For one day earlier this month, it was as if leafy Asher Lev Park in Brighton Beach had morphed into the still-barricaded and tire-laden Maidan Square in Kiev, ground zero of the Ukrainian independence movement.
A group of about 10 émigrés from Odessa — nearly all of them Jewish — came together in the park to discuss the fraught events back home. They were meeting on May 6, just a few days after 43 people were killed in Odessa in armed clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators.
Not surprisingly, things quickly got very heated, and this was even before Ukraine elected a Western-leaning chocolate tycoon as its president.
“The majority in the group, who supported Odessa staying in Ukraine, and the minority, who advocated joining Russia, were cursing each other,” said Alexander Lakhman, a journalist in the Russian-language media here, who had brought the group together.
“They were using terms like ‘traitor,’ ‘spy’ and ‘prostitute.’ It was a little civil war in Little Odessa,” Lakhman said, using the popular nickname for the heavily Russian-speaking neighborhood of Brighton Beach.
Passions are indeed running high in the Russian-speaking Jewish community these days over the interlocking issues of Ukraine’s so-called Maidan Revolution, Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea and subsequent efforts of pro-Russian separatists in eastern and southern Ukraine to break away from control of the Kiev government.
On the Brighton Beach boardwalk recently, two friends sharing the same bench, Naum, 77, from Kiev, and Vassily, in his mid-40s, seemed to suggest the fault lines in the community.
“I’m for Ukraine with all my heart and soul,” Naum said. “There was always anti-Semitism in Ukraine and still is, but don’t forget that there are now a number of important Jews in the Ukrainian government, and Right Sector [a Ukrainian nationalist party] is protecting the synagogues in Kiev. Meanwhile, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is behaving like Hitler did in the 1930s, asserting his right to intervene in any country where ethnic Russians live.”
For his part, Vassily countered: “I am frankly afraid of what the Ukrainian nationalists may eventually do to the Jews and am glad Putin has the Jews’ back. I believe that most Russian speakers in New York are pro-Russian, but we also understand that is an unpopular position in America, so we aren’t going to go and march up Fifth Avenue carrying Putin posters.”
Close observers of the Russian-speaking community offer conflicting estimates about where people stand. Most experts say that a solid majority of 60 percent or more favor Ukraine over Russia, while a few report nearly the opposite: that as many as 75 percent of the community favors Russia. Yet everyone agrees that the roiling conflict in the FSU — in which charges of anti-Semitism have played a pronounced role — has deeply engaged and sharply split the city’s Russian-speaking community, which is estimated to be about 65-70 percent Jewish (down from over 80 percent 20 years ago).
In the face of the passionate debate in the Russian-émigré “street,” mirrored and amplified in the Russian-language media, Russian-Jewish community organizations and leaders have tended to try to stay above the fray; they have avoided taking direct positions on the conflict, emphasizing the need for communal unity. How much longer that semblance of unity can hold amid the passions being expressed in Lakhman’s “civil war in Little Odessa” is an open question.
Certainly, political loyalties are scrambled on these issues, with arguments breaking out between old friends and even within married couples. The term “strange bedfellows” has rarely seemed so apt.
For example, Leonid Bard, formerly head of World Without Nazism, a body focused on fighting international anti-Semitism started by Russian billionaire Boris Shpiegel and derided by many as a Kremlin front, now leads the Assembly of World Diasporas; that group is largely supportive of Ukraine in the present crisis, even though Bard says he remains troubled after anti-Semitism flared among some factions in the new Ukrainian regime.
On the other hand, there is Moish Soloway. The media-savvy Russian-Jewish public relations dynamo and venture capitalist infuriated many in the politically conservative Russian-Jewish community by ardently endorsing Barack Obama for president and taking dovish positions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Now, he is one of Moscow’s most outspoken defenders in the Russian-Jewish community here; he has castigated the Obama administration for “meddling in Russia’s backyard” and endorsed the position, being pressed hard by the Russian government, that “Nazis” are playing a key role in the new Ukrainian government.
Sam Kliger, director of Russian Jewish community affairs at the American Jewish Committee, and the Russian community’s most prominent pollster, has not yet polled attitudes on the Ukraine-Russia crisis. But he says he is convinced that the overall Russian-Jewish community here is 60-70 percent supportive of the Ukrainian position.
According to Kliger, “I start from the fact that the plurality of former Soviet Jews living in New York come from Ukraine, with significant numbers as well from anti-Russian countries like the Baltic States and Georgia. Also, I see much stronger support on Russian-language social media for Ukraine than for Russia.”
But Valery Weinberg, the former publisher of the longtime Russian daily newspaper Novoye Russkoye Slovo, which closed several years ago, believes that the true split in the community is around “75 percent for Putin.”
Weinberg, who notes that he himself strongly favors the Ukrainian position, said, “The position that so many Russian-speakers are taking disturbs me greatly because it is not what I would call a patriotic American position at a time when Putin is blaming America for everything that has happened in Ukraine.”
Weinberg added, “The people supporting Putin are not the ‘Let My People Go’ crowd of the 1970s and 1980s who came here to escape Soviet anti-Semitism. Rather, these are people who came here after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, many from Moscow and St. Petersburg, where they travel frequently, own apartments or manage businesses. They are savvy professionals; doctors and lawyers and businessmen. They may have lived here 20 years or more, but they still get the bulk of their news straight from Moscow via Russian Channel 1.
“And yes, they prefer Putin to Obama, whom they despise as insufficiently pro-Israel.”
Asked about his position on the conflict, State Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, who has represented South Brooklyn since 2007, said, “Russian people are proud of Putin’s taking over Crimea, but it is not sustainable economically and against international law.”
Still, Brook-Krasny, acknowledged, “I haven’t really spoken about it in the district.” He added, “I’m still optimistic on U.S.-Russian relations in the long term. The two countries have to work together on a lot of issues, including fighting terrorism. I am hopeful that Putin and his team will ultimately ‘get it’ and choose to be part of the Western world.”
COJECO (the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations), the umbrella body of Russian-Jewish community organizations here, has said nothing publicly on the crisis; the group has chosen instead to focus on upbeat events like sending volunteers to visit aging veterans of World War II in their homes to congratulate them on Victory Day (May 9, marking the military victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany).
Lenny Gusel, founder of RJeneration, a Russian-Jewish young leadership network, said that RJeneration has not scheduled a specific event focused on the Russia-Ukraine issue, but the issue inevitably comes up anyway. “You can’t get Russian-speaking folks together these days without it coming up. What I hear consistently from many people I am close to in our community is that Putin is a totalitarian thug. But the next question is, ‘OK, so what should we do about it? Should we meddle in the struggle between Russia and Ukraine?’”
Gusel said that given the high stakes involved in the conflict for millions, including Jews, in both countries, “It feels almost inappropriate for those of us here to sit around discussing it.”
One venerable New York Russian community organization that is carrying on with business as usual is the Russian American Foundation. It is poised to hold its 12th Annual Russian Heritage Month, a month-long series of cultural events to celebrate the rich diversity of cultural traditions brought here from the various regions of the former Soviet Union. In past years, the Russian Ministry of Culture has cooperated with RAF on many Russian Heritage Month events and exhibits, and the RAF website features a 2012 blurb from the Russian Federation’s consul general in New York, Igor Golubovskiy, praising RAF for making a large contribution “to the preservation and expansion of Russian culture in the United States.”
RAF’s founder and president, Marina Kovalyov, a Jewish Week board member, did not respond to questions asking whether she is cooperating with the Russian Consulate again this year, or if it is appropriate to hold the festival this year at all, given Russia’s attack on Ukraine and strident criticism of the U.S.
According to Lakhman, “There are quite a few people in the Russian-speaking community who question whether holding the festival is appropriate this year, but I don’t expect any boycotts or protests since most people believe that culture is separate from politics.”
Whether it is politically sustainable for the Russian-speaking community to give even the appearance of even-handedness in the present situation, when U.S.-Russian relations have reached their lowest ebb since the Cold War, remains an open question. According to Igor Branovan, co-owner of the weeklies Forum and Yevreski Mir, “The Russian-speaking Jewish community is not neutral between America and Russia. Yes, Russia has spent billions on media to influence the opinion of Russian-speakers here, but it is wrong to question our community’s loyalty to America.”
While most would agree with that assessment, a sharp debate continues about the propriety of the expression of pro-Russia sentiment in the community.
Ari Kagan, a prominent Russian-Jewish journalist and political activist, is outspoken in his contempt of Putin, whom he says is “anti-democratic, anti-American.” He added, “It is particularly offensive to me that Putin has completely taken over Victory Day, which is sacred to all of us.”
Yet Moish Soloway, a 36-year-old international consultant who travels frequently to Moscow on business, said, “The Russian position makes more sense than the Western one. It looks to me like the U.S. tried to meddle in Ukraine and it backfired badly. Russia is not ready to have a hostile neighbor in its backyard that happens to be in a state of anarchy and has a nasty history of ultra-nationalism.”
Back on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, interviews with a number of Russian speakers turned up a preponderance of pro-Ukraine sentiment, but also plenty of people championing Russia, even if they often asked that their full names not be used.
Anna Solovyov, a pensioner in her 70s, who came here 35 years ago from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, remarked, “Putin is a tyrant and a problem not only for Ukraine, but the entire world. I am disgusted by his pretending to be pro-Jewish, when he is just cynically using the Jewish issue to his advantage.”
Sitting comfortably shirtless on a park bench in the warm sun, Leonid, a 39-year-old Jew who moved to the U.S. from Odessa as a child but now does business with Russia, had a very different take. “Odessa may be physically in Ukraine,” he said “but it was never a Ukrainian city. I spoke today with my uncle in Kiev, who is scared for his life from Ukrainian anti-Semites. For my part, I am worried about how the conflict may affect my business, which depends on money transfers between the U.S., and Russia. So far, U.S. sanctions on Russia have been minimal, but if they are strengthened, it very well could destroy my livelihood.”
Sergei Abramov, a music teacher from Kiev who is in his 40s, has made two trips back to his hometown in recent months and spent considerable time on Maidan Square.
“It is amazing to see the level of self-sacrifice, kindness and cooperation of the everyday people there, many of them peasants and working-class people,” said Abramov. “Meeting people who are willing to do anything — even give their lives — to turn Ukraine into a normal country based on democracy, justice and the rule of law has been a deeply spiritual experience for me.”