Mind-blowing. That is how Inna Shnapir described what it felt like watching her son Simon Shnapir in international pairs figure skating competitions. But the sensation doesn’t come when Simon tosses partner Marissa Castelli to impressive heights. It starts the moment an arena announcer introduces the skaters.
“I remember his first international competition in 2007, a junior level competition in Tallinn, Estonia,” said Inna. “That was the first time I heard, ‘Simon Shnapir, representing the United States.’
“I had tears in my eyes just to hear this phrase. I’ve been to almost all his competitions, and internationally I get chills when they say, ‘Representing the United States.’ It’s still unreal.”
Mind-blowing and unreal because Inna, her husband Boris, their only child Simon, and five other close relatives sought political asylum in the United States 25 years ago.
They were a Jewish family in the Soviet Union, and as Boris said, “There were no pogroms, but we always felt like we didn’t belong there.”
More than that, Inna and Boris knew future opportunities would be limited for them and Simon because of their religion.
“We wanted to raise our kid in a free country and to escape anti-Semitism,” said Inna. “It became possible after [Mikhail] Gorbachev came to power. It wasn’t easy, but it became possible.”
Said Boris: “It was suffocating there.”
Simon, who was born in Moscow, was 16 months old at the time. Now, he and Castelli are two-time defending US pairs champions and ready to compete at the Sochi Olympics. It is the first time Simon and Marissa will be skating at an event in Russia. And Inna and Boris will return to the land they once called home.
“It is a dream come true,” said Inna. “First of all, our dream came true to live in the United States with our child. Now, his dream comes true to be in the OlympicsIt’s incredible.”
In the Soviet Union, the nationality on the Shnapirs’ passports read “Jewish,” not, for example, “Russian” or “Ukranian.” As students applying to universities, Boris and Inna knew there were certain schools that wouldn’t admit them because of their religion. Boris worked as an engineer for one company and never received opportunities for advancement.
So, with four suitcases and the equivalent of $400, Inna, Boris, and Simon left the Soviet Union in December 1988 and headed to Austria, then Italy. They were joined by Boris’s parents and sister and Inna’s mother and sister. They waited in Italy for 2½ months before receiving permission to settle in the United States. In spring 1994, the Shnapirs earned US citizenship and took their Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at Faneuil Hall.
The Shnapirs settled in Boston because Boris had relatives in the area. Living in an apartment in Brighton, Boris and Inna worked hard to learn English and find jobs. They also wanted to keep some Russian culture alive and made sure Simon spoke Russian fluently and enjoyed traditional Russian food.
And Inna and Boris maintained an interest in figure skating, a very popular sport in Russia.
The Shnapirs would go to public skating hours in the Boston area and watch US stars on TV. Simon’s favorite was back-flipping 1984 men’s gold medalist Scott Hamilton. When Simon wanted to take skating more seriously, Inna and Boris were more than happy to support him.
Now, returning to Russia for the second time since they left, they will watch Simon compete in Sochi with Marissa and travel on to Moscow with Marissa’s parents for some touring.
They went back the first time in 1999 to a completely changed country, almost unrecognizable in many ways after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “In the 11 years since we left, it changed more than in the 70 years before,” said Inna.
Inna and Boris expect it will be an overwhelming experience, one they could barely fathom.
“We still don’t really, really understand the scope and the magnitude of it all,” said Boris. “It will probably sink in when we get there and go to the Opening Ceremony. We’ll be the proudest parents in the arena. It will be very emotional.”