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Out of Siberia, into Tacoma

For Vladimir Ilioukhov, who grew up in Russia’s Far East, glasnost dramatically changed the course of his life. He went from the Siberian frontier to a furniture store in Tacoma, Washington. MSNBC’s Kari Huus reports.
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When he went off for two years military service, 18-year-old Vladimir Ilioukhov, like many of his peers, saw it as an important rite of passage. But after a year on the bleak Siberian border, he’d had more than enough the harsh food and climate. Fortunately, Russia’s new policy of glasnost was transforming the country, and would propel him to a more promising frontier, one in many ways an even more challenging one — the United States.

Ilioukhov is one of thousands of Russians who emigrated to the United States from Russia every year in the 1990s-a vast wave of educated people who have opted to start from scratch in new jobs, new businesses, and new languages.

Now, he finds himself working 10-12 hours a day in his own furniture store, located in a little strip mall, just off the freeway in Auburn, a suburb of Seattle-Tacoma.

It’s hardly where he dreamed he would wind up. In fact, he had to be sold on the American Dream when the opportunity first came along. Growing up in Russia’s remote Far East, Ilioukhov had a hazy, colorless picture of the United States - devoid of Mickey Mouse, peace protests, the Wizard of Oz and Macy’s - and no real desire to go. “What I knew was that it was a technologically advanced,” he said.

But his father, a journalist, and his mother, a schoolteacher convinced him - against his own instincts - to come in 1993, and start a new life. “My parents (would) tell me every night, ‘you need to go to United States. You need to how it is different,’ he recalled. Now he conceded, “I understand that my parents saw a little bit further than me at that time.”

With an engineering degree from a university in Vladivostok, and a little experience repairing video games, Ilioukhov set out. With a scholarship from Vladivostok’s American sister city he set out for Tacoma, Washington, a place even many Americans would have to look for on a map.

Now, six years later, in the back office of his furniture store in Auburn, a suburb of Seattle-Tacoma, Ilioukhov is the picture of the upstart American entrepreneur. His cell phone rings periodically, playing the William Tell Overture. His wife Elena, a Russian refugee whom he met after reaching the U.S., tends customers while he handles office work.

Getting to this point was a long lesson in two new cultures: Capitalist and American, at times a painful process of trial and error. At first, Ilioukhov studied English at a community college. But when he launched into a Washington University business program he found the specialized terminology too hard to grasp (though American accounting was easy compared to the complex socialist system he left behind). He ended up finishing his degree in computer science in 1995.

But his first business out of school, coordinating U.S. furniture exports to Russia, fizzled because Russian import tariffs were raised suddenly, killing the market back home.

Ilioukhov then went into a private trucking business, handling orders for a 15 Russian drivers who owned trucks, but couldn’t speak English well. He gave that up as well, because U.S. Transportation Department regulations were “too complicated.”

Finally, Ilioukhov opened Alenushka Best Furniture Store. The showroom, stocked with overstuffed loveseats, mattresses and neatly stacked piles of Czech carpets, was built on contacts he made in the previous two businesses, and it started off with a bang—$5000 in sales the first month. “We invited all our Russian friends in, and they bought,” laughed Ilioukhov.

But the second month, when Ilioukhov’s had exhausted his immediate circle as a market, sales plummeted to $500. It was nerve-wracking, since much of the inventory was acquired on credit.

There were many stumbles. In his eagerness to sell, Ilioukhov mistakenly priced some items below his own purchase price, and only discovered it after the happy customer had walked out the door. And, with little experience in customer service, he said it was at first difficult to know what to say to customers when they walked through the door. It was not a skill he would have picked up from merchants in the former Soviet Union.

Gradually, the business has taken hold. Vladimir and Elena Ilioukhov visited other stores, and then mimicked the sales style with their own customers. They started advertising in local Russian-language publications. Now with a clientele that is about 90 percent Russian, Alenushka brings in about $45,000 a month in sales, on average. Ilioukhov has just hired two new staff.

Hardworking and serious, Ilioukhov is launching his family firmly into the middle class, like many immigrants before him. He and Elena can now afford to vacation in Hawaii, while sending their two small children for extra schooling with their families in Russia. He envisions himself in the U.S. for many years, and aims to have a furniture store chain with several branches by his fifties. It is the sort of tale of which Americans are proud, the kind of citizen who built the nation.

Sadly, Ilioukhov’s story also speaks volumes about Russia’s political and economic disarray. Though now committed to these shores, he still hopes his home country will bounce back. “I think maybe in a couple years, like 2010, there will be huge changes and life will be turned around,” he said. “I mean people will get what they must get, what they are expecting to get.”