On the boardwalk in Brighton Beach last weekend, it was “From Russia With … Loathing.”
For members of the Russian Jewish community here, the recent tabloid-enhanced saga of the 10 alleged Russian spies arrested here in late June and flown to Moscow last week in a swap for four Russians charged with spying for the U.S., exposed a raw nerve.
In interviews with Russian-speakers strolling on the boardwalk and with prominent members of the Russian Jewish community here, what emerged is a portrait of a community deeply disturbed by the affair. But it is angered less by the revelations about a group of ineffectual gumshoes than by the perception that they themselves had managed to escape Russia to start new lives in America, only to find that Russia has followed them here.
Specifically, they connected the spies with a wave of emigration from the countries of the former Soviet Union that in recent years has been predominantly non-Jewish. And the new emigrants seemingly include many people who came here less for political or religious freedom than out of a desire to get ahead financially in various ways, not all of them savory — all of which has led to deep changes in the character of the Brighton Beach community.
“The whole story is very unpleasant for people like me,” said Sophia Tonstonog, an 81-year-old retiree from Lvov in western Ukraine. “My husband and I fled the Soviet Union 20 years ago to escape anti-Semitism and now those who persecuted us are moving here after us. Why should all these non-Jewish Russians be allowed to come here? They have their own country, and as this spy story shows, letting them come here is not so good for America.”
Olga, 51, a doctor of internal medicine and her husband Alexander, a 53-year-old programmer, who arrived together from Moscow in 1992, were equally blunt. “These disgusting spies have no connection with us yet besmirch the reputation of the entire community,” said Olga, who like her husband asked that their last names not be used because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“What is more upsetting is that Brighton Beach, a neighborhood in which we loved living, is now filling up with non-Jewish Russians and Ukrainians.”
Alexander added, “Everywhere you look in Brighton these days, you see Russian-speaking people wearing crosses or selling Russian Orthodox or Baptist books on the street. In short, this is no longer a Jewish neighborhood and won’t be in the future either.
“Olga and I are now thinking about moving to a more Jewish place, like Great Neck.”
The sharp comments on the boardwalk — echoed by many others who asked that their names not be used — suggest that an ongoing process of de-Judaization of the New York Russian-speaking community is continuing apace. Jewish emigration from the FSU to New York since 2000 has dropped precipitously, while emigration by non-Jews has trended upward. (Unlike Jews, most non-Jewish former Soviets are not eligible to come here as refugees, but many have taken up residence as parolees, green card lottery winners, spouses of American citizens, and holders of work and student visas who have stayed on.)
In 2007, sociologist and demographer Sam Kliger, who heads the Research Institute of New Americans and is director of Russian Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, estimated that the percentage of the Russian-speaking community in the New York metropolitan area (estimated at about 750,000 people) that is Jewish had dropped from over 90 percent to around 65 percent over the preceding decade. And anecdotal evidence suggests that the percentage may have dropped even further in the years since.
The change has been especially jarring in heavily Russian-speaking Brighton Beach and surrounding communities, as many younger Russian Jews have moved out to more upscale locations, to be replaced by predominantly non-Jewish Russian speakers.
Writing in the weekly Russian Advertising last week, journalist Leah Moses, who has chronicled the new wave of immigrants, said, “The people who were arrested as spies seemed somehow representative of many people who have come in recent years primarily to improve their economic situation. … One steals from someone else’s bank account, another marries for money and another is a spy. Members of our community should think twice before … getting involved with those who came from post-Soviet countries mainly to grab something for themselves.”
In comments to The Jewish Week, Moses added, “This is not necessarily about Jews and non-Jews but about a materialistic mentality that pervades the third [post-2000] wave of Russian-speaking emigration. Still it is clear that a majority of third-wave arrivals are non-Jewish. They don’t particularly love America, and are genuinely surprised when they find out our community is pro-American.”
Mikhail Nemirovsky, editor of Forum, a Russian language pro-Israel weekly and director of Russian-speaking outreach at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York, said that the spy affair, “shows that regimes may fall and even the country may change names, but the KGB remains the KGB — even if it is now called FSB.”
Of the spies themselves, Nemirovsky said, “These people are not from our community. No one knows them. When their real names were finally published in place of the American aliases they had previously been identified by, I breathed a sigh of relief and said, ‘Thank God, none of them are Jewish.’”
Nemirovsky was asked about the fact that four years ago a number of leading Russian-American Jews played prominent roles in a Kremlin-inspired organization known as the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots in the U.S. Many of them eventually left the organization as then-President Vladimir Putin moved Russia in a more authoritarian and anti-American direction. “Being Russian compatriots is not for Jews,” he said. “Yet there are many non-Jewish Russian-speakers around New York these days for whom Russia is their true motherland.”
Alec Brook-Krasny, the first Russian-speaking member of the New York State Assembly, who has served a heavily Russian-speaking south Brooklyn district, including Brighton Beach, since 2007, has a similar perspective. “The community doesn’t like this spy story, which obviously hurts its image, though hopefully not for a long time. But, in reality, these people had nothing to do with the Russian Jewish community.
“We are a Jewish community that has no loyalty to Russia — either to the Soviet regime many of us fled or the Russian government of today.”
Recalling that he himself was involved in conversations with a prominent Russian diplomat in the early 2000s about strengthening Russian-American cooperation in the war against terrorism, Brook-Krasny said, “Back then, I was under the impression that our community could play a role in helping to bring the two countries closer together. Nowadays I am more leery.
Igor Boboshkin, an ethnic Russian publisher and businessman based in Staten Island, who serves as president of the Russian-American Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots, seemed less inclined than his Russian-Jewish counterparts to concede that the 10 arrested on espionage charges here and deported to Russia were necessarily guilty of anything.
“In fact, we don’t know if they were spies or not. … There is no solid evidence that they gave information to Russian intelligence. This is a scandal organized by the media and indeed after the swap, it appears that relations between U.S. and Russia are good. Given all of that I don’t think there will be any negative impact on our organization.”
Noting that the Compatriots group is an umbrella body for a network of grass-roots Russian-language schools, kindergartens, cultural centers and publications in cities across the U.S., Boboshkin disputed the notion that Russian Jews have dropped away in recent years. “I would say about 30 percent of the people on our coordinating committee are Jewish. But we are a non-sectarian organization and no mention is made of a person’s nationality or religion.”
Back on the boardwalk, Natalia Egorova, a 40ish freelance makeup artist from Moscow, who moved to Brooklyn by way of Switzerland 10 years ago, stood out among the largely elderly Russian-Jewish crowd because of her striking blonde mane and large cross around her neck. She said that the spy scandal has so far had minimal effect on either her personal or professional life because, “The people I deal with are too sophisticated to cast aspersions on all Russians.” She added, “I love living in Brighton Beach, both for the sea and the cosmopolitan atmosphere.”