LAKE PLACID - It's hard to believe that Dmitry Feld walked around without a smile when he first moved from the Republic of Ukraine to the U.S. in 1979. People didn't smile much in the Soviet Union.
Now Feld is rarely seen without a smile. A community leader in Lake Placid - marketing manager at USA Luge, president of the Shipman Youth Center board of directors and organizer of the I Love BBQ & Music Festival - he's truly living the American dream.
"Once in a while, I want to get up in the morning and bite my elbow to have pain, to figure out if I am really in America," Feld said. "The dream is still continuing."
Dmitry Feld poses at the USA Luge office in Lake Placid, where he works as the marketing manager. He was born in Russia, raised in Ukraine and moved from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in 1979. He is thoroughly enjoying his freedom.
(Photo — Andy Flynn)
At age 58, Feld has spent more time living in America than he did living in the Soviet Union. He began dreaming of a life with more freedom by the time he was a teenager, and he'd like to see people from his home countries of Ukraine and Russia be free as well.
Ukrainians headed to the polls Sunday, May 25 to choose a new president. They elected Petro Poroshenko, billionaire confectionary magnate.
When this interview was conducted before the election, Feld was watching to see how the drama played out. Amid the political strife, the country is facing civil war and a possible invasion from Russia, which forced the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine to Russia in March.
Now the world is waiting to see what Russian President Vladamir Putin will do next.
"I have people in Ukraine and in Russia who I've known for years, a lot of ties to the luge community," Feld said. "I can tell you it's a very tense relationship now between my friends in Ukraine and my friends in Russia because the Russian propaganda is saying that Ukraine is going to bring NATO to the borders of Russia and they're going to destroy the Russian culture. It's like the Soviet Union is back."
Life in the Soviet Union
Feld remembers what life was like in the Soviet Union. He was born during the Cold War, on Oct. 2, 1955 on the Kamchatka Peninsula in far-east Russia. His father was an administrator at an air force base.
"I am a product of a Soviet military family," Feld said. "My father was part of the Soviet air force defense system."
When Feld was about 3 years old, his family moved to Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania for a couple of years before moving to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Both countries were Soviet republics before declaring independence in 1990 and 1991, respectively. Feld's parents divorced when he was about 7 or 8 years old. His father remarried, and he was raised by his mother.
"I was kind of a rebellious kid," Feld said. "I didn't like for people to tell me what to do all the time."
Throughout his life, Feld found himself on opposite sides of the barricade, so to speak, with his father and the Soviet system.
"I never liked the Soviet system," Feld said. "I was 12 or 13 years old when I found out there was a big contrast between what the government was saying and what the government was doing. ... I saw this harsh reality of living in the Soviet Union. While they were saying it was all peachy keen, there was nothing peachy keen for us."
When tourist season came in the summertime, foreigners descended on Kiev. Many were from western Europe, but Feld could always pick out the U.S. tourists.
"Americans, when they showed up, they always smiled," Feld said. "They had this kind of an aura over their head. They were more relaxed than anybody. And they were always good to kids. They gave us chewing gum or a little pin or Coca-Cola. And we gave them pins to exchange with (former Soviet Union Premier Vladimir) Lenin on them."
Feld began watching the Americans with awe.
"I was looking at them and saying, 'How come they look so cool and relaxed? They smell good. They have plenty of stuff,'" he said.
That was a stark contrast to Feld's life. His family lived in communal apartments and didn't have the luxuries of families who worked in the government system. And he took note of the disparity.
Feld began hanging out near the foreigners and would get his hands on Western items that were smuggled in. He'd see advertisements and stories in Sports Illustrated and other magazines and began dreaming of America.
"All those cars, and the way people dressed and jeans," Feld said. "Jeans, of course, jeans was a huge thing. Levis jeans. Everybody wants to have them, but nobody can have it."
Feld began listening to Western radio stations on short-wave radio such as the Voice of America and the BBC, broadcast in Russian.
"Suddenly you start hearing about all the things the Soviet Union did to its own people, like (Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn, who wrote 'Arkhipelag GuLag' ('The Gulag Archipelago')," Feld said. "It was the most important book. He was sentenced to a labor camp during the Soviet Union. ... We could not have that book. It was forbidden. Every one of his books were forbidden. But on the radio, we could listen."
Voice of America also played popular music from the U.S. and Great Britain.
"I grew up on the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Creedence Clearwater Revival," Feld said. "While I didn't understand the language, I loved the music. In the Soviet Union, it was all music praising the Communist Party or singing about clouds. We didn't like it."
Soon this rebellious Soviet kid was thinking like a Westerner.
"Here I am, the son of the military guy, totally on opposite sides," Feld said.
Feld knew he wanted to move to the U.S., but it took many years to finally get here. Luckily, the doors were slowly opening up to the West. American businessmen, such as Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum, were starting to trade with the Soviet Union under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And the government was letting some residents move to other countries.
"I was 14 or 15 years old when I heard there were people emigrating to Israel," Feld said. "I found out that my schoolmate, one of the young girls, was going to Israel with her mom and dad. And that was huge because the Soviet Union hated Israel at the time because they had the 1967 war with Arabs, and the Soviet Union supported the Arabs. ... I remember how they basically told her she was a spy of Israel, and they brought her in the middle of the high school in front of 300 kids and said she was a traitor with her little brother."
When Feld was 16, he began sliding with the Ukrainian luge team, and when he was 18, he joined the Soviet army as part of his compulsory military service, spending two years in the far east, not far away from Kamchatka, near the Chinese border.
"The reason they sent me there was they wanted to re-educate me," Feld said. "They already knew I was a bad apple."
Once Feld got out of the army, he told his mother they had to get out of the Soviet Union.
"I went back to luge, which kept me kind of an outsider of this world because sport was this milk and cow of Soviet patriotism," Feld said. "Each republic had its own luge team. While we were doing sport, we were not as indoctrinated as much as other people who went to work in the factory every day or to the plant. ... We were in touch with foreigners because East Germans and Czechs would come and race in the Soviet Union. Suddenly I saw the Germans had it a little better. And they had jeans."
In 1978, Feld and his mother applied to move to the U.S., but first they had to get permission from his father because his parents were divorced.
"So I had to go back to my father, a military guy and member of the Communist Party for 25 years, and tell him that," Feld said.
During the meeting with Feld's father, his brother spoke for him.
"I thought he was going to have a heart attack," Feld said. "And his wife, I thought she was going to have a heart attack. She was also former military. First thing from her mouth was, 'No, no. You can't go to America. What's going to happen to us? We might wind up arrested.' That's how afraid they were."
After a month, Feld's father gave him permission, sparing him from using a backup plan.
"One way or another, I think we would be here anyhow," Feld said.
With the family hurdle out of the way, Feld and his mother had to work their way through government red tape to get permission to leave the Ukraine.
"Through corruption in the police department and everywhere else, we paid our way out," Feld said. "At the end of 1978, I was in the Ural Mountains doing luge, and my mother called me and said, 'We gotta go. Twenty-five days we have to be out.'"
In early 1979, Feld and his mother traveled to Austria, then Italy, and got on a plane for America. His brother, who was married, moved a year later with his family.
"Here I was in 1979 entering the United States of America flying from Italy on a big Italian jumbo jet looking down on the Statue of Liberty," Feld said. "And when the pilot said, 'Look left, it's the Statue of Liberty,' half of the plane went all left. I thought the plane was going to tip over ... because everybody wants to see the Statue of Liberty. To me, it was the biggest symbol of my freedom."
Life in America
Physically, Feld moved to America in 1979. Psychologically, he'd already been here for years.
"While I didn't live in America, my mind was always somewhere else, in the free world, wearing jeans, doing whatever you want," Feld said. "Then they dropped me in the middle of Brooklyn and said, 'Do whatever you want now.' And that was like music to my ears. There was no more Communist Party. There were no more police that I have to be afraid of to say free things. If I want to go to church, I can go to church. ... I can do anything I want."
But Feld couldn't shake the Soviet Union from his mind right away. For years he had nightmares that he was being sent back to Russia to serve in the Soviet army.
"I would make myself wake up," Feld said. "When I woke up, I saw the ceiling in my house, and I was the happiest guy in the world that I wasn't going back there."
Feld remembers the first advice he got when arriving in New York City. It was from a neighbor, a old Russian-speaking woman who came to the U.S. when she was 15 years old after the Russian Revolution.
"She said you've got to do five things in America," Feld said. "Pay your taxes. Do not forge your money. Don't pick up hoodlums. You can basically do whatever you want. And don't join the Republicans."
Feld got a job grinding meat then took many jobs before heading back to the luge world in 1982.
"A guy from the Soviet Union, spoke no English, worked at McDonald's, cleaned toilets, did insulation, groomed dogs, then I wrote a letter to USA Luge and said, 'Hey, I want to do anything. I'll do it for free,'" Feld said. "If I can't slide, I'll coach. And that's how it opened my door. I was a volunteer coach for two years."
Feld moved to Lake Placid in 1984 when USA Luge hired him as a coach. He worked there until 2001, when he took a job with the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation before coming back to USA Luge five years later.
One perk is working with Klim Gatker, the USA Luge national team assistant coach who was Feld's luge coach and mentor in the 1970s in Ukraine. Gatker - who originally hails from Monino, Russia, near Moscow - has been involved in luge coaching since 1971, when he won a silver medal in the Soviet Union National Championships. He came to America in 1992, joined the USA Luge coaching staff in 1998 and now lives in Lake Placid.
"When I told him I was going to the United States, I thought he was going to have a heart attack," Feld said. "He couldn't believe it. Most of the people couldn't believe it."
With his work on the U.S. luge team, Feld has traveled to Russia and former Soviet republics for years, and he was proud to work at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
"I thought it was the greatest thing for Mother Russia," Feld said. "By getting the Olympic Games, Russia was tied to the western world even more. It was such a huge event."
Since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Feld has seen Russians attain more freedom and become more associated with the West. He has high praise for Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, serving from 1991 to 1999, for reforming the government.
"He saw how much Soviet Union didn't work, and he wanted Russia to be a very free society, independent, strong," Feld said. "He created so much freedom that people were starting to think he was nuts. The Russian people, they want stability. They want Stalin back. ... He made a lot of mistakes, and most important was economic, but when I went to Russia in 1999, I was like, 'Wow.' ... The freedom was coming in. The doors were opening up. Russian people were allowed to go abroad."
When Yeltsin resigned at the end of 1999, Putin took over and helped rebuild the Russian economy.
"I was very hopeful and positive that the Olympic Games were going to be another push, Russia toward Europe and more freedom," Feld said. "I don't know Putin, and I can't see what's in his head, but while the Olympics were coming in ... I saw how the freedom of Russian people was being cut down more."
Feld was also hopeful that the Ukrainian government would become part of the European Union, which was set to take place in the fall. However, shortly before Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was to sign the agreement, he changed his mind and established closer ties to Russia instead. That sparked the Euromaidan protests on Nov. 20 in Kiev, leading to the death of 98 protesters on Feb. 20 after security forces opened fire on the crowd. A day later, Yanukovych fled to Russia. On Feb. 21, the Ukranian parliament removed him from office and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Feld can put himself in the shoes of the protesters, those who want freedom and closer ties to the West.
"That's what the new generation of Ukranians want," Feld said. "They want to be friends with Russia, but they want to have their own path. So they want to associate with the European Union. ... If they want to go to the European Union, they should be allowed to do it. If they want to go in NATO, they should be allowed."
Tensions in Ukraine escalated when Putin manipulated the annexation of Crimea to Russia in March. The Soviet Union had transferred the Crimean peninsula from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, and Putin supported a March 16 referendum in Crimea to give the territory back. The referendum was considered illegitimate by many countries, including the European Union, the U.S. and Canada, and the United Nations General Assembly declared the vote invalid. On March 18, the accession treaty was signed and was subsequently approved by the Russian government. On March 21, the Ukrainian government signed the EU trade pact that was rejected by Yanukovych in November.
"This is just in my mind a very unhealthy push by President Putin to create this crisis of minds that Russia is no longer going to be for Russia and the American bear will come in with NATO," Feld said. "No. I say Russia, go join the European Union. Or if you don't want to join, that's fine. ... Just let the Ukrainian government work with Russia and the European Union. If they want to be free and do their own things, Russia should respect the will of those people as they respect the will of the Russian people."
While you may see Feld walking around Lake Placid some days with a blue-and-gold Ukraine shirt, he never forgets that he was born in Russia, so he tries to take a neutral stance.
"I'm definitely for a strong, independent Ukraine, and if they want to be in the European Union, they should be there," Feld said. "I'm also for a strong, independent, free and happy Russia."
But Feld is seeing a new tension among his Russian friends with overtones of the Soviet days.
"Basically, if you say something against Russia, it's not good, so regular people basically stopped talking," he said. "They're all afraid like in the Soviet Union. So you have this paradox. You still have free radio somewhat, and you still have access to the Internet, and you can still go abroad ... but some things now have been taken back away from you - freedom of expression, afraid of being arrested because you don't agree with Russia."
Feld thinks the government officials involved in the Ukrainian crisis - including the U.S. and Russia - need to slow down and take it easy before they spark a war.
"America is not the enemy of Russia, and the European Union is not the enemy of Russia," Feld said. "Instead of pointing guns at each other, why don't we all have a little vodka between Russian military and Americans and Europeans, relax, eat good food, go visit each other, have war games together, and live in one peaceful world?"