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Circus Performers Happy To Be In America

August 7, 1986

MIAMI (AP) _ A husband-and-wife team of Soviet tightrope performers who defected to the United States said their first step on American soil Thursday was like Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.

Nikolai Nikolski and Bertalina Kazakova, stars of the Moscow Circus, slipped away from their hotel Monday to the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires and flew to Miami where they were granted asylum.

″We like America,″ said Miss Kazakova, who learned to speak broken English by reading books and listening to radio broadcasts. ″It’s our dream to live in America, dream all our life.″

The 35-year-old high-wire artists kept their intentions secret from Miss Kazakova’s brother and his sister, who are part of the five-member troupe led by Nikolski.

Their only possessions in America are a black briefcase, two photo bags and two plastic shopping bags. Among their mementoes are a picture of a pet Pomeranian named Mickey, ″like Mickey Mouse,″ left behind in Moscow and a Soviet magazine article featuring their act.

″Not a lot of our things, and a lot of hope,″ Nikolski said through an interpreter.

″They had a well-founded fear of persecution if they were returned to the Soviet Union,″ said Perry Rivkind, regional director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. ″I granted asylum.″

Esther Shatkhin, a Soviet emigree who acted as their interpreter, translated, ″They said that when they stepped the first time on American earth, they don’t know what Armstrong felt when he walked on the moon, but they thought they felt the same.″

They arrived in the United States on the same day the Soviet newspaper Izvestia reported that fugitive ex-CIA agent Edward Lee Howard received political asylum in the Soviet Union. Howard vanished last year just before being charged with selling U.S. secrets to Moscow.

The couple toured Cuba three years ago with the circus and ″knew Florida was across the water,″ said Ms. Shatkhin, who was summoned by the INS. ″They would dream about going to Florida some day, and their dream came true.″

Their immediate plans were to find a hotel, await word from Washington and contact a circus to begin performing again. Miss Kazakova said they had read about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when the America circus toured Moscow about 12 years ago.

Ringling Bros. is interested in interviewing the couple, and ″a bunch of circuses have called - half a dozen,″ said Perry Rivkind, regional director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He added that the performers ″are thrilled beyond belief.″

″We want to be free, free people,″ said Miss Kazakova. ″We don’t like our Soviet life. I don’t like the political Soviet Union.″

Asked at a news conference if she had a message for the American people, she said, ″You are very lucky and very happy people because you live in America. You must like your democracy because we haven’t this in the Soviet Union.″

″We don’t have the right to decide in what cities we live. We can’t negotiate our contracts, we can’t even decide what acts we are going to perform,″ Miss Kazakova said in an interview before leaving Buenos Aires.

’That’s on the professional side,″ said Nikolski through the interpreter. ″On the personal side, in the Soviet Union, the only way you can live is think one way, speak another way and act a third way.″

Describing their defection, Ms. Shatkhin said were inadvertently aided by an Argentine tour guide who pointed out the U.S. Embassy. The couple decided to defect while Soviet officials were at the airport to greet the circus’ general director on Monday.

The couple said Soviets did not expect them to defect because they were well off materially in Moscow.

The couple’s hopes for life in America are simple: they want to buy a trailer and travel with the circus until they have enough money to settle down.

″We are happy,″ Miss Kazakova said. ″We are happy to be here. We hope luck in America.″

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