JANESVILLE, Wis. — Earlier this summer, Yuri Rashkin stood in the stairway of the Moscow apartment building where he lived as a boy.
Memories rushed over the 44-year-old as he remembered the day his father handed over the keys to the front door before moving his family to the United States.
Rashkin returned to Russia in June for the first time in more than 30 years.
He did not expect to be so emotionally charged with thoughts of childhood.
"A lot of it had to do with me not being able to share any of this with my parents," Rashkin explained.
Both are deceased.
Rashkin, who speaks Russian and is a U.S. citizen, went to his native country to see and experience things firsthand.
"I wanted to compare my perception of Russia to reality," he said.
He plans to use his unique position as a person fluent in both Russian and U.S. cultures to enhance understanding between the two.
"Potentially, I am interested in all kinds of cross-country bridges," he said. "I've never shied away from big projects. This is something I enjoy doing."
His effort is timely.
"We didn't used to be curious about Russia," Rashkin said. "For many years after the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia went to the back burner."
Now, there's an uptick in interest largely because of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
"I want to replace fear and distrust with understanding by using social and regular media," Rashkin said.
He is committed to speaking out and to giving others a voice.
In the past six months, Rashkin has been a news analyst on U.S. policies for a Russian-language TV station with hubs in Russia, the U.S. and Israel.
Recently, he commented on the announcement by the Trump administration that it is delaying most of the import taxes it planned to impose on Chinese goods.
Rashkin called himself a valuable asset to the TV station "because they can't find many Russian speakers with a Democratic-progressive view."
"A lot of Russians who emigrated are very conservative politically," he said.
He does not get paid for his input.
Rashkin also is producing short videos about life in the U.S. and sharing them online with people in Russia.
Two recent videos explain how road construction takes place and how people hunt for work.
In addition, he has a podcast called the Rashkin Report. In it, he interviews Russian people via Skype about current events in Russia.
"People feel free to say what they want," Rashkin said. "They want to talk without the state hovering over them."
He plans on returning to Russia with a small group next summer so U.S. citizens can connect with Russians and have "person-to-person conversations."
He has begun looking into taking a group in 2021 from UW-Whitewater, where he teaches communication.
"One step at a time," he told The Janesville Gazette.
People in Rock County know Rashkin, in part, because he is a supervisor on the Rock County Board and served on the Janesville City Council from 2008 to 2012. He retired as council vice president.
Rashkin, who moved to Beloit in 2016, also works as a professional court interpreter.
While in Moscow, he stayed with his aunt, who lives in his grandfather's former apartment. Later, he stayed in St. Petersburg with a cousin.
Not surprisingly, things have changed in Russia in the past three decades.
Here are some of the changes observed by Rashkin:
— He found much better service when shopping.
"People are valued as consumers . . . in a Russian form of capitalism," Rashkin said.
When he was a boy, store clerks cared little about what the customer thought.
— The streets of Moscow, a city of more than 12 million, have gotten narrower with wider sidewalks in the government's efforts to dissuade people from driving.
— Rashkin saw people attending synagogue and openly talking about being Jewish. When he was a child, he did not talk about being Jewish because of hostility toward Jewish people.
"It's no longer considered negative like it used to be," he said. "It could be due to several of (Vladimir) Putin's oligarchs being Jewish and Putin himself not being anti-Semitic."
— The neighborhood where Rashkin and his family once lived is "covered with Prada stores and cafes."
Rashkin's parents — Dmitry and Alla Rashkin — wanted to get their two sons out of Russia in 1988.
They knew that young men of Yuri's age ended up serving in the Chechen War.
"For a brief period, the gates were open on both sides," Rashkin said. "A lot of people decided to get in line and apply to go to the United States."
The Jewish community of Salt Lake City sponsored the family, which started from scratch in the United States.
When the Rashkins left, they surrendered their apartment, which was considered state property, and their Russian citizenships.
A year later, all apartments were considered the property of the people, and those who emigrated could keep their Russian citizenships, Rashkin said.
Both of Rashkin's parents worked in the arts.
His mother was a rehearsal pianist who taught at a theater arts institute, and his father was a professional puppeteer and book collector.
The Rashkins financed their move by selling the family library, which contained forbidden and out-of-print books.
Once in the United States, a 13-year-old Yuri read about the former Soviet Union and thought, "How did I survive there?"
He decided to put his past behind him and become as Americanized as possible.
In 2011, Rashkin began paying close attention to Russian politics.
Eventually, he decided to return to Moscow, where a Russian TV crew followed him around the city to tell his story. The piece never aired.
Rashkin looks forward to fostering people-to-people connections between Russia and the U.S.
"I'm doing this because I feel it is my civic duty," he said. "Fear is not a way to live in peace."
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Janesville Gazette.