When the city’s Districting Commission earlier this year approved a plan that split Brighton Beach in two, some say it weakened the political power of Russian-speaking new immigrants in south Brooklyn.
But the long-term effect may be the opposite.
Galvanized by what many feel was a raw deal, Russian-Jewish activists more than ever are making themselves heard, exhibiting a "don’t tread on me" attitude that is as classically New York as it is alien to the mores of Moscow, Kiev or Minsk.
The district change took 5,000 residents, mostly Russian immigrants, out of the 47th Council District and replaced them with mostly Italian Americans from nearby Bensonhurst. That move boosted the re-election prospects of incumbent Democratic Councilman Dominic Recchia, who won by defeating several Russian-speaking opponents.
Now a group called The Russian American Voters Alliance is taking part in that most American of rituals: filing a lawsuit.
The group will be adding its claim to an existing suit in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn against the New York Board of Elections. The suit alleges disenfranchisement of "The Russian Community" because of irregularities in the way polls are conducted in the Brooklyn Shorefront area, which is home to tens of thousands of naturalized immigrants.
Dr. Oleg Gutnik, a party in the suit who was defeated by Recchia in 2001, believes the organized Jewish community has turned its back on the political rights of immigrants from the Soviet Union.
"There is a lack of support," says Gutnik, a gynecologist from Ukraine, speaking in the new Sheepshead Bay Road offices he shares with his wife, Irina, an internist. "We are treated as grown-up children or younger brothers, not as equals. We are seen as growing and learning, but not at the level where we deserve equal respect."
If the Jewish community had weighed in on the district change, said Gutnik, "I have no doubt the outcome would have been different."
Gutnik isn’t alone in crying foul. The Russian-language daily Novoye Russkoye Slovo in an editorial last month called Russian Americans "the political victims of New York City."
Citing the success of Asians, blacks and Hispanics who have benefited from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the paper said that "unlike those groups, Russian-Americans are all alone. Members of the political system have banded together to block NYC’s 800,000 Russian-Americans from gaining political power."
The paper noted that no elected officials joined the activists who announced their federal lawsuit at a City Hall press conference, and that the Brighton Beach district, which had a Jewish councilman for 50 years, is unlikely to have one again in the near future because of the district change.
The figure of 800,000 mostly Jewish Russian Americans, also used by Gutnik, citing census data, is extremely liberal. A study of the Jewish community by UJA-Federation, to be released this summer, is expected to show much more modest numbers: 200,000 to 300,000 Russian immigrant Jews, or about one quarter of a Jewish community of some 1 million, according to a knowledgeable source.
That conservative figure nevertheless represents a seismic shift in Jewish New York demographics, as more established Jews flee to the suburbs while the flow of immigrants from the former Soviet Union continues or increases.
"The Russian community is the fastest-growing Jewish community, an increasingly vocal and important element in the city’s political ecology," says urban affairs professor Mitchell Moss of New York University. "They will be much more important by the time of the next redistricting" in 2012.
Because Russian voices were not united on whether the community’s interests were harmed by the district split, the Jewish Community Relations Council did not oppose the new map in its discussions with the Planning Commission, even as it weighed in on other matters.
The JCRC made clear that electing a Jewish City Council member was not a priority, as long as elected officials were "sensitive and receptive," as the umbrella agency put it in one letter.
Meanwhile, participation in UJA-Federation’s Russian Division and its youth division has soared. The JCRC has several Russian-speaking board members, and virtually every local community council employs Russian-speaking staff to communicate with immigrant clients. There is no evidence that the established Jewish organizations have overlooked the vitality of the growing newcomer community.
The emigres also are organizing their own communal structure. Twenty-six small groups banded together recently to form the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations, which recently held a well-attended dinner at a Brighton nightclub packed with politicians and native Jewish honchos.
"Political activism is growing," says Alec Brook-Krasny, the director of COJECO. "I think in a few years we will see a very strong and influential community."
Gutnik also believes in that inevitability. He notes that the bulk of Russian Americans came here only in the past three decades, as opposed to other groups entrenched for generations.
"You build on experience," he says. "We are still students of what the Irish Americans and Italian Americans have done politically. But our young people are joining different political organizations, our children go to great universities. In the near future this community will play an important role."
But for many, that requires the still-elusive feat of electing a Russian-speaking official. The recent district change was widely viewed as a move by City Council Speaker Gifford Miller to keep the seat Democratic and fend off Gutnik, a Republican who has close ties with Gov. George Pataki and was recently named to chair a state committee that disburses immigration information.
The leader of the Councilís tiny Republican caucus, Staten Islandís James Oddo, appoints members of the Districting Commission and could have blocked the plan. But he chose not to pick a fight with Miller on this issue, according to published reports.
Ben Axelrod, a Belarus native who founded a new Americans chapter of the influential High-Way Democratic club in south Brooklyn, estimates that there are about 30,000 registered voters in Brooklyn who originated in the former Soviet Union. There is about half that number in Queens, which has a concentration of Bukharan Jews in the Forest Hills area, according to the Queens Jewish Community Council.
Axelrod, who supported Pataki, said the community was emerging as a must stop on the campaign trail, but noted that "it’s more important what happens after the election, whether they will come back and listen."
As for the attitude of the broader Jewish community, Axelrod says any sense of paternalism by organizations likely stems from a relationship in which so many social services clients are immigrants.
"We greatly appreciate the fact that they help us through the immigration process, but it is time to change," he says.
Arkady Kagan, editor of the Russian edition of the Forward, says letters to his newspaper show an increasing degree of sophistication on political matters.
"[Readers] are more interested in local politics, and they already know the difference between the legislatures in New York City and Albany," Kagan says.
He notes that a Russian American, Mark Davidovich, was recently elected a Democratic state commiteeman, (commonly known as district leader) in Brighton.
"I couldn’t imagine years ago that someone would run for such a position," says Kagan. "And more and more, they are voting in off-year Assembly races. They know what the boundaries are and they care."
But as in every community, unity can be elusive. Some feel the federal lawsuit over the district split would cause undue antagonism: a mind-set perhaps more Minsk than Brooklyn in its inception.
Gutnik, who is poised to be a steady presence on the Russian political scene, believes that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s long-shot proposal to create nonpartisan elections in New York is the only way a member of his community can get elected now.
"We were subject to dismemberment and evisceration, which was done by both Democrats and Republicans alike," he said. "The process of protecting incumbency or one of their own sacrifices the Russian community."
Moss of NYU said the Russian-speaking community could take pride in its achievements.
"It’s amazing how much they have accomplished in a quarter century. They have built a community with its own institutions, its own stores and religious institutions and even schools," he said.
But one Jewish communal official, who requested anonymity, said the test ahead was in how Russian communities in the city interact with their neighbors to find common causes.
"They have made great strides, but the most important step for any group is to build coalitions," said the official.
"There is a critical mass of Russian voters who are willing to unite around a single candidate. But the way to get elected today is to gather your base, then build coalitions."