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Meet Natalia Smirnova: An economist by training, but an educator by passion

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Growing up in Leningrad had to be pretty bleak, right? Surely, escaping the Soviet Union for America must have been most Russians’ dream.

“No,” says Natalia Smirnova, laughing. “Growing up in the Soviet Union was great. We had a very nice childhood. Now, being an adult, I understand the value of the free day care facilities for kids. I remember those days as nothing bad.”

Smirnova left Leningrad as a 26-year-old in 1991 to study in the United States. A month after her departure, communism fell and her home city became St. Petersburg again.  

“I never felt oppressed,” she says on the Great Barrington campus of the American Institute for Economic Research. Smirnova is AIER’s director of education.

“Maybe from the outside you guys saw that there was all this brainwashing,” she says about her participation in communist youth groups such as the Pioneers and Komsomol.  “And probably it was, because we studied the texts of Marx and Lenin. But being in it, the activities there were fun.”

She also points out that many immigrants in the Berkshires from the former Soviet Union are Jewish refugees. Their experiences were very different.

“But since I was not Jewish I don’t know that side,” Smirnova says.  “I cannot speak to that.”

She grew up in a family of academics. 

“My grandma was the dean of students at Leningrad Electrotechnical University,” she says proudly. “That was very good, a woman in a male-dominated profession. 

“My mom and dad met at that university as students, and then they became professors there. So maybe I was in a little bit privileged environment with special features to my upbringing. Even though in the Soviet Union the salaries did not differ between a professor and a factory worker, obviously in academia it’s more creative and innovative than in a factory.”

Her childhood education was in an elite school with much of the curriculum in English.  She graduated from university with the equivalent of a doctorate in economics. She became a full-fledged Communist Party member and talks without any hesitation about organizing party activities in the department store where she worked. She received permission to further her studies in the United States.

“As a curious person I always wanted to study abroad,” Smirnova says. She continued in economics at City University of New York and Queens College. “I realized that the economics I studied in Soviet Union were completely different; much more political economy and statistics.”

She had fully intended to move straight back to Russia after completing her schooling in New York “to implement at home what I had learned.” But she met her future husband at CUNY.

“Love happened, life happened,” she says. She and her husband, Tom Connell, have three daughters, Valentina, 19, Anna, 17, and Treasa, 9. They live in Salisbury, Conn. 

Smirnova specializes in the education of economics. She is in charge of AIER’s programs for schools and colleges in the Berkshires to teach kids and young adults the ins and outs of money. “Take control of your finances” was the title of her similar presentation at the Berkshire Business and Professional Women organization.

“I am an economist by training, but an educator by passion,” she says.

Natalia Smirnova is less sure about how to define herself when it comes to “Russian” and “American.”

“This July 11, I had 26 years in America,” she says, “and I spent 26 years in Russia, so the same amount of time. And I am pondering, ‘Who am I actually? Am I Russian?  American?’ ”

“That’s always in the back of your mind,” she said. “All immigrants always wonder about that.”

She pauses and then mentions that her father, Viktor Smirnov, still feels that she would have been better off staying in Russia. She’s going back to St. Petersburg for a visit soon.

“Maybe when I show him this interview he’ll think differently,” she says. She laughs, but she seems serious, too.


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