Diary

Peter Pomerantsev

When Eddie Petrovsky, a Russian immigrant, opened his restaurant Cosmos in the traditionally Italian area of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, the locals all assumed he was a gangster. ‘They think any Russian who drives a Lexus has to be mafia. The whole gangster thing was way back, in the 1990s, but they can’t believe Russian immigrants could make it by just working hard.’ Eddie, it has to be said, looks like a friendlier version of Tony Soprano – but his main source of income is a valet parking business serving Hasidic weddings. He arrived in the US from Siberia in 1990, a 22-year-old straight out of university, part of the post-Soviet influx. He spoke fast, driving through Brooklyn with a phone in each hand and answering them on loudspeaker as he talked to me. ‘Americans have lost their way,’ he said. ‘They don’t have the challenges any more and they don’t appreciate what they’ve got. Russians arrive here with nothing but a little suitcase, look round at America and think: Wow! I can have all that?’

The US is home to some 6.5 million Russian-language immigrants, 1.6 million of whom live in the New York Tri-State Area. Most arrived broke in two waves of immigration, in the 1970s and then the 1990s, but now they’re one of the most successful immigrant groups in the city, outstripping even the Chinese in median income. Politicians are suddenly waking up to the power of the ‘Russian vote’ and – a sign of the big time – a reality TV show was recently made about them. (It was called Russian Dolls, and in the first episode a wife asks her husband for some money to go shopping. ‘How much?’ he asks. ‘This much,’ she says, opening her thumb and forefinger as wide as they will go.) The community’s point of reference is still Brighton Beach, where you won’t get far without Russian, but ‘Little Russia’ is taking over neighbouring areas and has outgrown the old image of greasy pirozhki stalls, pensioners playing chess on the boardwalk and tacky rag merchants. On Sheepshead Bay, once home to some of the best trattorias in New York, Russians are opening restaurants with names like Tzar and Baku Palace, and shopping at marble-floored food halls embellished with gold paint. On Manhattan Beach modest wooden houses have been demolished to make room for Russian mini-palaces. In Bensonhurst and as far away as Queens, gleaming Russian hypermarkets are popping up. The older communities grumble: Russians are either vulgar arrivistes or inherently shady. But the Russians see themselves as the latest incarnation of the American dream.

I went to Cosmos for a party celebrating NTV, one of the three TV networks, two radio stations and five newspapers serving the Russian community in New York alone. Little Russia’s business elite was out in force. There were immigration lawyers, luxury car dealers, fur-coat salesmen, jewellery moguls and construction kings. There were also plenty of doctors – Little Russia’s aristocracy. Many of the guests were Jewish, though identifying themselves as such had less to do with religion than a common memory of being outsiders in the institutionally anti-semitic Soviet Union. Everyone spoke Russian, with the occasional hybrid term: ‘boychik’ (lad), ‘professional kidalo’ (a backstabber in business). ‘When I first came to the US as a teen we lived in the Midwest,’ a popular Russian radio DJ at the party told me. ‘I was embarrassed by Russian, its sound would irritate me, I would beg my mom not to speak it on the street. But when I moved to New York I discovered you were looked down on if you didn’t speak Russian.’

The men wore power suits and shiny shirts, the women sparkly dresses and stilettos, all fitting the image of success current when they arrived in the early 1990s. Cosmos was kitted out in a style from the same period: all chrome and dark blues and blacks, with a dance floor that lit up in time to the music. There was a stage for a revue show and long dining tables surrounding the dance floor. The tables were laid out with piles of grilled fish, caviar, meat, vats of Russian salad. Sushi was on the menu too, but served in mountains like pelmeni. Food matters. When my grandparents, who emigrated to Brighton Beach in 1980, sent photos of themselves to friends back in Kiev it was always in front of a table full of food.

The great pull of Cosmos was the view. On the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in Bay Ridge, it had wraparound windows from which you could see all the way from Coney Island over the Verrazano Bridge and out to the distant pinpricks of light from Manhattan. Bay Ridge is the furthest point of the Russian expansion in Brooklyn, the frontier of success. It was the view that persuaded Eddie to invest, though he had to max out all his credit cards in the process. Ever since he arrived in the country he had dreamed of a place like this. He started out as a driver in a car service. Within a few years he ran the firm. ‘The Americans would work eight-hour days. Eight-hour days: can you imagine working that little? What are you going to achieve in eight hours?’ At any one moment he has a series of projects on the go. ‘There’s the Chippendale dancers. The bus service between New York and Canada. The modelling school. Selling Russian cars on the US market. I’m trying to get Bill Clinton involved in a green project converting waste to energy: a friend of a friend was at college with Hillary.’

Everyone you meet in Little Russia seems to have another business on the side. At the Cosmos party, doctors I talked to turned out to have a line in real estate; the lawyers were also importing wine; the waiters were music impresarios who could fix you up with cartons of knock-off Viagra. Many, including Eddie, play professional poker: an upcoming poker event in Atlantic City is billed as ‘Russia v. The Rest of the World’.

In the middle of the party, dressed in a white suit with wide lapels, matching shirt and handkerchief in his breast pocket, his large hands covered in rings, was an elderly man carrying a Louis Vuitton briefcase. At every opportunity he glanced at his reflection in a mirror, fixing up the curl in the fringe of his white hair. This was Volodya Belyavsky. ‘I like to describe myself as a business personality,’ Volodya said. Within minutes of meeting you he will have opened up his case and brought out one of his business plans: are you interested in a new credit card scheme? No? How about investing in homeopathic erection drops? Or in his scheme to turn the pleasant but somewhat tatty stretch of sand at Brighton Beach into the New York Riviera? ‘You have to imagine it,’ Volodya said. ‘Instead of pensioners slouched on towels there will be lackeys bringing you cocktails on your stretcher. The elite will come from across the world. There will be yachts in the harbour. It will be like Rio de Janeiro: the Copacabana.’ Volodya claims he already has support from senators and congressmen: he showed me the signatures on the letters in his bag. All he needed, he said, was a little seed money to get the project going.

When Volodya speaks he looks a little past you, into an empty space where he seems to see all his schemes already fulfilled. He is one of the original wave of Russian-Jewish immigrants who arrived in Brooklyn in the late 1970s. He came from Odessa, the USSR’s freest and most black-market town, a port that welcomed ships from beyond the socialist bloc. As a teenager Volodya would row out in a dinghy to the boats in the harbour, swapping Russian caviar for Turkish cigarettes and Greek suits. When the Odessans came to New York they were drawn to Brighton Beach: the seaside location reminded them of home and the area had some of the lowest rents in the city.

‘It was a different place then,’ Volodya said. ‘Brighton was ruled by black gangs: they sold drugs on the boardwalk, lived in slum housing. They didn’t want us here. I had to wear a bulletproof vest under my shirt, we all did. You had to keep it on when you went out to restaurants. Imagine going dancing in that.’ Those early years are Little Russia’s foundation myth. ‘We patrolled our stores and restaurants,’ Volodya said. ‘Everyone carried a gun. And they soon learned not to mess with the Russians. They had thought we were soft Jews – they forgot we had all served in the Soviet Army.’ Others tell the story a little differently. The main way they got the older communities out was by buying up the slum housing and raising the rents.

Volodya’s first scam was as a taxi driver picking up visitors from JFK. On the drive into the city he would pretend he was partly blind: could the passenger tell him what was going on down his left flank? He would swerve about the road, making out he could barely drive. The passengers would panic and jump out, leaving him at least part of the agreed money, and much more than he would have got for the small drive he had taken them on. But that was just the start.

When some Bukharian Jews wanted to set up a pirozhki chain Volodya persuaded them he owned the exclusive patent for trading pirozhki in New York. To American antiques dealers taken with the mystique of Russian immigrants he sold fake Fabergé eggs, as well as Napoleon’s pantaloons, which he claimed had been left behind after the 1812 siege of Moscow. He rented an office for a week and put an advert in a local paper: ‘Rights available to build toll booths on the Brooklyn Bridge’. Some recently arrived Arabs responded. Volodya showed them the blueprints, his ‘rights’ to the bridge. The Arabs had big plans, they wanted to build more toll booths than there was room for. ‘I’ll have to see whether I can lobby that through with my senator friends,’ Volodya said. He got them to pay a small down payment, thirty thousand dollars or so, then took the next plane to Miami. The Arabs came looking for him, combing Brighton Beach threatening revenge. But after a while they gave up. Thirty thousand dollars was significant money in 1985 but not enough to have someone whacked, and the Brighton Russians made it clear they would retaliate if Volodya was attacked. Six months later it was safe to return.

The Brooklyn Bridge affair helped Volodya to his ultimate goal: an apartment in one of the buildings looking out onto the boardwalk and the ocean. I went to see him there. The building may once have been prestigious but now Volodya’s apartment was at the end of a long, black, mouldy corridor smelling of stewed cabbage. His walls were yellow with cigarette smoke, the main room empty apart from a huge plasma TV. He lives alone. A wardrobe ran the length of one wall. Volodya beamed when he opened it: inside was a selection of white suits worthy of a billionaire. ‘From a guy I know at Bloomingdales, the real thing,’ he insisted – ‘stolen’ always sounds better than ‘fake’.

Volodya’s projects are now all strictly kosher. But he still dines out on his conman stories. At Cosmos he was seated at the most privileged table, along with the pillars of local society. ‘Davai, Volodya: tell us the one about the Brooklyn Bridge again!’ For the new generation of Russian businessmen he is something of a mascot, representing the spirit of the original Brighton. ‘He’s just like Ostap Bender,’ Eddie said. ‘You can’t help but admire the guy.’

Ostap Bender is the protagonist of Ilf and Petrov’s 1920s and 1930s satirical novels The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf, considered by Nabokov the most important Soviet novels. Bender is the archetypal Soviet picaresque hero. Immaculately dressed in a jacket and scarf and his famous white trousers, always carrying a small brown suitcase, Bender charms, bullshits and blags his way across the USSR, refusing to play by the rules. Arriving in a provincial town he persuades the locals he is a chess grandmaster who will make their town the chess capital of the world, then the capital of the USSR and eventually the world: all this to extract 31 roubles he could just have nicked. But mere stealing is beneath him: it’s the showmanship that counts. In his jacket pocket he carries a newspaper clipping about the city he dreams of escaping to, Rio: ‘Imagine 1.5 million people listening to the Charleston and every one of them wearing white trousers,’ Bender sighs.

It’s the return of the repressed Soviet entrepreneurial urge that unites Little Russia – a misleading term, given that many of its inhabitants come from Lithuania, Georgia, Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan. Here they are united: the US is the last place where Soviet cross-national bonds endure, strengthened by a shared hatred of the system they left behind and informed by a black-market Soviet vision of capitalism, in which the state is always the greatest enemy. Everywhere in Little Russia you hear a version of the familiar lament: ‘America is becoming socialist. All these new taxes, all these new licences: this isn’t the country we came to, it’s becoming like the USSR.’

This quasi-libertarian attitude is leading to changes in New York’s voting patterns. Immigrants have traditionally voted Democrat but the Russians are an exception. In 2008, when Obama won the overall New York vote two to one, the community voted 55 per cent for McCain. Last year they helped Bob Turner become the first Republican to win the South Brooklyn NY-9 Congressional District since 1921. Turner courted the Russian vote, speaking directly to their concerns and engaging community leaders to help soapbox on the street. Russian affection for the Republican Party is strengthened by nostalgia for Ronald Reagan as the man who stood up to the Soviet Union. The Republican claim of being defenders of true American values finds an echo here.

At the same time there is also something opportunistic, something a little Ostap Bender, about the ‘Russian vote’. The same community leaders who helped get Turner elected were this year campaigning for a Democrat in a local election: ‘Friends, in 2011 we flexed our muscle and elected a Republican,’ announced Gregory Davidzon, the owner of a local radio station and known as the Kingmaker of Little Russia. ‘Now the Republican Party has disrespected us by drawing new electoral lines that divide and hurt our community. We must teach them a lesson they will not forget. Remember: not one Russian vote for the Republicans!’ The community has now produced two Russian-born elected officials: a Democrat state assembly member, Alec Brook-Krasny, and a Republican state senator, David Storobin. ‘It took the Greeks two generations to produce one elected politician,’ a local journalist told me proudly. ‘We have two already and they were both born in Russia.’

‘Russians think they own everything,’ said Bella Rappaport, the woman at the party attracting the most male attention: she didn’t mean it in a good way. A single mother, she had to give up her bookkeeping job so she could look after her two young daughters. Now she has a small flower-selling business she can run largely from home. Her little bungalow at the end of Sheepshead Bay has flowers everywhere: lilies in the bath, roses in the kitchen sink, hyacinths in pots and pans. It’s a surprisingly tough business: ‘The other day I had my tyres slashed by rivals. They don’t want me to sell flowers on their territory. That’s the way things work round here. Flowers I like: Russians less so.’ Bella employs a few young girls to carry her bouquets round Little Russia’s restaurants and clubs, selling them to diners. She often goes with them to make sure they don’t get hassled. ‘Russian men think they’re God’s gift. But look at those paunches.’

Out on the dance floor the guests were in high spirits, dancing the twist to Michael Jackson songs performed with a Russian accent by a local singer. The men had taken their jackets off and their shirts were tight. ‘You know what Russians mean when they say they oppose the state?’ Bella asked. ‘It means they can screw it over.’ As a bookkeeper she saw first hand Little Russia’s illicit side. In a favourite scam, doctors throw parties for pensioners: there’s tea and cake, maybe some dancing. The pensioners are asked to sign papers confirming their presence: they do so willingly, not noticing the declarations of expensive medical treatment the papers also contain – which the doctors then claim off Medicare. A quarter of the population are ‘seniors’ here, more than twice the Brooklyn average. ‘Unless there’s another wave of immigrants from Russia,’ Eddie said, ‘there won’t be any Brighton in ten years’ time. It’s propped up by pensioners. My children won’t even speak to me in Russian.’

For all its pride and success there is something very fragile about Little Russia. Other immigrant communities, the Italians for example, pass on their traditions through religion, notions of family, an imperative to marry inside the community. But the Soviet Union was so successful in eradicating the core traditions of Russian culture that there’s very little to pass on to the next generation apart from culinary sentimentality. Many Russian immigrants have turned to Judaism, some even to Russian Orthodoxy, but these are identities they have adopted since arriving in America. There’s no stigma attached to marrying out: if anything, it’s encouraged, so long as the spouse-to-be is a white Caucasian. ‘I don’t want my kids to grow up here,’ Bella said. ‘I want them to be normal Americans.’ She saw it as a failure that she hadn’t left.

Walk down Brighton Beach Avenue and you’ll see that between the glossy stores selling Russian speciality foods there are now cheap but buzzing Turkish hairdressers, Indian groceries, Chinese nail parlours. These are the newest immigrants, the ones just off the boat. Russians have stopped coming in big numbers – there’s just a steady stream known as the ‘J-1s’. J-1s are non-immigrant visas issued to students. Many try to extend their visas into more permanent ones, and the term ‘J-1’ has become a synonym for pretty Russian girls allegedly desperate to stay in America. ‘You must come to such-and-such a party,’ Little Russia Romeos tell me, ‘it’ll be full of J-1s.’ The J-1s live in crowded apartments, sleep on mattresses and are regularly ripped off by landlords. A few lucky ones get to help Bella sell flowers: she gives them free board at her house and they babysit the kids in return. One of them, Oksana, a psychology student in Lvov, was at Cosmos carrying bouquets in a basket like Eliza Doolittle. She was born in 1992, and is bemused by Little Russia. ‘It’s so Soviet. Or what I imagine the Soviet Union was like. Lvov is so much more European and modern.’

No J-1s I have met want to have much to do with Little Russia. Xenia, from Vladivostok, with stints as a dancing girl in Tokyo and Singapore, had no qualms telling me she was on a mission to find a rich Russian boyfriend. But she wouldn’t dream of choosing one in South Brooklyn. She hangs out in Manhattan, where oligarchs straight from Moscow are increasingly congregating now that London is a little bit ‘done’. Mikhail Prokhorov, recently ousted as the second richest man in Russia, has bought the New Jersey Nets. A Russian fertiliser magnate has bought the most expensive apartment on the Upper West Side – that’s $88 million – for his daughter. Café Pushkin, the glamorous Moscow restaurant, is opening a branch near Central Park. For their part the inhabitants of Little Russia are struck with some sort of cognitive dissonance when they see the newly arrived Russian rich. Most of the immigrants who came in the early 1990s came to escape poverty. And they’ve done well, but it’s a success measured in hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. And suddenly it turns out that if you’d stayed in Russia you could have made billions.

As the party at Cosmos wound down, a group headed to the Brighton Beach boardwalk for a last round. Downstairs, Volodya’s car had been ticketed for illegal parking. He laughed and ripped up the ticket. ‘Can’t they see I’ve got a diplomatic permit?’ He showed me a piece of card he had stuck on the dashboard: ‘Diplomatic Parking Permission Granted by President Nelson Peña of the Dominican Republic.’ ‘I’m very good friends with the President of Dominica,’ Volodya explained. ‘He wants me to set up a satellite TV channel in his country.’

We drove back fast along the Belt Parkway, away from Bay Ridge and the Verrazano Bridge and back to the heart of Little Russia. On the boardwalk the restaurants were still going strong, filled with Russians but also hipster Williamsburg types who had come to Brighton to peer at the local Russian fauna. Our group was just the sort of thing they were looking for: Volodya in his great white suit, the doctors in check jackets accompanied by glossy women in furs. We took tables outside. The doctors asked for their personal bottles of Black Label to be brought from behind the bar.

A limping man crossed the boardwalk towards us. ‘Hey, Volodya, I’ve got something for you,’ he said, and with a matador swirl laid out a selection of suits on the wooden boards. ‘All of them the real thing. Armani. Dior. Good stuff.’ Volodya knelt down and rubbed the fabric between thumb and forefinger. ‘These are bad fakes, I wouldn’t stoop so low.’ Within minutes other strollers had joined us. The talk was of potential business projects: medical tours to visit shamans in Mexico, an elixir to stop the ageing process, an all-black jazz band to tour Russia. There’s one born every minute.

Everyone agreed that Eddie’s Cosmos was a fine place, but then it turned out that this would be one of the last parties: Bay Ridge was a frontier too far for the Russians. Eddie’s final credit lines for the business have now been closed. But he isn’t the least bit down. ‘I came with a little suitcase and I can start again from scratch any day. When I go to bed I feel bad the day is over. You know why? Because I’m having so much fun I don’t want to stop. I made money, I didn’t make money, Cosmos falls apart – I still don’t want the day to end.’