wife English much better," he grants. Yakov's poor English left him struggling through a variety of low-paying jobs, stocking supermarket shelves and the like, before he became acquainted with a Valley shoe repairman who taught him the trade.

Thus, he's eked out a living in the "jail" of his own shop for the past four years. I suppose that a Reagan-style Red-basher might regard this as a story of poetic justice. Maybe even lenient poetic justice, at that.

Yakov's still working hard to learn the ropes of this country, however. Written in marker on an erasable easel at the back of the store is a list of American idioms that a friend is in the process of teaching him. The list includes:

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