Advertisement

Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Launching a new career

Down in the permanent gloom of the garage, amid the fancy cars and filtered light, the work is simple.

Get the key. Park the car. Run back to the booth. Always say "thank you." Always smile. Don't race the engines. Never speed.

All night long _ even though the drivers take no notice of this parking attendant in black _ the man keeps his head up, shoulders back.

And when people push dollar bills into his hand _ again without looking his way _ the man might politely murmur "thank you" in the language he knows best.

"Spasibo."

Any Russian commander will tell you: Good training always shows.

A decade ago, Andrei Nazariev wouldn't have been allowed to leave the Soviet Union. He was too valuable.

At 24, he was a senior computer programer in the Soviet Army's rocket force. At 27, he was a director of the Army's rocket designs, one of the youngest directors ever. At 28, he was a full major. By 31, he had retired to start a company to market lasers, a rare private business in a communist country.

When he was 32, Andrei fell in love with an American visitor named Natalie. That same year, 1991, his country fell apart.

Now, nine months later, the Soviet rocket scientist parks cars for a living and shares a spartan four-room apartment in South Tampa with his new wife.

"It's been crazy," said Natalie Bodine, a Tampa private investigator who married Nazariev in November after a courtship that spanned two continents. "Just crazy."

"I did not know it would be so hard in this country," Andrei said earlier this week, as he sat next to Natalie, who learned fluent Russian from her Soviet mother. "We have a great many problems now. But without love, I would not be able to do it."

Despite his extensive training in computers, electronic engineering and lasers _ and 13 awards from the Soviet military and eight Russian "patents" for original inventions _ Andrei has not been able to find a permanent job in his field. He and Natalie have sent or delivered more than 75 resumes without success.

"I guess foreigners have to work harder to prove themselves," Natalie said.

"It's life," Andrei said.

It's a picture of the post-Perestroika age, a snapshot of a time when a Soviet scientist with advanced degrees must struggle for work like any other immigrant. Once, he might have been welcomed to the United States by officials eager for information _ any information _ about the Soviet Union. Now, with the Cold War melted to a puddle and the Russian borders open to American visitors, only top scientists seem to be of interest.

This week, Secretary of State James Baker announced during a trip to Moscow that the United States would spend $25-million to hire top-ranking Russian nuclear scientists for a special research center in Russia.

But Andrei doesn't plan to return to Russia and is not sure if his knowledge or skills would be useful to the American defense industry. His experience with Soviet rockets is more than two years old.

To make ends meet, Andrei vowed to "take any job," but work has been hard to find in a deep recession.

Only recently did he find a job as a parking attendant at Harbour Island, Tampa's upscale shopping and hotel enclave. He works the night shift in the garage, making minimum wage plus tips.

Meanwhile, Natalie struggles to support the couple with her work as a private investigator, a practice that dwindled with her trips to the Soviet Union to visit Andrei.

"It's very hard to find a job in America now, I know this," Andrei said, his ice-blue eyes showing determination. "So, I made a decision. I will work every day, morning-to-morning. Twenty-four hours a day until I receive what I want."

What Andrei wants is the success he achieved back home.

Natalie Bodine was not impressed with this Russian, this handsome friend of her cousin's. Until Andrei took the group on a tour of his hometown of Rostov-on-Don, a city 560 miles south of Moscow, on the Black Sea.

Andrei was a crazy driver with a wild, sarcastic wit. Natalie, a feisty former cop, took notice.

Six days later, Andrei asked her to marry him.

She said yes.

It's their love story, one that the couple have repeated often since they returned to the United States in September.

It's also a story that gets them through the hard times that challenge their new marriage.

The pair had well-established careers and well-ordered lives when they met in May. Natalie, a former detective and spokeswoman with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, was visiting Russia with her mother, who has relatives in the country.

Andrei was president of a firm that marketed laser technology, a business he started when former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev eased restrictions on private companies. His reputation was built on years in the Soviet Army, which he joined immediately after graduating from military college with honors. His specialty was designing military weapons, similar to American Minuteman and Polaris missiles.

"Our personalities kind of meshed," says Natalie, who returned to the United States in June after Andrei's proposal.

To keep the fledgling romance alive, Natalie returned in July for six weeks. The pair returned to America in September, after the failed coup to overthrow the Soviet government.

The trip turned out to be a permanent move.

Andrei, who originally did not want to leave his country or his business permanently, suddenly found both in shambles.

Natalie, who had scaled back her private investigation practice so she could move to Russia to be with her new husband, found herself struggling for clients.

Faced with uncertain prospects in both Russia and America, the pair decided to make a life in Tampa. It was Andrei who cast the deciding vote.

Life, he explained, had to be better in America.

"Now, in Russia, there is anarchy," Andrei said. "It is not the condition for business. It is not the condition for life."

"Now is a very hard time for America, I know," Andrei added. "But still, I think it is the best place for business. There is only one thing needed for success. And that is work, work, work."

Natalie, who has worked full-time since she was 14, knows Andrei is right.

But the daunting obstacles they face every day _ as they struggle to pay bills or sell their furniture to pay for Andrei's resumes _ have taken their toll.

The two recently moved from a house in Thonotosassa to a small South Tampa apartment to save money. They sleep on a mattress on the floor; the bed was sold long ago.

"I can't believe I'm living in this little apartment and have no money," said Natalie, 34. "It's a difficult time."

And Andrei, disciplined, driven and used to being in control, doesn't have time to comfort his American wife.

"I served for 10 years in the Soviet Army," Andrei said in his precise, thick, Russian accent. "That makes you grow inside, it teaches you _ how do you say it? _ discipline. It is easier for me to go through these problems than Natalie. She has a good heart and a nice soul."

Most of his free time is spent at his home computer, which the couple bought by borrowing money. In five months, Andrei has mastered conversational English but continues to study.

"I have no weekends. I have no free time," Andrei said. "I do not watch TV. When I wake up, I turn on the computer. One day, I will be able to relax. But only when my dream is realized."

His ultimate dream is to start a company similar to the one he ran in Russia to market advanced laser technology. The short-term goal is a job as a computer programer or in electronics.

His resume shows he is proficient in several computer languages, writes software and can design computer systems for personal computers or mainframes. He has a work permit and will be granted a green card denoting permanent residency status once the Immigration and Naturalization Services reviews their marriage to make sure it is legitimate. That interview is in April.

Until Andrei finds a permanent job _ and he vows he will _ there's always the job at Harbour Island.

Drivers may not notice the quiet man in black, but he's the rocket scientist on the run.

The man with a murmured "Spasibo" on his lips.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement