Maksim and Valentin Chmerkovskiy now star on one of the biggest TV shows in the United States, but growing up in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, the future Dancing with the Stars pros had little exposure to Western culture.
American goods like a “a pair of jeans or a cassette tape” were rarities, Maks says in the current issue of PEOPLE.
After the fall of the USSR, the brothers’ father, Aleksandr, started a lucrative retail business but “knew that could be taken away at any moment,” says Maks.
When the business burned down in what the family believes was a mafia arson attack, they immigrated to the U.S. Maks was 14 and Val was 8 when they moved to New York City. Within eight months, the family went through their entire savings.
“My dad had two college degrees but came here and was boxing pizzas,” says Val. “He was willing to pay his dues for the opportunity to live here and breathe this air.”
Maks was mugged for his Rollerblades on his second day in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and both brothers recall being bullied because of their accents and last name.
“We had challenges,” says Val, who is currently competing with Fifth Harmony’s Normani Kordei. “But we never let it chip away at the gratitude we felt for the opportunities we had.”
For more from the Chmerkovskiy brothers, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now
The tragic events at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 had a significant impact on the new American family — especially Val.
“I watched the buildings go down on 9/11. I saw how much that impacted our country,” says Val, who began ballroom dancing in the USSR and won world titles on behalf of the U.S. “I wanted to provide not only for my family but my country.”
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And being immigrants gave the brothers a work ethic that brought them success. Encouraged by his father, Maks opened his first dance studio at the age of 16 and now runs a chain of studios with Alexandr and DWTS‘ Tony Dovolani. But Maks admits that work ethic can translate as abrasive in his most high-profile gig.
“I was very hard on Tia Carrere my first season on DWTS,” says Maks, who is currently competing with former Glee star Heather Morris. “But I knew if we lasted longer, we got paid more, and my legs were helping pay for Val’s lessons and my family’s bills.”
“I’ve never felt like this country owed me anything. If anything, I am forever in debt to this country,” adds Val. “I’m very aware of the political rhetoric surrounding immigrants right now, but they come here to contribute and are the backbone of this country — and that’s why we are the megapower we are.”
Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays (8 p.m. ET) on ABC.