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Moscow Circus Defectors Granted Asylum, Talk of Freedom

August 8, 1986

MIAMI (AP) _ A Moscow Circus couple who walked a political tightrope to realize their dream of living in America have won political asylum, and say they look forward to being ″free, free people.″

Nikolai Nikolski and Bertalina Kazakova, a husband-and-wife high-wire act, arrived here from Argentina Thursday, three days after they slipped away from their hotel in Buenos Aires and asked for asylum at the U.S. Embassy.

″America is the great country of the world. America is country of freedom,″ Miss Kazakova said in broken English this morning on NBC’s ″Today″ show.

″They said that when they stepped the first time on American earth, they don’t know what (Neil) Armstrong felt when he walked on the moon, but they thought they felt the same,″ said Esther Shatkhin, a Soviet emigre who acted as translator during a news conference Thursday at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters.

The INS granted the couple political asylum hours after their plane landed at Miami International Airport.

″Obviously if they are returned they would go to prison,″ said INS regional director Perry Rivkind.

The couple’s first appointment in their new homeland is with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, one of about a half-dozen that called the INS after hearing of the defection, Rivkind said.

The couple said they hope to travel with a circus until they have enough money to settle down.

They are staying at a downtown hotel compliments of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

The couple defected with a briefcase, two photo bags, a bulging brown plastic shopping bag and a smaller white plastic bag. Among their mementos are a picture of a pet Pomeranian dog named Mickey, ″like Mickey Mouse,″ left behind in Moscow, and a Soviet magazine featuring their act, Miss Kazakova said.

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

They emphasized their reasons for leaving the Soviet Union were political, not economic, and described themselves as Christians.

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

Asked if she had a message for Americans, 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 before leaving Buenos Aires.

″That’s on the professional side,″ Nikolski added. ″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.″

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

″The doors for the younger brother and sister may be closed as a result of this,″ Miss Kazakova said through an interpreter on the morning news show. The couple also said they hoped their brother and sister would continue in circus work.

The couple ″were getting ready to go for many years, they were planning on it. ... They waited very long to do this,″ said the interpreter, who was not identified.

The couple decided to defect while Soviet officials were at the Buenos Aires airport to greet the circus’ general director, Ms. Shatkhin said.

″They told them that they were going shopping, and it took them an hour before they found the (U.S.) embassy,″ Ms. Shatkhin said.

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