Seeking a Seat at the Table


THE benches along the Brighton Beach boardwalk were packed. It was 40 degrees, and the sky had been scrubbed clean by a determined wind. Yet there they sat, the aging and aged, taking in the sun beneath great mounds of fur coats, homburgs, leather jackets, scarves and sunglasses. Men gathered around a chessboard, their pawns and kings marching strategically through the afternoon.

     In the last decade, this sleepy seaside Odessa has experienced powerful growth. Between 1990 and 1999, the population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in New York has increased nearly 190 percent, a rate of growth topped only by Mexican and Pakistani-Bangladeshi immigrants.

 According to 1999 population estimates, 229,000 of these immigrants live in New York, nearly half of them in southern Brooklyn. Russians are now the city's second-largest immigrant group, after Dominicans. (Puerto Ricans would rank second and Russians third if Puerto Ricans were true immigrants, but they are American citizens at birth.)

Unlike Dominicans, these new immigrants have yet to send one of their own to a major elected office. Brighton Beach, long a center of gravity of the Russian-speaking community, has never been represented by a Russian-speaking politician.

That may soon change. Like Germans, East European Jews, the Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Asians before them, immigrants from the former Soviet Union are now lurching toward enfranchisement. They face big obstacles -- a redistricting that may temporarily muffle their electoral voice and deeply rooted differences -- but the Russians are displaying clear signs of a political coming of age. Last year, for example, three first-generation immigrants from the former Soviet Union squared off in Council District 47, whose heart is Brighton Beach.

The seat ultimately went to someone else, a longtime school board member named Dominic M. Recchia. But one of the three, Dr. Oleg Gutnik, an obstetrician-gynecologist who ran as a Republican in the heavily Democratic district, came close to winning.

Perhaps more important, the campaign was fueled by, and in turn fed, a growing political awareness in what had been a recalcitrant and apolitical community. An estimated 7,000 Russian-born voters turned out on Election Day, according to Arkady Kagan, senior editor and longtime political analyst at The Russian Forward, a major Russian-language newspaper in New York. This is an exponential increase from even as recently as the 1997 election, when their estimated turnout was in the hundreds.

"They are now citizens," said Leonard S. Glickman, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. "They are taxpayers. They contribute to this society in the way any American does. In order for them to have their voices heard, they need political representation."

Pieces Are in Place, But . . .

At the beginning of the 20th century, immigrants from Russia, most of them Jews, came to New York in droves. But nearly a century of intervening history, including the birth and death of the Soviet Union, has made the new Russian-speaking immigrants different from their forebears.

The new migration began in the 70's, when the American government linked trade relations to the Soviet Union's emigration policy. It gathered speed in the late 80's, as Mikhail S. Gorbachev loosened restrictions and new legislation in the United States made it easier for victims of religious persecution in the Soviet Union to enter. During the last decade, a different immigrant -- non-Jewish, with or without legal status -- poured into New York.

This new wave of arrivals is now poised for politics.

"As the new immigrant matured and his family matured and his children grew up," Mr. Glickman said, "he was ready to become an active political player in society."

The bulk of the refugees have had time to become citizens and register to vote. Grass-roots organizations proliferated in the 90's, and at least six Russian-language newspapers were founded. The pieces are all in place: a growing population of voters, an abundance of civil institutions, eager candidates. But they don't yet add up to real power.

"They face the classic problem of new immigrant groups coming into a setting where previous immigrant groups already stand above them on the political ladder and don't necessarily want to jump off to let them rise," said John Mollenkopf, the director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University Graduate Center.

Poised on the brink of political incorporation, immigrants from the former Soviet Union are indeed in a classic stance. But the forces that shape their political consciousness -- and often hinder their progress -- are distinctly Soviet.

Arrivals From Another Planet

"We have a different mentality," said Alfred Tulchinsky, a columnist for Russian Bazaar, a weekly New York newspaper with a circulation of 17,000. "We are people not from different countries. We are people from a different planet."

Voting in the Soviet Union was a well-choreographed exercise in futility.

"There was only one candidate," said Inna Stavitsky, the director of the Jewish Association for Services to the Aged's Brooklyn Refugee Center in Brighton Beach, and one of last year's unsuccessful District 47 council candidates. "Why would you vote? There was a shortage of everything, so if you could buy a pound of oranges at the voting poll, that was a good reason to go."

Maxim O. Krioukov, the secretary to the bishop of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral on East 97th Street in Manhattan, said: "In America, there is this feeling of political power belonging to you. He is my president, my representative. This expression does not exist in Russia."

Such history bred a profound disrespect for and disengagement from politics.

"Russians are not political creatures," Mr. Krioukov said. "They are ideological creatures. They like to philosophize about politics. Waiting for the good czar. It is a concept of life. The good politician happens. He is not elected, somehow."

For several years, southern Brooklyn has been awash with pamphlets, newspapers and fliers in which basic American civics are laid out in neat Cyrillic type. But the process of political re-education has been long and bumpy.

"Party," said Alec Brook-Krasny, a Russian emigre businessman who, after his defeat in last year's council race became the director of Cojeco, an umbrella organization of community groups. "The attitude toward that word you really have to change. For Russians, party means Communist Party, especially for seniors. They don't want to hear this word."

Moreover, for many in the community, political representation still does not resonate beyond the needs of daily life.

"Some 70-year-old immigrant says I will vote for this guy if he will get me this apartment," said Mr. Tulchinsky, the columnist. "Maybe it sounds primitive, but that's what it is. We had very hard lessons in our previous life. This life taught us not to believe in the social system and to believe in our personal needs."

Nor do new immigrants typically know who does what in the political system. Novoye Russkoye Slovo, New York's only Russian-language daily newspaper, receives letters addressed to the president of the United States seeking help with a problem involving an apartment.

A Protest in Yellow Caps

Still, among the emigres, a new sort of faith is brewing. Many point to the 1996 welfare law, which made certain benefits contingent on citizenship, as a watershed event for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

"A lot of people didn't think that the political process affected them," said Yury Zilberman, president of the American Association of Jews from the Former Soviet Union, who in 1997 led a delegation to march on Washington seeking modifications to the legislation. "They awoke. They realized someone else was deciding their fate and they had no voice."

They also realized their power. In 1997, Congress softened the most stringent provisions of the law affecting immigrants.

The 2000 Census also aided the detente between former Soviet citizens and their new state. The Census Bureau did extensive outreach to the community, from fear reduction programs to Cyrillic tchochkes, to foster participation in the census.

"In our mind, the government does nothing to help their citizens," said Gene Borsch, the bureau's liaison to Russian-speaking Jews. "Besides the mistrust of the government, besides the fear, there was nothing else. Here in the United States for the first time, we broke this chain, this cycle."

Then, in 2000, Mr. Brook-Krasny ran for State Assembly in District 46, which includes Brighton Beach. Though his name was removed from the ballot after some signatures he collected were deemed invalid, his campaign was a galvanizing force.

"I wrote 140 articles within four months," he said. "How to vote. Why it's important. Why it's important in this country. What's the community feeling."

The blitz of voter registration and education during last year's council race fueled an already smoldering fire.

Now, some residents of southern Brooklyn are taking their experiments with American-style political activism to the streets. On Feb. 20, a small crowd, armed with placards, gathered outside the JASA Brighton-Manhattan Senior Center to protest city plans to close it down. After the rally, the protesters gathered at long tables in the lunchroom and marveled at the active part they had taken.

Rita Gordievskaya, 69, who came from Odessa in 1998, had never been in a rally. "This was the first time," she said in Russian, smiling impishly.

Alexander Yagudin, a plumber who immigrated in 1981, confessed that he, too, had carried a sign. "It's the first time I participated," he said in Russian. "I don't know. I hope it helps. I'm not experienced in these things."

Russian-speaking immigrants also took to the streets in connection with what could be a far more significant political issue for them, the redrawing of state senatorial districts in southern Brooklyn. Under the current proposal, which would have the effect of creating a safe Republican stronghold, the heart of the Russian-speaking population would be partitioned into four districts. Part of the community would be lumped with the North Shore of Staten Island and part with East New York.

Several hundred elderly people from southern Brooklyn showed up at Brooklyn Borough Hall for the redistricting hearings on March 8. Their props included bright yellow caps emblazoned with the words "Gov. Pataki Please Help! Don't Let Them Divide the 21st Senate District" and stickers reading, "Brighton Beach says "Nyet" No to your plan." (The district is currently represented by Carl Kruger; District 22, which also has a sizable Russian-speaking population, is represented by Seymour Lachman.)

Those Who Would Be King

When Dr. Gutnik first came to the United States, he drove a cab and waited on tables. Six years later, he opened his medical practice in Sheepshead Bay. An alumnus of Community Board 15, he is on the board of the Brooklyn Public Library, and, last year, Gov. George E. Pataki appointed him to the Brooklyn citizenship unit of the Bureau of Refugee and Immigration Affairs.

His political credentials hang on his office walls in the form of photographs: Dr. Gutnik with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Dr. Gutnik with President George W. Bush, Dr. Gutnik with Governor Pataki. A plaque from the City Council proclaims Dec. 5, 1996, Dr. Oleg Gutnik Day in Brooklyn.

Still, these are trinkets, not keys.

"I was told by one of the Democratic Club leaders, doctor, politics maybe is a hobby to you, but to us it's a business," Dr. Gutnik said. "Nobody gives a business away."

Raising campaign funds was especially daunting. Of the Russians, Mr. Gutnik raised the most, $58,000. The winner, Mr. Recchia, raised $61,000. Accusations of overreaching came from many sides.

"We are talking about amateur politicians," said Mr. Tulchinsky, the columnist. "I don't want to be personally represented on a serious political level by an amateur."

But the path from amateur to professional may be short. Dr. Gutnik is already regrouping. "I think it's just a matter of time," he said.

Nationalism and Discontents

Last October, in the heat of the campaign, Dr. Gutnik took out a large ad in The Russian Forward that proclaimed: "One America. One New York. One Family."

But the Russian-speaking immigrant community is hardly one anything. When the Soviet Union fell, it crumbled into 15 republics with 15 nationalities and 15 languages. Russianness itself is up for debate.

"We never thought of ourselves as Russians," Ms. Stavitsky said. "Every day we were reminded that we are not Russians, that we are Jewish. When we came here, we turned out to be Russians, which was a great surprise to all of us."

The strangeness of the transformation from Jew to Russian has resulted in a community that cannot agree on what holidays to celebrate, much less what alliances to form and what politicians to elect.

"The voice that is out there is Russian," said Mr. Krioukov of the Russian Orthodox Church. "I am sure it does a lot of good things for the Russian Jews, but not so much for the Russians perhaps."

Although there are no firm numbers of Jews and non-Jews from the former Soviet Union, this split leads to complex identity problems. The issue bubbled up in February when Artemis, an entertainment company founded by Alex Gutmakher, a Jew from Ukraine, presented the first Russian Winterfest celebration -- an event traditionally associated with the Russian Orthodox Church -- in Prospect Park. The company received several anonymous threatening phone calls, most variations on, "Why are you Jews celebrating a Russian holiday?"

Mr. Gutmakher's response? "It's business."

But there is another, more basic issue. Unlike Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, who often maintain strong ties with their homelands, most Jews from the former Soviet Union are refugees. According to some estimates, 1.5 million Jews have left since 1989, and those who came to New York are more likely to have relatives in Israel than in the former Soviet Union.

"I don't think there will be a Russian Jewish community in 30 years," said Mr. Zilberman of the American Association of Jews from the Former Soviet Union. "It will just be part of the Jewish community."

The non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union may also disappear.

"Everyone has to deal with being able to have your own face in the community," Mr. Krioukov said. "The easiest way to have your face is to put on someone else's face."

Whose face will they borrow?

"WASP's," he said.