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The Great High School Impostor
Photo of Daniel Riley
BY DANIEL RILEY
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAL CHELBIN
What Artur Samarin pulled off at a school in small-town Pennsylvania is one of the boldest hoaxes of our time.
Before putting the plot into motion, before the five-year masquerade, before the honors and the scholarships and the arrests and the deportation, before any of that, he rode into town on a Greyhound bus on a sleepy spring afternoon, marveling at how smooth the roads were all along the way. He'd come to a great distance—5,000 miles from Nova Kakhovka to Harrisburg. But it was a distance he'd collapsed in his mind time and again from his boyhood bedroom in the south of Ukraine, where he'd dreamed of the limitless opportunities he figured he could find only in the U.S. of A.
In America, Artur Samarin was sure, he could change his life forever—but he only had three months to pull it off. As a sophomore at his local university in Ukraine, he had interviewed for a slot in an American exchange program that permitted foreign university students to work summer service jobs in the U.S. Artur had always been an extraordinary student in un-extraordinary circumstances. And though his English was thin, he parroted his way through the application process and landed a coveted post manning the fryer at a Red Robin in South Central Pennsylvania for a few months.
The America Artur discovered after that initial buzzed-up ride into Harrisburg had its perks: clean buses, foliage in full bloom, delicious flame-broiled burgers. But it wasn't all that he'd hoped—at least not right away. It was expensive, more expensive than he'd expected. He was making $9.50 an hour, good money for home but less good in Harrisburg. The work was grinding. And it took a fair amount of time each day to get to the restaurant, over in the shadow of the Lightning Racer roller coaster at Hersheypark.
But in his rare slivers of free time, he would remind himself that this was the place where he might be able to pivot his fate for good. When he'd dreamed of America, it hadn't been so much for the movie stars or the big-box shopping as for the higher education, the academic opportunities, the engineering labs that gleamed in his visions. All his life it had been easy for Artur to pick up new material; his brain just seemed dialed up a little higher. But he'd felt limited in the classroom at home. And so an American university? American graduate school? He wanted to work for NASA someday. He wanted to be the first someone somewhere in the universe.
The way he'd envisioned it, he would show up to the States and save some money and enroll in a university that very fall. But he'd assumed the local colleges would cost what they do in Ukraine, a couple thousand bucks a year. He couldn't believe that they were asking for 10, 20 times that amount. That was more than he could make working full-time. And if he had to work full-time, where did school fit in? The paradox left him cold. The impossible bind left him panicked. He was already so lonely—no friends, work all day—and for what? The summer was flying, he was expected to depart in September. By mid-July, he realized anxiously, he was rapidly running out of time.
The housing unit he lived in, the Towne House apartments, was outsize in scale, 20 stories in a city where many structures are two, and almost certainly the most Ukrainian-looking building in Pennsylvania—a Soviet-seeming high-rise, garlic-colored and a little crunchy at the edges. Artur lived with other Work Travel students, but through some effortful socializing, he started spending time with a childless adult couple who took a shine to him. They asked him to dinner at their place now and again and developed a closeness. Artur gradually opened up and expressed his disillusionment with the realities of the exchange program—that much as he'd hoped it might serve as a springboard to college, it really was just a temporary tease of an American life. He couldn't go back home, but the blunt inevitability was setting in.
Which was around when an idea began to take shape between Artur Samarin and his new friends Stephayne McClure-Potts and Michael Potts. Later, Artur would relay the sequence of events as follows, although Stephayne and Michael dispute their alleged motivations—and only the three who sat at the table during those dinners in the summer of 2012 know the honest origins of the plot. And so: In order to help him out with his ultimate dream, Stephanie and Michael said they'd look into adopting Artur. They took his passport, filled out forms. They brought Artur along to a meeting with an attorney across the river. If they went through with it, they explained to him, he'd be able to stay in the U.S. To Artur, the gesture seemed unconscionably kind.
One thing they would ask of him in return, he says they said, was that Artur agrees to change his age. He was 19 at the time and thus too old, they explained, to be adopted. If they were to go through with this, he would have to change his birth date. And if he was going to change his birth date anyway, how would he feel about claiming to be a full five years younger than he was? Further, if they were to do him this solid, they would need for him to enroll in the local high school, too. With a dependent enrolled in the public-school system, they would receive a small payout from the Social Security Administration and attendant tax benefits, which would amount to fair recompense, he says they said, for the legal cover they were granting him.
The summer days were long, but they were running short. Artur knew that this was his one shot at sticking around. His one chance at engineering school and the moon-shot future that might launch. And so he agreed. They asked him to fork over the two grand he'd saved that summer, to help with the adoption paperwork. The last day of his J-1 visa came and went, and by the third week of September, he strolled through the neoclassical columns that stood up the front of the school, ready as he could be for his first day at Harrisburg High.
The first day of school, as it is for so many students, was an opportunity for Artur to be someone new. But he also knew that the best thing to do was simply blend in. He wore the shirt and jeans and sneakers he'd picked out to look like every other kid in town. He wore "false glasses" that he would later describe as an attempt at a dis-guise (rhymes with "sleaze"). He followed his schedule and took notes and didn't speak much. The idea was to look no more or less than the very central-casting image of the average American teen.
The things about him that raised questions—he wore suits and ties sometimes, he had an accent—were readily dismissed as the strangenesses of any new student. When someone would ask why he talked funny, Asher would tell them he grew up "in the Russian-Jewish neighborhood down by the river." When they asked where he'd been before ninth grade, he said he'd been homeschooled. When an instructor asked him why his name had changed to Asher Potts (he'd improbably started freshman year as Artur Samarin), Asher joked: "Because I'm a Russian spy." But for the most part, in the way of all high school students, the suspect details were mostly met with a shrug. American teenagers, to his great benefit, were naturally incurious. No oddity was worth paying attention to more than their own. And so he became one of them.
As the months, and then years passed, the student known as Asher Potts grew into himself, an ever more notable presence on campus. He got straight A's. He ate cafeteria lunches like anyone else. He became a Color Guard Commander in Navy JROTC. He trained a swim team of 10-year-olds at the YMCA. He whiled away cool evenings cruising around town with the close friends he had no trouble making, tagging along to his first football games. But downtime was sparing, there was so much work to be done.
He spent summers in the Upward Bound science and math program at Penn State, working in the university labs he'd long fantasized about. He sat on the school board as a junior representative. He took supplemental classes at the local university downtown. He received awards for academic achievement and community service and posed for pictures with local politicians. His sophomore fall, the mayor of Harrisburg even named a crisp October Sunday "Asher Potts Day."
“I loved America from the moment I heard a flight attendant say ‘Welcome to the United States, we’re really happy to see you,’ ” Artur said. “And I was like YES.”
He took dates to dances. He finished third runner-up in the homecoming court. He met a girl he said he loved. He aced standardized tests and added pins to his ROTC uniform. His GPA ballooned, and he rose to the top of his class. His mailbox filled with admissions materials from around the country. He visited Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and took a liking to its warm-weather campus and the scholarship package on offer. He was an academic standout, and funding found Asher like filings to a magnet. He was set on making contributions to the field of aerospace engineering. B.A. M.A. Ph.D. NASA. His was a gravity-defying ambition. He focused on slipping the bonds of his circumstances like a rocket to Mars.
The days and months and years of high school ticked by with acceleration. Just like that, he felt so much older, so very much on the verge of the thing, he'd dreamed about for so long. One day you're slunk low in your seat on the first day of freshman year, the next you're preparing to put the whole thing in the rearview and head off to college. After all, he didn't have much use for classrooms filled with kids anymore.
Then, on a freezing afternoon in late February 2016, three months short of graduation, his speech class was interrupted by two members of the Harrisburg Police Department, who entered his classroom and walked a wordless line to the desk belonging to the young man in the blue suit.
Lying awake in Nova Kakhovka, he'd promised himself that if he ever got the chance to reach the United States, he would never leave—he'd find a way. And for four years, he'd done just that. But he had always known there was a chance they'd come for him.
"Artur…," one of them said.
Which confirmed it for him. This wasn't a mix-up. He had questions—ones that the cops wouldn't answer. Not even as they cuffed him outside and lowered him into the back of their cruiser. And though he understood the shape of the trouble he was in, he couldn't have known the extent to which his actions over the previous four years—the things he'd knowingly, and unknowingly, done—would land him in a rare and consequential kind of American hell.
The arrangement between Artur and the Pottses had started out reasonably enough. He moved in with them. He changed his name, as anyone might after being adopted. He slipped into the fabric of the school and city without much trouble. The grades, the community achievements, the ROTC accolades, the extra coursework at the university. He had been a candidate for valedictorian. From the view of his teachers, administrators, and friends, he was a rare student succeeding beyond his circumstances and shone as an outlier of true promise from a high school that was counted among the worst in Pennsylvania.
His home life, however, had been more complicated. At first, when his academic achievements began yielding informational materials from colleges, Artur says, Stephanie and Michael were concerned about drawing such attention. They asked him not to send away for additional mail, and Artur explained it was coming unsolicited. When Stephanie and Michael learned that some of the colleges and programs were offering scholarship money, their scorn softened and they accompanied Artur on out-of-state trips for campus visits. Sometimes things were good—a teenager and his adopted parents. But often things were less good.
There was a suggestion that a sort of transference had occurred, a blurring of the lines between the real person and the fake, a sense that Artur Samarin actually was Asher Potts.
Artur says that he slept on a couch in a walk-in closet, "probably a little smaller than Harry Potter's." He made it his home, but sometimes he wanted out of his home, wanted away from Stephanie and Michael. If Artur didn't do their laundry, wash the dishes, or have dinner on the table, he says, he was casually threatened: Well, how 'bout we call immigration? He felt trapped and simply turned toward his schoolwork. He says the passport and documents he handed over when the adoption process was under way were confiscated by Stephanie. He says when he failed to complete his chores, Stephanie and Michael would sometimes hit him. And when things got especially hot, he would run away. When he did, they'd double down on their threats to expose his true identity to the police. So he'd return home, tail between his legs, succumbing to the realities of the arrangement and recognizing the living conditions as a necessary compromise until he was on his own at college.
(For their part, the Pottses have advanced a very different story about their years with Artur: "All we wanted was a child," Stephayne Potts said during her sentencing hearing. "Why couldn't God just give us one?… That was my son.… But everybody is trying to make it appear that we kept the money. For what? Everything we had, we used on this boy.… We loved him. I would never ever hurt him. I would never do anything to hurt this boy.… I enjoyed being a mother because that's all I ever wanted to be, was a mother." The attorney for Michael Potts added: "Samarin previously accused the Potts of enslaving him and subjecting him to physical abuse. By their account, he was treated very well, provided medical care, and was like a son to them. They supported his academic work and school activities.")
The back-and-forth was a game they played for three years. But in the winter of his senior year, feeling emboldened and fed up, Artur ran away for longer than he ever had before. He couldn't stand the threats any longer, the siphoning off of the little money he was earning. And so, steeled by years of defiance, he finally broke from Stephayne and Michael and moved in with a friend's family. Which is when Stephayne and Michael began to threaten him more overtly about going to the Harrisburg P.D. and exposing the true identity of the Ukrainian man who'd been living in their home.
They told authorities that they had adopted him but had never known his true age, and that in recent months things had changed, gotten out of control. He'd grown darker, violent, was saying things that kept them up at night, they said. This man was, they reported, even threatening to shoot up Harrisburg High. Not only, then, were they living with this illegal immigrant who was illegally imposing himself upon public-school children—they were now, they told police, living with a foreign terrorist.
Fake Honors Student
After his arrest, Artur was accused in the press of hatching an attack on his school. Dan Gleiter
Artur spent the first night in jail in the Harrisburg Police Department before being transferred to Dauphin County Prison. During those first few days, the graveness of his circumstances began to crystallize for him. Of course, he knew how he'd come to live the life he'd lived these past four years in Harrisburg, the masquerade he'd co-engineered, the pretenses under which he'd pulled it off and worked his way ever closer to the simple burning dream of admission to an American university. But he didn't yet understand the extent to which he'd faltered or the fact that the Pottses were accusing him of much more than just enrolling at the high school.
Artur had come to the United States legally, but by staying he had violated the terms of the visa. Enrolling in a state-funded high school was its own crime, one the state regarded as effectively stealing a public education. These charges would be threatened but ultimately not pursued. Where he'd fully fucked up was on two other fronts.
First, on the federal level: Artur had been taking courses at Harrisburg University, and his senior year, he was invited to take a spring-break trip to Iceland to do research on climate change. In order to make the trip, he needed a passport, and so he applied as any American student without a passport might, as the student he was: Asher Potts. The State Department had been processing the request when Artur Samarin was arrested. They quickly connected the dots and identified the passport fraud, a federal crime.
More significantly, though, authorities began looking into a relationship he'd had with a fellow student at the high school, a relationship that would've been appropriate if he was who he said he was (a 17-year-old boy with a 15-year-old girl) but was wholly inappropriate—and severely illegal—given his true age, exactly five years older than he'd purported to be in school.
Why Was Meek Mill in Jail?
Artur, who'd been charged with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, waited six months in jail for his trial to begin. During that time, his case was taken by a pair of local attorneys, Adam Klein and Clarke Madden, who worked to bring a counter-narrative to the surface: that while this young man had overstayed his visa and spent years in the country illegally, he was in the U.S. only with the best of intentions and had naively fallen prey to two American adults who had masterminded the plot that placed him in the high school. It would have been perfectly legal, for example, for the Pottses to adopt Artur as a 19-year-old adult; they'd misled him into thinking it was necessary for him to lie about his age. Artur was someone, more generally, Madden and Klein and several other members of the community told me, who evinces a desire to assimilate, a hardworking immigrant with industry and ambition and drive who had merely succumbed to unrelenting bad luck.
Not for nothing, these same people also fixated on how young-seeming Artur looked and acted. How much younger than his actual age, how easily he fit the role he was playing. There was a suggestion that a sort of transference had occurred, a blurring of the lines between the real person and the fake, a sense that Artur Samarin actually was that person, Asher Potts. It's a generous theory that obviously doesn't hold up legally. But there's more to the argument than there would be with your run-of-the-mill impostor or con artist. After all, Asher Potts was not just a name and Social Security number making credit card purchases or otherwise identity-thieving around. Asher Potts was a blood-and-bones individual who had to show up for high school every day to read the whiteboards, march in formation, write papers, take tests, lead food drives, draft admissions essays, and win scholarships. He—Artur Samarin—actually did all those things.
Those actions in and of themselves weren't fraudulent. He didn't cheat. He didn't manipulate scores and grades. He won the spotlight. And it is easy to understand how the wholesale embodiment of that avatar, that named being a whose body and brain you put to work each day, might play tricks on your sense of reality. How you might confuse that person for yourself, and yourself for that person.
But no matter who he thought he was, the fantasy clashed with cold consequential reality when he touched the girl.
Artur stayed in prison through the summer of 2016 and into the fall. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, he appeared before a judge and received his final sentencing. "I made a huge mistake to pursue my American dream," Artur said. He received 11.5 to 23 months in Dauphin County Prison for the sex charge, lowered during the proceedings to statutory sexual assault. Plus an additional two months in federal prison for the passport and Social Security fraud charge. (The alleged threats to attack the school were never substantiated—but they succeeded in dominating the media narrative and soured much of the community on him; FAMILY OF UKRAINIAN MAN WHO POSED AS STUDENT SAYS HE PLANNED TO ATTACK HIGH SCHOOL, announced a headline on Fox News shortly after his arrest.) In December, Artur was transferred to a federal prison in York County, Pennsylvania, to serve out his sentence and await his almost certain deportation.
Once he was in federal prison, it was up to ICE, and the moment ICE decided it was time, he was on a plane. For 14 months in prison, he had been reminded again and again that he was not Asher Potts, had never been Asher Potts, that he had been Artur Samarin all along. You are not an honors student, he'd been reminded. You are not a productive member of American society. You did not have a day named after you in the town where you lived—that day was named after someone else entirely.
He regarded the whole ordeal as a misunderstanding of his motives, as an inquisition. To be treated that way by the country he'd loved without complication until only recently, it broke his heart.
The ten-hour flight home might have been a final sloughing off of the skin of that person he'd pretended to be for four years. But it wasn't ever fully possible. Of course, that's me, he reasoned. I did all those things. Asher, c'est Moi, to ya.
He flew directly from JFK to Kiev, where he found his mother waiting for him in a sterile terminal plastered in the Cyrillic lettering of a language he'd long left behind. She was standing there at customs holding a stuffed bear and offering her arms for a wide-slung embrace. After five long years, the American experiment of Asher Potts was over. After five long years, Artur Samarin was home.
~~~~~~~~Arthur Samarin, sits safely for a picture while we close the borders with border patrols, ICE and National Guard among some, to stop 100 people waiting on the other side to come in legally and of which only 1-2% will pass the extensive background and interviews part of the checks to be legally entered as a worker or with someone with roots here or with proof they will be killed in their country.
Artur and I first spoke via Skype last July, two months after his return to Ukraine, when he was enjoying a lazy summer on the Dnieper River with old friends in Nova Kakhovka, "the same city where I was born, a post-Soviet city, in a post-Soviet country, pretty rough money-wise, hunger-wise, education-wise, everything-wise."
I had only seen pictures of Artur at that point, and subsequent to his deportation, we exchanged some notes and e-mails. The person sitting across from me on my computer screen was impish. He liked playing with his feathered blond hair. He boasted about his hacking skills and the computer processor he'd been monkeying with.
I couldn't tell from reports up to that point whether he was a whiz by the standards of a modest Pennsylvania high school or a genuine prodigy. But after those initial conversations, I was convinced by his big brain. He spoke fluently in English on any number of topics—engineering, math, science, computing, philology. His English was remarkably elastic, freewheeling between rote grammar and limbered-up slang. But the accent was Boris-and-Natasha thick. I couldn't believe people at school hadn't suspected he might not be from Harrisburg. This gave him the biggest laugh. He seemed to still not fully believe it, either.
He blitzed energetically from topic to topic until we settled in a place he was somewhat uncomfortable with but also enamored of: Russia and the U.S.-Russian meddling. During our first long conversations, he intimated that he might have the skills to participate in the hacking of that sort and that it might be nice to see some retribution for how he'd been treated in the American criminal-justice system. He gave me a lecture on Ukrainian and Russian identity, especially in the south of Ukraine. I would learn that while most people in the region speak Russian in the streets and at home, they still identify civically as Ukrainian.
The home was stunting, a new-old kind of prison. “No opportunities, no money, no areas to realize yourself,” he said. “A coal doesn’t want to be a coal, it wants to be a diamond.”
While incarcerated in Pennsylvania, he was visited by Ukrainian officials, who told him, he said, that there wasn't much that they could do to help. But in early July, two months into his new old life in Ukraine, Artur seemed pleased with his prospects. Ukraine had never been his ideal home, he said. And the United States had to spit him out. But fresh opportunities were available and things were looking up. He spoke to me those days with the confidence of someone who enters a salary negotiation with another job offer in his back pocket. He seemed to believe there might be something for him to do should he wish to do it.
I watched him in the window of my laptop, leaning back in his short-sleeve shirt. When he flipped his hair, he looked a little Assange-y. His nihilistic glee reminded me of the sort of cyber-villain whose fealty is pledged less toward the cause of a great nation than to the idea of fucking around for fucking around's sake. He was, in that sense, acting like a high schooler still.
But it was summer, and who could take things too seriously? He was going to go to the river in a minute, anyway. He was going to hang out with some old friends. The air was warm and light on the skin. He was simply filled with ideas the way a lot of people are filled with ideas in July—ideas they might take up in the fall once they're back to work. He would be enrolling at Kherson State University, his old school, again in September, picking up precisely where he'd left off, entering as a junior who'd simply taken a gap (five) year(s).
Still, his story felt unresolved. I couldn't decide what might become of Artur, and there was really only one way to rub the fog from the window, to understand with greater certainty what he might do with all those decimated dreams and that corrosive animosity toward the country he'd loved for so long. And so I decided I'd meet him in person—both the criminal and the victim—on his turf.
He liked this idea. He asked me if I was coming all that distance anyway, if I might bring him an iPhone. He'd pay for it, of course, but the taxes on the new X were horrible in Ukraine. Rational or not, my mind flashed to being interviewed by Robert Mueller about my implication in handing off the device that played a role in mucking up the 2018 midterms; I told Artur I thought it was a bad idea. He shrugged it off. He'd see me soon.
"Sleep tight 🛌, Mr. Daniel," he said. "Soon you are in Ukraine."
I met Artur in person for the first time in the courtyard of Kherson State University, near a bed of white rosebushes. He was wearing a blue pinstriped suit and shiny black shoes and a backpack filled with books. I pointed at him and he smiled and removed his sunglasses, and he greeted me as he customarily had in our e-mail exchanges and on the telephone and on Skype.
"Ah, Mr. Daniel. I don't believe it."
We spent the morning and afternoon on campus while he bounced from class to class. I was a sort of unscripted American show-and-tell, an unwitting envoy, and answered his classmates' questions about politics and journalism and the Justin Timberlake movie in which JT played an editor at GQ.
I asked Artur how much everyone at school knew about his five-year sabbatical. He said that most of the staff were aware but the majority of the students weren't. Those students hadn't been around his first time through, and besides, he didn't have much to gain from spending so much time on campus, he said. He'd already covered most of the material at the university level in Pennsylvania. He was "receiving straight A-pluses, never a B." And his English was better, he said that the English-language teachers'. Often they'd ask him how to pronounce this word or that. He seemed to be permitted to come and go as he pleased while he sucked it up and completed the final two years of his bachelor's degree. He still wanted to pursue a master's, then a Ph.D., "…then I get old and have grandkids, I guess," he said, laughing sadly. He still dreamed of the moon and of Mars, but the sound of his voice was reedier, resigned to the limitations he'd inadvertently imposed upon himself.
It was one of those grim October European dusks, and for dinner, we went to a restaurant that caters to an after-theater crowd. He hadn't been there in five years and remembered it nicer. He said the menu used to have pictures but now it had words, which displeased him because he's a visual learner. He wore the blue suit he'd worn to classes that day. He ordered for me in Russian and asked for a sweet Crimean wine. He asked if I'd ever eaten a bear. (He had, he said, "in those mountains in Colorado.") While he perused the menu further ("I love sea fish"), we talked about his time in Harrisburg again, a story I was familiar with by then. But he had a way of telling it fresh each time, annotated with entertaining footnotes. There was a softening to some of the languages, occasionally vivid turns of phrase, and, more generally, a wistfulness that had been absent during our first screen-to-screen conversations in the summer. He seemed straight-up drained.
"I loved America from the moment I heard a flight attendant say 'Welcome to the United States, we're really happy to see you,' " he said. "And I was like: YES. I saw those flat nice smooth roads, just wonderful, oh, my goodness. I was just like a piece of butter in a boiling pot."
He described the colleges he'd almost attended with a potent indignation: "I was accepted to hella a lot of places. I was just dreaming about this equipment, future inventions I would have thought of, conquering the moon, and go to Mars. But it's just sick, Mr. Daniel, it's sick, it's so sick it's not even funny. Losing that, it's the worst horror dream, a nightmare." Perhaps even worse than prison: "It was like hell, but squared, Mr. Daniel. It's impossible, it's hell. But being in prison was not the worst, it was being on the media. Colored in terrible, terrible paints. That was the worst part. I was heartbroken."
For all the tension between them, he wished the Pottses well: "I don't want to call them bad people, I forgave them, I wish them the best of lives."
By then, Michael and Stephayne Potts had been convicted for their part in the plot. Michael received two years of probation and Stephayne received five months in federal prison and two years of probation, after pleading guilty to charges of Social Security fraud and harboring an illegal alien. (Stephayne's sentence was greater due to previous convictions for fraud and theft by deception.)
While recalling particularly fond memories of his time in Pennsylvania, he'd say "Ahhhh," the sound of sipping a Coke in a commercial. "Ahhhh, oh, my God, everything in the world on a silver plate.…" Home, on the other hand, was stunning, a new-old kind of prison. The reality seemed to have set in with him during the intervening months that it might take nothing short of a miracle to get out again.
"It was so cool, Mr. Daniel, and look at me now.… I mean, it's not the worst place to be, I'm still around wonderful people, but no opportunities here. It's just…it's like being in the United Kingdom a thousand years ago, when they hadn't had Industrial Revolution, nothing. A just dirty place where people throw trash from their window. It's the same mentality over here," he said. "No opportunities, no money, no areas to realize yourself. And I just don't want to be… A coal doesn't want to be a coal, it wants to be a diamond."
His arrest and imprisonment had landed him in the Interpol database, he said, and likely left him blacklisted in Western countries, at Western universities. Schools in London, for example, weren't going to be taking their chances on him. It was counterproductive to even get too far down the line with it, he said, but he'd probably need to look at places like Dubai or Qatar. I asked him why not Russia. He said Russia was too cold, and besides Russians come first in Russia—it would be too great a challenge to fall behind those who'd already been set up in the system, who were already in line.
This surprised me. In the summer, Artur had seemed to regard the Russia-U.S. question very differently. He felt—perhaps justifiably, perhaps not—that the penalty far outweighed the crime in his case, and that the U.S. government, law enforcement, and prison system had treated him less like a college-age kid who'd fucked up than a legitimate threat to national security. I asked him if he was still angry about what had happened to him in the U.S. I reminded him of some of the things he'd said before about Russia and the U.S. He smiled sheepishly and said no, he wasn't as angry now, it had all just been very fresh at that point. Back then, he said, "I wanted Putin to come in and mess stuff up." But that was the anxiety of the circumstances—he'd mellowed out since.
“We have witches here,” Artur said. “I have seen them, and they say in two years I will return to the United States and will be a successful person with Ph.D. or whatever.”
Deep down he still dreamed of the U.S. He was in frequent touch with his friends. They sent him clippings of themselves in the local newspaper, tagged him in photos from back home (he appeared in an ad with his friends last fall for Lancaster's Field of Screams, looking teenage-ly innocent in a Penn State sweatshirt), and dropped cash in the mail (usually about a hundred bucks a month, collectively) that added up to more than his stipend at the university. "My friends, definitely, they don't let me down. This whole situation shows me who's my friends and who isn't, and I appreciate it." The affair was clarifying: "A bunch of fake people all around wear masks, and you don't know what they feel about you."
Despite his enduring aggravation over how he was treated after his arrest, he knows "that the police are not America, the government is not America." I think it was his way of saying that countries are not always the same as the people who live there; countries are not governments, countries are people. "Those friends of mine, they are America for me, and they're what makes America great. They're always asking when I'm coming back."
He regrets what he did, more emphatically each day. But he also understands, intellectually at least, why he was treated the way he was. "I mean, from a geopolitical point of view it makes sense because they have an immigration problem, they need to show the world that that's what they do with immigrants, but it's sick." He knows that he broke the law, he's sorry, and he feels like he paid for the crime. But unlike an American citizen, whose debt to society can be repaid and whose misdeeds can be papered over with a redemptive return to society, Artur knows that he will almost certainly never be welcomed back to the United States again—and this is the cloud that seems to follow him around every hour of every day.
"We have witches here," he said as we finished our wine. "Like witchcraft. In Kherson. I have seen them, and they say in two years I will return to the United States and will be a successful person with Ph.D. or whatever." He laughed. I suspected he didn't believe it, but it was something I figured he wouldn't have been telling me if it didn't hold at least some special power for him. "And I would only want to return to the United States if they said we did the wrong thing to you, publicly, and in the media, and return my scholarships to me. I will return, but only then."
After dinner, he walked me back through the streets of Kherson. His father had called while we were eating to make sure he was okay because there'd been violence in the streets recently. "Some criminal lord, he just got AK-47 and shoot this guy's car up," Artur said. "But I'm a student, you're an American—we're out of their games."
Due to the absence of streetlights, Artur lit our walk down a potholed road with his phone, and when we encountered a woman leading her dog around in the dark, it upset him. "She's crazy," he said, shaking his head. We got turned around and he cursed his command of the map of the city: "I don't even know what this is, I know even Harrisburg so much better than this place." Which seemed to compound the aggravation he'd expressed during dinner. He was happy here sometimes. He was frustrated here the rest of the time. He couldn't dwell on what he'd almost had if he ever intended to get it back.
The weather was fine that night, but there was a chill. He was already distressed about the winter that was coming—how it was going to be the worst they'd had in 15 years. How did he know? I asked. The onion farmers, he said. The onion farmers know that after a very hot summer comes a very cold winter; they can predict it by looking at the onions and the "layers of skins." He missed the moderate autumns of Harrisburg. He lived for the care packages from his friends—the American dollars, the letters, the clippings from the local newspaper. Life is okay here. Life is better there. America is people. America is his friends. Sometimes he'll be going along, waiting for some basic service to transpire, and just be overwhelmed by his authentic American impatience: This would never happen there. It's a part of him now and will be forever.
Before we split off for good and he disappeared into an underground tunnel, he floated one final thought: "Maybe this story will help me with witch prediction.…"
He sighed like someone who knew the road ahead was daunting, busted up as they come in his country. Maybe he was thinking one last time about his home of five years, the place that had granted him so much opportunity. The place of infinite lab equipment, and affordable sneakers, and iPhones that don't come heavily taxed. The place of moon shots and funded climate-change research and dreams worth dreaming of being the first someone somewhere. The place that had for all time promised second chances to its citizens, only he wasn't ever truly one of those.
We'd spent a lot of time at dinner talking about places he might go instead to find that second chance, to continue his pursuit of an advanced degree. We talked about Israel and South Africa and Mexico and Brazil. He liked all those ideas because they weren't E.U., and they weren't Russia or China, and they all had decent reputations, and they were far from the cold that the onions portended. He liked some options better than others. But no matter how hard he tried to demonstrate enthusiasm, they were ghostly flavors in his mouth compared with what he'd tasted in the United States, the feast he'd been served on his "silver plate."
I wanted to tell him that there was lots of time to get things back on course. That Ph.D.'s take forever, anyway. That there were many, many years to figure such matters out. I decided against saying so, though, because I didn't feel confident it would make him feel better instead of worse. In any case, I was convinced that he would be okay. He had his ambition, he had his gumption, he had his youth. He was still young, after all. Just not as young as he'd been.
Daniel Riley is GQ's features editor.
This story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue with the title "The Great High School Impostor." It has been updated here to account for information that came to light after publication.