STEINBERG: Russian artist fighting to make America her home

SHARE STEINBERG: Russian artist fighting to make America her home

Having graduated from the School of the Art Institute, Yulia Kuznetsova, like many foreign students, will have to return to her home country unless she can convince a court she’s worthy of staying in the United States. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Fiona McEntee, an immigration attorney, has practiced law in Chicago for 10 years. Hundreds of would-be clients have found their way to her office, seeking her help in maintaining their tenuous fingerhold on the American Dream.

Only Yulia Kuznetsova made her weep.

“I never cried in a consultation before in my life,” said McEntee. “This is a really emotional situation. I felt the weight she has on her shoulders.”

Kuznetsova, 24, is a painter from Russia. She was 19 when she was accepted to the School of the Art Institute. Her parents sold their flat in Moscow to pay her tuition.

Some 900,000 foreign students come to this country after American colleges accept them — and their rupees, pounds, euros and rubles. The students then graduate, and the United States boots them out just when they’re ready to be productive. A cruel trick.


As I dug into Kuznetsova’s story, the now-you-cry part eluded me. There seemed to be a buried darkness I couldn’t put my finger on.

I spoke with one of her teachers at the School of the Art Institute.

“She’s very agile with paint,” said MaryLou Zelazny, a professor of painting and drawing. “She’s masterful. She comes up with images that are very heartfelt and personal.”

Can’t a person paint masterfully in Russia?

“No,” replied Zelazny. “Not with the censorship they have now.”

Americans might not realize what a bad place Russia truly is. Let me offer one statistic. In the U.S., the average lifespan of a man is 78 years; in Russia, 64 years, primarily due to rampant alcoholism, a theme in Kuznetsova’s paintings. She paints life-size female figures, sometimes sprawled, beaten, bloody. Last year, Russia decriminalized domestic abuse and since then, in some cities, reports of violence against women doubled.

I heard of Kuznetsova through a friend, Tony Fitzpatrick, known for his bird collages and his acting. He hired her as an assistant.

“She showed me her work; she was miles ahead of anybody I had ever hired before,” said Fitzpatrick. “Yulia is the best worker who has ever been part of this studio: conscientious, industrious, a self-starter, absolutely the kind of person you want to become an American.”

Kuznetsova will have to go back to Russia unless McEntee can work some legal magic.

“We’re going to be applying for an O-1 visa, for those considered extraordinary in their field of endeavor, those at the top of their game, which we think she is,” McEntee said. “The standard is very high, but Yulia is so talented.”

I finally sat down with Kuznetsova in a room filled with her paintings. She is poised, heavily tattooed.

How do the paintings reflect her world?

“I’m naturally a really anxious person,” she said. “I’m worried about everything. Yes, they reflect a lot of my emotions that I experience, in my life, emotionally, things I’m going through.”

She said she got her dream of living in America from her father, Vladimir.

“My dad, he always used to say his body was born in Russia, however, his soul was born in America,” she said.

What does America mean to him?

“This dream of happiness, a land of abilities,” she said. “Living a happy life, without suffering every day, as my parents have to do, living in Russia.”

And did she find this country matched expectations?

“The way people treated me, it was gorgeous, actually,” she said. “It was like another planet. Everybody was so nice, smiling back at me. People are generally happier. Oh my God. It’s so different from Russia.”

What’s Russia like?

“A pretty rough place,” she said. “More closed. They expect negativity more than positivity from other people. That frowning attitude comes from that, you expect something [lousy] from the other person.”

We’re working toward that. Maybe this is the part where people cry. I couldn’t help but worry she is coming to this country at the moment we start backsliding into exactly the kind of closed, harsh, totalitarian state she is trying to escape.

Or maybe not. Maybe the key is whether we allow people like Yulia Kuznetsova to settle here. Maybe that will determine whether we remain a country that people flee to, or become a country that people flee from.

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