Glasnost grows in Brooklyn

One sign that this year’s race for the 46th Assembly District of New York was a little different than usual was the alleged involvement of the Kremlin. Ari Kagan, a 39-year-old journalist running for the state seat from Brooklyn, suggested that Moscow had a man in the race — that is, his opponent, Alec Brook-Krasny, who supports dialogue with the Kremlin. Although Moscow’s backing of the 48-year-old former head of an umbrella group of Russian-Jewish organizations was never substantiated, the Kagan campaign’s accusation galvanized the electorate. The 46th includes most of Brighton Beach, a two-square-mile Brooklyn enclave that, since the 1970s, has been home to Soviet and post-Soviet Jewish émigrés, a group you would expect to have special sensitivity to puppet candidates and fifth-column conspiracies. But there was more to come. In August, during a debate on RTVi, a Russian-language TV channel, Brook-Krasny produced a startling suggestion of his own — namely, that Kagan had ties to the former KGB, one of the less redeemable stigmas in a community that used to live in fear of the organization. All of a sudden, Moscow on the Hudson took on a whole new meaning.

This fall’s election was unusual for another reason. For the first time, the contenders for the 46th, which also includes Coney Island, were both Russian-speakers, assuring the Brighton Beach Russians their highest-ever elected official. Demographics partly explain this. Between 1990 and 2000, the Russian community more than doubled in size; today, some 500,000 Russian-speakers live in the New York area. They are one of the city’s highest-earning and most educated groups. According to Press Release Group, a market research firm that studies the Russian-American community, one out of every ten retail dollars spent in New York comes from Russian-speakers, including visitors from Russia. So the race between Kagan and Brook-Krasny was supposed to mark a maturing community’s accession to political power. But it became so conflicted that it turned into a referendum on the community itself. Material success aside, was the community’s grasp of the American civic ethos firm enough to warrant political clout? Or were many Russian-Americans still struggling to unlearn the instincts instilled by the privations of their Soviet lives?

On a late July afternoon, both candidates were campaigning on the boardwalk that connects Brighton to Coney Island, the legendary oceanfront strip whose impending billion-dollar reconstruction will likely be overseen by the next state assemblyman and his colleagues in the local Democratic establishment. (This part of Brooklyn is so overwhelmingly Democratic that the general election in November tends to be a formality.) Nearby, Radio VSE, one of the community’s two Russian-language radio stations, was hosting a boardwalk party. “I used to be quite far from politics,” Aleksandr Shvarts, one of the station’s owners, was saying from a makeshift stage. “But I registered just to be able to vote for Ari Kagan.” He pointed to a tall man grinning broadly near the stage. “Ari isn’t getting into politics to stuff his pockets full of money!” Shvarts was alluding to Brook-Krasny’s backers. Kagan regularly derided them as wealthy Russian-American transplants to Manhattan and New Jersey who merely wanted to assure themselves access to business opportunities on Coney Island.

Soon, Brook-Krasny, a bearish man with a sleepy gaze, wandered over and sneered in Kagan’s direction. For Brook-Krasny, who had been endorsed by the entire local Democratic establishment, Kagan was a political novice. “I’ve registered 4,000 of the 6,200 Russian Democrats in the district,” he said. “Journalists only describe things, but politicians have to make them happen.”

Brook-Krasny was placing himself in the latter category because he has run for neighborhood office twice before. Both bids were unsuccessful, but inexperience was only part of the reason. For years, it seemed as if the Brooklyn Democratic establishment was working to marginalize Russian candidates and voters — or so it appeared to a community with more experience in disenfranchisement than in the byways of American politics. In 2000, Brook-Krasny ran against a former teacher named Adele Cohen, but he was disqualified by a clubhouse judge appointed by the machine backing Cohen. The following year, Brook-Krasny lost a City Council Democratic primary to a school board member named Domenic Recchia, but another Russian speaker, a gynecologist and longtime Republican activist named Oleg Gutnik, managed to take 43 percent in the general election — “the highest total for a Republican in this area since Abraham Lincoln,” Gutnik claimed with some pride. Startled by the community’s voting power and indifference to party allegiance, Recchia managed to redistrict 5,000 Russian-speakers out of his jurisdiction.

This year, however, in an acknowledgment of the Russian community’s growing influence, Recchia campaigned with Brook-Krasny. “The existing powers realized they have to let a Russian get elected so that the community doesn’t start to resent them,” Gutnik explained. “According to my sources, there was a meeting between the local Democratic politicians, and a decision was made to allow Russians to run and win.”

Having been turned away for years, the Russian community is eager for office. But politics is an art of platforms and alliances, and the community doesn’t really have either. Brighton’s Russian Jews are, for the most part, resolutely secular and remain distant from American Jewry, with its premium on ritual and religious identity. Mainstream American life elicits equally little curiosity — in fact, the unofficial Brighton Beach motto is “we don’t go to America,” that is, outside Brighton.

Community activists ascribe this to the lingering poison of the Soviet years — a set of insecurities that Russians never vanquished after arriving in the United States. “We brought the baggage of distrust — toward politics, toward government,” Gene Borsh, who has organized voter-education programs for Russian-Americans, explained. “The result is this terrible apathy. What will my vote change?” He summed up the communal affliction as “pofigism,” a one-of-a-kind Russian neologism that roughly translates as “I-don’t-give-a-shit-ism.” Borsh’s colleague Marina Belotserkovsky described it as trepidation before the unknown that became expressed as disdain: “We stand apart–we don’t get involved in the things these [native] idiots do.” She said the feeling remains trenchant. “The community has no self-confidence. They’re economically successful, well-educated, their children are in the best colleges; but that education is combined with an inner elitism, which makes it difficult to admit that there are things they simply don’t know.”

So, although Russian-Americans are one of the city’s most prosperous groups — close to 70 percent have a bachelor’s degree, and the average household earns $51,000 — they are also perhaps its most politically confused. Many Brighton Beach residents originally registered as Republicans in the 1980s, sometimes out of gratitude toward Ronald Reagan and his hard line on communism. And Russian-Americans remain drawn to seemingly unwavering leaders like George W. Bush, who garnered 75 percent of the New York Russian vote in 2004. But many immigrated to the United States with elderly parents who required subsidized housing and health care — the métier of Democrats–and, by the late ’90s, two-thirds of Russians in New York were registered as Democrats. (Even as Democrats, though, the Russians represent a uniquely conservative strain. During a debate on RTN, another Russian-language TV station, Brook-Krasny praised Senator Joseph McCarthy for discrediting communism in this country. Mark Golub, the American-born network president who happened to be hosting the program, subjected him to an embarrassing lecture.)

And the Russian-speaking community hasn’t quite grasped some of the basics of campaigns, elected office, or the ethical boundaries officials (all citizens, in fact) must observe. In its quest for political literacy, Brighton Beach occasionally has been poorly served by the Russian-language press from which the community obtains the majority of its news, and, more importantly, translations of its adopted culture. A newspaper called Novoye Russkoye Slovo, which has existed for nearly a century and can fairly claim to be the community’s most professional news source, didn’t even mention in its reverential profiles of Brook-Krasny that he had a competitor. Brook-Krasny published advertorials masquerading as objective newspaper coverage in sympathetic publications. Kagan, for his part, appeared on a radio show that happened to be hosted by his p.r. consultant. This wasn’t disclosed during the interview, during which the p.r. man lobbed flatteries and softballs at Kagan. With this kind of example, perhaps it’s no surprise that Novoye Russkoye Slovo has received letters addressed to President Bush asking for help in obtaining a desired apartment.

The community’s perplexity about the subtleties of American civic engagement was painfully evident back on the boardwalk, where Kagan was cornered by a scrum of elderly women in bright lipstick and nail polish.

“Ari, we came here all the way from Bensonhurst” — another Russian area in a neighboring district–“to tell you we are going to vote for you!” one of the women beamed.

“You can’t,” Kagan replied. “You can only vote for candidates in your own district. But you should still register.”

The woman’s face darkened. “What do you mean, we can’t vote for you?!” she said, her voice rising. “This is democracy? I don’t like this kind of democracy.”

The candidates had a unique opportunity to enlighten their compatriots about the mysteries of Jeffersonian democracy, but, frequently, they chose to mine communal anxieties instead, as in the conspiracy-mongering about Kremlin influence. Brook-Krasny implied that Kagan had belonged to the KGB because he had attended a Soviet military-political college that, according to the reminiscences of unnamed alumni, graduated only propaganda specialists and informers. Kagan denied the accusation, but newspapers supporting Brook-Krasny reprinted it as if it were fact.

Kagan, in turn, tarred Brook-Krasny as a proxy of the Kremlin. Since becoming president, Vladimir Putin has trumpeted the importance of converting Russian émigrés to ambassadors willing to lobby for Russian interests abroad. Last October, the Russian Foreign Ministry created a special department for émigré outreach, which has hosted receptions for and lavished awards on New York’s Russian-American émigré leaders. (According to Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a retired KGB lieutenant colonel, the Russian foreign intelligence service has a parallel section.) Brook-Krasny has been receptive to Russian officials, ostensibly in the name of dialogue. But he appeared naive to many in the community, when, after an attack on a Moscow synagogue earlier this year, he lobbied local community leaders to refrain from protesting in front of the Russian consulate in New York. (The Russian government had responded responsibly, he explained on the radio, adding, “To my mind, the better our relations with the Russian government, the better for Russian Jews [in Russia].”)

Kagan feels that the Putin government is Soviet-style authoritarianism, only by another name, and he regards the Russian government’s overtures with contempt. But Brook-Krasny and his backers see an opportunity. “Ari is calling for another cold war,” Gregory Davidzon, a radio-station owner who backed Brook-Krasny, says. “I don’t approve of Russian politics. But we must maintain contact and use all our resources to influence Russian policy.”

Most in the local Russian-American community are with Kagan. “Why are we dealing with these people?” Alec Teytel, the president of a local business club, said during a Kagan fund-raising concert in August at the Millennium Theater, Brighton’s main concert hall. “It’s sad that these people are trying to get back in the graces of the Russian government.” Irina Shmeleva, a freelance p.r. consultant who was standing nearby, shrugged: “We all remain Soviet citizens to one degree or another.”

For the Russian-speaking community, this realization has been the sour note of an otherwise triumphant milestone: Russians aren’t sure what they stand for, or even whom they stand with. In the meantime, Soviet habits persist. On September 12, nearly 5,600 voters in the 46th trooped to the polls. At the end of the day, Kagan clearly won a majority in Brighton. But Brook-Krasny was the eventual winner, by just over 100 votes. At Brighton’s main voting station, a gym at the Shorefront YM-YWHA, a Russian-speaking woman was turned away because she wasn’t properly registered. She turned to me and said with a wink: “You’ll vote for the both of us, won’t you, sonny?”

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