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What a Country

Twenty years after the fall of the USSR, the 1990s wave of Russian-Jewish immigrants is a reliably Republican voting bloc. But as their children assimilate, Russian Jews’ politics get harder to pin down.

Alexander Zaitchik
April 04, 2011
On the boardwalk of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York, January, 1994(Stephen Ferry/Liaison/Getty Images)
On the boardwalk of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York, January, 1994(Stephen Ferry/Liaison/Getty Images)

In 1991, as thousands of Jewish families made arrangements to leave a part of the world newly known as the Former Soviet Union, three generations of Shayeviches arrived in Chicago from Baku, Azerbaijan. The most obvious thing to do was to settle in Devon Street in Rogers Park, thick with fresh-off-the-tarmac Jews from around the former USSR. Another option was the suburb Skokie, where new arrivals, assisted by the Jewish United Fund and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, were joining a more established refugee community. But Vadim and Anya Shayevich were young, spoke English, and decided to raise their daughter away from the Brighton Beaches of the Midwest. “My parents wanted to become assimilated,” says their daughter, Bela, now a translator in Brooklyn. “So we moved out as soon as we could.”

Since then, as members of the Shayevich family have settled in different cities, they have also settled across the political spectrum. Bela’s grandparents, who spoke little English and remained dependent on Russian-language media, became Republicans. “They went the way that Russian radio wanted them to go, to the right, citing Israel,” says Bela. After Sept. 11, her father, Vadim, veered left, to the point of criticizing houseguests for wearing flag pins. “‘You used to hang a picture of Lenin there, why are you bringing your patriotic propaganda into my house?’” he asked one Polish immigrant. “The jingoism was for him too reminiscent of totalitarianism,” Bela says.

In becoming a liberal Democrat, Vadim Shayevich is in the minority of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Two waves of Russian-Jewish immigration have arrived in the United States fleeing totalitarianisms of sorts—one czarist, one communist. The first learned on the Lower East Side to mix its American patriotism with different flavors of liberalism and internationalism. The 1990s, Brighton Beach generation, not so much. Soviet Jews have generally embraced right-wing American and Israeli identities that would have left early 20th-century Lower East Siders cold. Phrased in the “Russian reversal” humor made famous by Odessa Jew Yakov Smirnoff, “In Russia, Jews loved the right-wing Republicans; in America, right-wing Republicans love Russian Jews!”


In July 1898, in the midst of America’s brief war with Spain, the Lithuanian-born Lower East Side writer and editor Abraham Cahan published his famous Atlantic Monthly essay “The Russian Jew in America,” which argued that Russian Jews were becoming patriotic Americans and deserved the trust and acceptance of their fellow citizens. For the first time in its history, the United States that summer was gripped by a modern, militaristic chauvinism. So strong was the red, white, and blue fervor for the crusade against Spain that it briefly occluded the nativist backlash that had been building against heavy immigration from southern and eastern Europe. The fever of ’98, fueled by the yellow press and marauding Patriotic societies, focused the national mind on “dastardly Dagoes,” as Spaniards were referred to, with a vengeance. Everyone else was, for the moment, off the hook.

Cahan, a refugee from the pogroms that followed the assassination of Alexander II, knew an opportunity when he saw one. He seized upon the war hysteria to advance the cause of his fellow Jews newly arrived from the Russian Empire—an emigration of 2 million destined to displace the Irish famine exodus as the largest in history. In 1898, Russian Jews needed all the help they could get. Gentiles and Americanized Jews alike had become increasingly vocal in decrying the Ostjuden as a threat to social cohesion (not to mention the social acceptance attained by earlier waves of Jews). The Yiddish-speaking refugees were, in the representative judgment of one Midwestern Jewish publication, “superstitious and uncouth Asiatics.” And so Cahan did what any smart ethnic advocate would do in wartime: He waved the flag ’til it hurt.

“The Jewish immigrants look upon the United States as their country, and now that it is engaged in war they do not shirk their duty,” wrote Cahan, who the previous year had founded the Jewish Daily Forward. “They have contributed three times their quota of volunteers to the army, and they had their representatives among the first martyrs of the campaign.”

To bolster his case for Russian Jews, Cahan pointed to voting patterns that showed the Lower East Side to be among the least corrupt ethnic wards in New York. This was true; it was also beside the point. By the late 1890s, socialism had replaced Tammany as the bogeyman haunting nativist dreams. Twenty years before the Bolshevik Revolution, Jews were closely associated in the American mind with radicalism and subversion—a race of Emma Goldmans. This fear would contribute to the U.S. government’s decision to tighten the immigration spigot during the 1920s.

Looking back, fears over Jewish radicalism were overblown. The “red Jews” of the Lower East Side never came close to fomenting revolution in America. Instead, they published some radical newspapers and elected a handful of socialist state assemblymen, plus a judge or two. Cahan’s plea for their patriotism today reads like the journalistic equivalent of a tenement museum, with many of the people he described learning a trade and becoming successful capitalists. Some of his grandchildren would even go on to lead a conservative counterrevolution against the legacy of the immigrant-hero FDR. Indeed, right-wing descendants of the first wave of Russian Jews are now scattered wide enough to supply Adam Sandler with an album’s worth of material without even mentioning Norman Podhoretz: Lillie Friedman raised Geraldo Rivera on her favorite Slavic dish/and don’t forget Sly Stallone’s mama, born Jacqueline Labofish.

But overall the legacy of the first wave of Russian Jewry tilts left. Most of their offspring became committed Democrats, with a dwindling overlap of gestural socialists. It would take a second wave of Russian Jews, arriving decades later and from the other side of the Russian Revolution, to bring a significant number of right-wing Jews to America.

The symbol of this second exodus is, of course, Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn neighborhood whose revival during the 1980s is credited to the tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian Jews who settled there and recreated Odessa on the Atlantic. Not that they were the first Jews to settle the neighborhoods. At the turn of the last century, as popular entertainments like Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East Show featured costumed Cossacks, Russian-speaking Jews from Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the Brownsville area of Brooklyn began settling along the newly developed Atlantic waterfront of Brooklyn, setting up left-leaning political groups and establishing a Yiddish theater in the old Brighton Beach Music Hall.

For reasons that may seem self-evident, the Jews who resettled Brighton Beach during the 1980s and ’90s viewed the world differently than their pinko predecessors from the Lower East Side. Unlike their forebears who fled the czarist barefoot brigades in the Pale of Settlement, that vast and vaguely boot-shaped swath of buffer ghetto that once separated Russia from Europe and ran from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, Soviet Jews did not see socialism in any of its variants as a liberation theology. The Moses of this second wave of Russian Jews was not Karl Marx but Ronald Reagan.

“Many Russian Jews came around the time of the Reagan Administration and compare his stand favorably to the pandering and weakness of the Carter Administration,” says Igor Branovan, president of the American Forum of Russian Jewry. “This created the stamp in the mind of the Russian immigrant that Republicans are stronger and more likely to stand up to tyranny than the Democrats.”

This gratitude for Reagan’s aggressive foreign policy tends to come with a domestic policy-preference flipside, in the form of revulsion at the perceived statism of the Democrats. “Because of the Soviet experience, Russian Jews are by nature skeptical of activist government,” says Branovan, who emigrated from Kaliningrad, Russia, in 1980. “We are drawn to the philosophy of rugged individualism espoused by the GOP.”

“When I was a kid coming up on Kings Highway”—the artery that slices through the heart of southern Brooklyn—“everybody was looking for opportunities,” says Dmitriy Salita, a professional boxer whose family moved from Odessa to Brooklyn in 1991. “Russian Jews are smart and hardworking and came here hungry to make something of themselves. I’d say less than 1 percent of Russian Jews think of themselves as liberals in terms of expecting [help from] the government.”

One percent is likely low, but Russian Jews vote Republican at the national level much more than other Jews. The most recent data, from the 2004 election, show that Russian Jews preferred Bush to Kerry by a margin of 3 to 1. Israel, national security, and the economy topped the list of concerns among Russian Jews, but there was also a cultural component to their preference; they were among the so-called Values Voters who voted Republican based on cultural wedge issues. A month before the election, 81 percent of Russian Jews supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages—nearly the inverse number of Jews nationally. They also expressed heavy opposition to affirmative action and showed less support for on-demand abortion, according to numbers compiled by the Research Institute for New Americans, which tracks the Russian-speaking community.

At the local level, it’s a more mixed picture, but even in municipal elections, Russian Jews will vote against the grain. “In New York, Russian Jews have consistently supported candidates known to be tough on crime and conservative on moral issues, notably New York’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani,” says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis. “Whether their children will vote the same way remains to be seen.”


Theirs is no country-club Republicanism. Russian Jews in New York, the nation’s largest Russian-Jewish community, numbering 350,000, are largely under-employed; a majority earns less than $30,000. (These numbers do not reflect under-education. The average Russian Jewish immigrant has more higher education that his average American Jewish counterpart.)

Together with nostalgic Reaganism, Israel is a major factor cited in the development of Russian Jewish politics. The most recent study on the subject found that 89 percent of Russian Jews have close relatives or friends in Israel, more than twice the proportion of American-born Jews. “Within the Russian Jewish community, Israel is not an idea, it’s a reality,” says Branovan, of the American Forum of Russian Jewry. “When things occur in Israel, it impacts the Russian population in an immediate way. There’s a stronger connection.”

“Russians really have no sense of Jewish identity that can be built around anything besides the state of Israel,” says activist Rabbi Moish Soloway, of Brighton Beach. “A lot of the younger Russian folks especially are very hawkish, similar to the new generation of Israelis.”

“We could not be Jews in USSR, and so Russian Jews learned to express their love of Judaism through their relationship to Israel,” notes Salita, the boxer, an observant Jew active in a Lubavitcher youth program. “In Odessa, we’d listen to American radio just to get news about Israel. Whatever good happened in Israel, we rejoiced together. We all shared the dream of freedom but didn’t have it. We have an understanding of how important it is. To have a place on earth for the Jews is still something incredible to them.”

There is also the related issue of the profound cynicism and tough-mindedness born of living under a totalitarian regime. “Russian Jews understand that the dovish position on Israel is naïve, so they won’t support liberal candidates on this issue,” says Gennady Katsov, a journalist with Russian cable news channel RTN. “The Soviet experience teaches that you have to stay strong, choose non-conformism, and fight your enemies. It is more Malcolm X, less Martin Luther King.” Salita says Russian Jews “have been whipped on their backs and have a tougher mentality born from experience. They are tired of being bullied, being told what to do.”

Lurking behind these much-discussed reasons for Russian Jewish conservatism is the fact of deeply ingrained Russian xenophobia, which some say the nation’s Jews have internalized despite being an oppressed group themselves. This, say some, makes them more susceptible to the racial dog whistles employed by conservative politicians. Weeks before the 2008 election, Walter Ruby reported for the Jewish Week that he did not have to search Brighton Beach very hard before finding Russian-speaking Jews who subscribed to a Sarah Palin’s view of the United States; one real, one fake; one implicitly white, one not. “The president of such a great country ought to be a real American, by which I mean a white person,” one respondent told Ruby. Others expressed the fear that a Barack Obama victory would lead to “black triumphalism” and increased crime. When Rabbi Soloway appeared on local Russian-language Radio Davidzon to advocate for Obama, callers attacked him viciously.

“It’s gotten worse since the election,” says Soloway, a Democrat who emigrated from Leningrad in 1989 and today writes a column for the right-wing Russian-language paper Evreiskii Mir (Jewish World). “I am routinely called everything from ‘liberal scumbag’ to ‘fag lover.’ The style of many Russian Jews is old-school communist—my way or the highway. It’s like, ‘Why did you bother moving to the United States? You should have stayed in Russia.’ ”

Some say this is less true among the young. “Cities in the former USSR are not like NYC,” says Salita. “You don’t grow up around different kinds of people on the train and the bus, walking down the street. But the second generation of Russian Jews is like all American kids, absorbed into American society.”

Then there is the Russian respect for strongmen and the tough-guy image cultivated by the Republican Party. Russian Jews may unanimously loathe the Christian militarist Vladimir Putin, but they fell in love with his American analog, George W. Bush.

“Russians respect power,” says Gary Shteyngart, a novelist who emigrated to New York from Leningrad at age 7. “Many immigrants give lip service to democracy but in the end they want some patriarchal white guy to run things with a strong hand. Feelings of oppression that began within the anti-Semitic confines of the Soviet Union are turned from a defensive to an offensive stance under the false perception that the Democratic Party is indistinguishable from the Communist Party of the USSR.”

“There’s something in a lot of Russian-Jewish immigrant men that is opposed to the ideas of improvement and progress,” says Mark Krotov, a book editor whose family emigrated from Moscow to Atlanta in 1991. “The idea that it’s worth fighting for things—they think it’s feminine. They detest the Putin regime but bristle at the notion of opposition. It sometimes runs in tandem with an anti-intellectual streak, which is ironic when it’s found among intellectuals. There is this general disgust for weakness.”

This disgust took a noxious form during the controversy over a lower Manhattan Islamic center and mosque last summer, when young Russian Jewish immigrants made common cause with the quasi-fascist English Defence League in opposing the center, now called Park51. But do they really represent the future of Russian Jews in America? While there exists no hard data on the subject, it’s possible the future looks like 20-something Bela Shayevich, who started her assimilation in Chicago 20 years ago and now finds herself somewhere between nominally liberal and completely nonpolitical, just like most Americans her age. She does not consider her apathy a dereliction of civic duty but a psychological American luxury.

“The degree and the nature of my father’s and my grandparents’ convictions come out of trauma,” she says. “It makes me very sad to see how they compensate for having spent the majority of their lives in a terrible place.”

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