Dan Strieff  /  MSNBC.com
Many of the storefronts in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, are written in Russian.
By Daniel Strieff Reporter
updated 3/12/2004 9:15:30 AM ET 2004-03-12T14:15:30

At the end of the New York Q subway line is Brighton Beach, New York’s main Russian enclave. Signs are written in Cyrillic. Conversations are in Russian. Shops selling rare meats, bread and vodka dot the main street, Brighton Beach Avenue. A shabby yet bustling neighborhood, it is a place seemingly stuck in time.

In fact, as Russia prepared to vote in a presidential election in which incumbent Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win a second term Sunday, the attitude about the vote was little more than a mixture of fatalism and disinterest.

Anna Rubin, who is originally from Moscow, comes to Brighton Beach to shop for food that she can’t find anywhere else, such as the black bread, eight different kinds of pirogi and other Russian delicacies sold in M & I International Foods, a Russian grocery store.

"I think the opinion here is pretty clear ... [that] it's definitely a move in the wrong direction for democracy," said Rubin, who has lived in the United States for more than a decade. "This election, for Putin, it’s just a show of power."

Across the street, in St. Petersburg Bookstore, a man who gave his name only as Goslin, expressed similar sentiments. "I mean, Putin’s going to win obviously," he said. "But, you know, I don’t really follow politics that much. Even when I was in Russia, I didn’t follow politics that much."

"Well, it [the election] is rigged. Maybe not so different from here," Goslin, who is from Moscow and came to the United States more than 10 years ago, said with a laugh. "Not much has changed, has it?"

Center of Russian culture in U.S.
New York is the center of Russian culture in the United States.

More than 320,000 residents of New York City were born in Russia and the former Soviet Union, according to the New York Census in 2000. The Russian-speaking population of the New York metropolitan area is estimated to be between 1 and 1.5 million.

The immigration to New York has also been strongly Jewish: 186,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have settled in New York City in the past decade, according to the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York.

After decades of immigration, Jews now make up less than one percent of the entire Russian population.

Still, immigration to the United States appears to have slowed, as the chaos of political and economic reform in the 1990s begins to settle down. No longer escaping a totalitarian government, Russians coming to the United States now more frequently are looking for opportunities in education and employment.

Even Brighton Beach is changing, slowly.

It is an increasingly multiethnic neighborhood, more closely resembling the makeup of its borough of Brooklyn.

To be sure, the Russian influence here is unmistakable, but American chain stores are beginning to move in.

‘Overwhelming support’ for re-election
Back in Russia, Putin looks guaranteed to win a second term on Sunday. Polls in Russia show the former KGB officer with an approval rating of between 60 and 80 percent.

"You see an overwhelming support in Russia for Putin in an election which is predetermined," said Edward Beliaev, a professor of international relations at Columbia University who is originally from St. Petersburg. "He is seen as a strong leader, not just in terms of domestic policy and also his nationalistic rhetoric -- he is trying to reinstate Russian values."

In Putin, Beliaev said, Russians see a leader with a steadier hand than that of his mercurial predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. His push to restore national pride back to ordinary Russians, who have suffered much since the Soviet collapse in 1991, has struck a chord with a population.

Russia’s economy has grown every year since Yeltsin named Putin as his successor on New Year’s Eve in 1999. The country’s ties to the United States have also strengthened.

But critics say such gains have come at a price: media coverage coupled with Kremlin power have heavily influenced election results in favor of the main Pro-Putin party; one of two main television networks has been closed, and the other is now controlled by a state-connected gas monopoly; and human rights concerns, including over the war in Chechnya, have largely been ignored.

In the West, at least, many commentators see in Putin’s governing style an echo of Russian emperors of old. A recent PBS special on Putin, for example, was titled "Return of the Czar." An article in the Wall Street Journal cited a Russian poll that found half of those Russians who support the president also "love" him, while 24 percent of his supporters "fear" him.

In Brooklyn, little interest
But in Brighton Beach, which is sometimes referred to as "Little Russia" or "Little Odessa," after the Ukrainian resort on the Black Sea, residents appeared largely disinterested in discussing the political situation back home.

In the popular Ocean View Café on Brighton Beach Avenue, Russians came inside for a taste of home and to socialize.

A waiter, who gave his name only as Sergei, said he was focused on his life in New York now, not home.

"Me, I don’t follow the news from there all that much," said Sergei, who hails from a Russian village near Ukraine. "I read the news but I prefer the local ones," he said, ticking off several English-language New York newspapers. "Not the Russian ones so much."

The Russian-language media adopt a similar attitude. Nathan Liberman is president of Radio Novaya Zhizn, or "New Life Radio," a Brooklyn-based Russian-language station. Although the broadcast format is heavily talk radio, it mostly stays out of Russian politics, he said.

"We are an American media station that broadcasts in the Russian language, so our primary focus is on life in the United States, not in Russia and the former Soviet Union," Liberman said.

"The population here doesn't really care about what is going on back there," he added. "They care out of interest, perhaps, but they don't have any particular devotion or anything like that. … There is no particular support for this party or that party. I don't think the election is an issue, really."

Felix Gorodetsky, a manager at Novoye Russkoye Slovo, the New York-area’s only daily Russian-language newspaper, said the paper was staying out of the fray and is not endorsing a candidate. Gorodetsky also said the paper was far more focused on what was happening in New York.

Russian politics have certainly been covered in the pages of Novoye Russkoye Slovo, Gorodetsky said, but no special resources have been devoted to it.

As for gauging readers’ opinions, Gorodetsky said the consensus, if any, was in the center. "For the most part, the opinions that we get have been in the middle, not in favor of Putin or against Putin."

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