By Courtney L. Tollison  

OCTOBER 30, 2011 10:05 a.m. Comments (0)

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One evening 20 years ago, when the United States and the Soviet Union remained entangled in the Cold War, one of the USSR’s most renowned orchestral conductors sat amid the cacophony of videogames, simulators, and animated stage shows at Chuck E. Cheese’s on Haywood Road in Greenville.

Edvard Tchivzhel was in the United States for a month-long tour with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, and was enjoying time with his wife and son and Lena Forster, then director of the Greenville Ballet, who was serving as the maestro’s translator.

In his native Russian, he took an enormous leap of faith: although there was no way to be sure that Forster was not working with the KGB, the Soviet Union's national security agency, he decided to trust her. He said he “wanted to stay.”

She is said to have responded: Chuck E. Cheese’s did not close until 10 p.m.

The maestro had something different in mind. He wanted to stay in America.

To mark the 20th anniversary of Tchivzhel’s defection, the city and county of Greenville will honor him with Maestro Edvard Tchivzhel Day on Oct. 29. Additionally, the Tchivzhels will be recognized during the GSO’s Masterworks performances on Oct. 29-30 at the Peace Center.

Tchivzhel (pronounced CHIV-gel) was born in Soviet Russia during the onset of the Cold War. When he was a boy, communist officials placed him in a rigorous musical training program, focused on piano and conducting.

He thrived, winning a national conductor’s competition while still a student, and eventually became the permanent guest conductor of the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Philharmonic, principal conductor of the Karelian Symphony Orchestra of Television and Radio, and associate conductor with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra.

He was a member of Russia’s elite arts community, widely recognized and respected throughout the communist bloc and in many countries around the world. But in 1991, he left it all behind.

In February of that year, Tchivzhel, his wife Luba (an accomplished violinist), and their 4 year old son Arvid left Leningrad with hopes of achieving asylum in the U.S.  They bristled under a heavy handed communist system: political and economic corruption, lack of widespread opportunity, and extreme governmental interference into the personal and professional lives of the people.

Their multi-city tour of the U.S. included Greenville; the USSR State Symphony Orchestra's performance at the Peace Center was the first scheduled orchestra performance in the newly completed facility. As conductor, the maestro was an important representative of the USSR's cultural diplomacy efforts, a joint program which used the arts to thaw relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The evening at Chuck E. Cheese set in motion a series of events that read like a Cold War thriller. After Tchivzhel clarified his intentions to Forster, she engaged local attorney Larry Estridge. Estridge, with assistance from colleague William Crawford, began researching the possibilities, and realized that Tchivzhel’s chances for political asylum increased if Tchivzhel had ever made public, inflammatory comments about the Soviet Union.

He had not, so Estridge arranged for a journalist from an obscure Upcountry agricultural newsletter to interview Tchivzhel so he could do just that.

Meanwhile, Tchivzhel continued on tour. An avid runner, he carried dimes in his pocket so he could use payphones to communicate with Forster and Estridge in Greenville; the KGB had planted agents in the orchestra and the maestro knew his hotel rooms were likely bugged.

This type of invasiveness was nothing new; in Russia, they felt forced to go out on a boat on a nearby lake to discuss their hopes for defection because of fears of listening devices in their apartment. For fear of tipping off officials and/or endangering their family, they took no personal memorabilia and told no one, not even their closest relatives.

During this process, Estridge contacted the FBI and Sens. Ernest Hollings and Strom Thurmond's offices to gain security for the Tchivzhels. All maintained they could not get involved until an official application had been submitted to Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).

One of them likely tipped off the INS however. One day, Estridge received a phone call from a man alleging to be the head of INS for the Washington, D.C., metro area. The man instructed Estridge to listen to him share everything he knew about this case so that Estridge would know that the man was who he claimed to be.

The man's identity was legitimate; the INS became involved even before any application had been submitted because, according to Estridge, the INS representative said that "this is such a high profile defection, and the consequences of it not going just right could be dire."

Estridge prepared the documents for the Tchivzhels to submit to INS officials in Washington, D.C., the last stop on the symphony’s tour. When the symphony's plane landed in Washington, the terminal had been cleared of all cars, except one from the Russian Embassy whose occupants refused to leave.

Armed INS and FBI agents were stationed throughout the terminal, as was Forster, who had traveled to D.C. to hand deliver the papers to the Tchivzhels. They had received instructions to find her, secure the papers, accompany the rest of the symphony to the bus then wait until the rest of the symphony had boarded.

At that moment, Edvard was to hand the papers to an INS agent posted at the entrance to the bus, who would whisk them away to waiting FBI agents. Edvard, who had insisted that he follow through on his commitment to the symphony throughout the duration of the tour, deviated from the plan only once: he stepped onto the bus, even though he knew there were KBG plants on board.

He felt a responsibility to offer some sort of goodbye, and informed his symphony that he was going to visit some friends.  Amazingly, the plan resumed without complication, and officials escorted them to waiting FBI agents, who were then supposed to escort the family to an INS office in the District.

Upon discovering several members of the KGB were following them, the FBI rerouted to Baltimore.

Estridge understood the risks to the Tchivzhel family's safety and had maintained such secrecy that even his law partners, excepting Crawford, knew nothing of the case until moments before the media arrived for a press conference.

“The two most significant cases of my 40-year legal career happened within months of each other: Furman's split with the South Carolina Baptist Convention and the Tchivzhels’ defection,” Estridge said. “If I never do anything more significant that's just fine. Both were pro-bono nail biters with extremely gratifying outcomes. It is an added bonus that there remains a warm friendship with the Tchivzhels."

During the press conference, the maestro expressed his family’s joy at not being forced to go back to that “socialistic prison.”

The Tchivzhels stayed with Forster and her children for several months. They had left all but what they could fit into their suitcases in their apartment in Leningrad. Donations helped, Luba began earning income as a violinist, and Edvard began to accept invitations to guest conduct symphonies.

The Soviet Union crumbled in December 1991. Eight years later, the Tchivzhel family became U.S. citizens and Tchivzhel became the music director and conductor of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra.

During the GSO’s first performance after Sept. 11, 2001, the maestro decided to play “The Star Spangled Banner” at the beginning of the performance; it was well-received, and he has maintained that popular practice ever since.

Ken Johnson, former executive director of the symphony, said, “Edvard is without question one of the most patriotic people I have ever met. He is an extraordinarily talented musician and a real rock star. This country and our community are fortunate to have him as part of our arts scene.”

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