'Russian Dolls' Gets Thumbs Down From Brighton Beach

Immigrants Say Tacky Reality Show Only Reinforces Stereotypes

Sun and Stereotypes: Many in Brighton Beach believe ‘Russian Dolls’ only reinforces stereotypes that they are hard-drinking criminals.
Claudio Papapietro
Sun and Stereotypes: Many in Brighton Beach believe ‘Russian Dolls’ only reinforces stereotypes that they are hard-drinking criminals.

By Paul Berger

Published August 17, 2011, issue of August 26, 2011.
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Vulgar. Distasteful. Primitive. Ugly. These are just a few of the adjectives Russian speakers spat out in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn on August 12, the day after the premiere of Lifetime’s new reality show, “Russian Dolls.”

But for all their feelings about the negative light in which the show cast them, some were thankful for a small saving grace: The show barely mentioned Jews.

“I just hope that Judaism doesn’t come up in the next episodes,” said Leonard Petlakh, executive director of the Kings Bay YM-YWHA, who was sitting at an outdoor table at Tatiana Restaurant, on the Brighton Beach boardwalk. “That part, to me, would be very embarrassing,” Petlakh said.

‘Tasteless’: Most Russian Jews were happy the reality show’s characters weren’t openly described as Jews.
Claudio Papapietro
‘Tasteless’: Most Russian Jews were happy the reality show’s characters weren’t openly described as Jews.

Petlakh’s relief stemmed from the fact that the word “Jew” was mentioned just once, although the show’s reality stars are overwhelmingly Jewish.

Even when one of the co-stars, Diana, is shown cold-heartedly ditching her Spanish boyfriend the audience is led to believe it is because her mother wants her to marry a Russian boy.

The show never states it explicitly, but Diana’s sparkly Magen David sends a clear message that “Russian” in this case is essentially a euphemism for “Jewish.”

Though the Jewish element of the show remained largely hidden, Russian speakers were still alarmed at their portrayal.

“American people don’t like us as it is,” said Mila Kalgan, 49, wearing a bathing suit and sitting on a low deck chair on the beach, inches from the Atlantic Ocean.

“They think all Russians are criminals,” agreed Mila P., 55, Kalgan’s friend who declined to give her full surname. “They think half of us are in jail and the other half should be in jail.”

In recent years, some members of the Russian-speaking community have been implicated in a range of frauds, including Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

On August 8, the week of the “Russian Dolls’” debut, Polina Anoshina was sentenced to a year and a day in jail for her small part in an estimated $50 million fraud that targeted the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Eight others have pleaded guilty and 10, who maintain their innocence, are yet to stand trial.

Though the Claims Conference and other frauds may have been at the back of their minds, the two Milas were concerned about perceptions of Russian crime ties because of the most dysfunctional, and therefore arresting, characters on “Russian Dolls,” Marina and Michael Levitis.

“Russian Dolls” spent a good deal of time poking around the couple’s opulent home and on 34-year-old Marina’s taste in furs and in $20,000 jewelry: “Big and blingy and definitely Russian style,” she explained in the show.

Marina and Michael Levitis are the owners of Rasputin, a local nightclub. But, as residents were only too aware, Michael is also a lawyer who was sentenced August 4 to three years probation for lying to the FBI about his role in a corruption scandal involving New York State Senator Carl Kruger.

“They [the TV producers] try to say that we are stealing money?” said Yaakov Vinderman, 53, still dripping after a dip in the ocean.

Petlakh who commutes into Brooklyn from Long Island, said that after watching the previous night’s episode, his wife was petrified at what her work colleagues might think. “I mean, my God,” Petlakh said.

But Petlakh did admit that the vacuous women portrayed in “Russian Dolls” represent a certain type of Brighton Beach life, albeit a minority.

Indeed, he said, the very word “Brighton” has come to evoke a certain kind of crass attitude among Russians themselves. A person, a party or a nightclub can all be described as “a bit Brighton,” Petlakh said.

“You walk into some restaurants, and you have got these characters,” Petlakh said. “They’re a bit obnoxious, ordering the waiters around as if they are serfs.”

Tatiana Varzar, the owner of Tatiana restaurant, said her daughter had telephoned her after the closing credits, disgusted by what she had seen.

Varzar, like many of the older residents of Brighton Beach, emphasized that Russian families push their children to go to college and become doctors, dentists and lawyers, not vapid reality TV stars.

“I love the area, and when people speak bad about the area it pains me,” said Varzar, who arrived in Brighton Beach from Ukraine during the late 1970s, when it was blighted with crime and drugs.

“I have a club for more than 30 years, and I never saw something like that,” she added. On Brighton Beach Avenue, Maria K., 32, who declined to give her surname, said that watching the show had, indeed, been an unpleasant experience. But it was also true.

“It was very down to the bottom of this Brighton Beach community and the life of it,” she said.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com


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