Joseph Berger

To many Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, the cornucopia in the shops along Brighton Beach Avenue — pyramids of oranges, heaps of Kirby cucumbers, bushels of tomatoes with their vines still attached and a variety of fish, sausages and pastries — seems like an exuberant rebuke of the meager produce that was available to them when they lived in the Soviet Union.
This contrast helps explain a striking political anomaly: immigrants from the former Soviet Union are far more apt to vote for Republicans than are most New Yorkers, who often drink in Democratic Party allegiance with their mothers’ milk and are four times as likely to register as Democrats than as Republicans.

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  1. shinichi Post author

    Even as New York is expected to overwhelmingly support the re-election of President Obama this fall, his presumptive Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, and other down-ticket Republicans can expect considerable support from enclaves of Russian speakers, like those in the Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay neighborhoods of southern Brooklyn.

    These areas favored Senator John McCain by roughly 55 percent to 45 percent in the 2008 presidential contest, while New Yorkers over all preferred Mr. Obama three to one. Since then, Russian speakers have helped the Republican candidates in three recent local elections: those involving Representatives Bob Turner and Michael G. Grimm, both of whom won, and David Storobin, a State Senate candidate who held a slim lead initially in a special election in March but has not been declared the winner because some ballots are still being challenged in court.

    One reason these voters tend to support Republicans is that they see them as more ardent warriors against the kind of big-government, business-stifling programs that soured their lives in the Soviet Union. Their conservative stances on issues like taxes and Israel seem to outweigh their more liberal views on social issues like abortion.

    Tatiana Varzar came to the United States in 1979, at age 21, from the Ukrainian seaport of Odessa. She worked as a manicurist and then opened a small restaurant on the boardwalk that grew into Tatiana Restaurant, a spacious magnet for foodies who like a whiff of salt air and a sea view with their pirogen. Today it is a destination for high-powered Russians, like some of the executives who own the Brooklyn Nets.

    “I am what I am because of capitalism,” Ms. Varzar said, “and Republicans are more capitalistic.”

    Anatoly Alter immigrated from Kiev, Ukraine, in 1978, worked as a machine operator in Manhattan’s fur district and now owns one of the fur emporiums on Brighton Beach Avenue, a shop lush with mink, sable and ermine coats. In his view, Democrats like Mr. Obama have introduced “a socialist mentality,” which is why he prefers Republicans. “Too many people want to rely on free money and socialist institutions, and they want businessmen to pay for it,” Mr. Alter said.

    Some scholars likened the attitudes of Soviet immigrants to those of the Vietnamese boat people who fled their homeland’s Communist government and of the Cuban refugees who fled the government of Fidel Castro, both of whom took a more conservative tack in the United States than the members of most immigrant groups.

    “Having been seared by statism, they see Democrats as drifting toward statism and see that as dangerous for themselves and for the country,” said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership.

    Support for Israel is another motivator. The majority of the 350,000 Soviet immigrants in New York City are Jewish, culturally if not in practice; scholars estimate the number as between 70 percent and 90 percent. Many Russian speakers have relatives and friends in Israel, where their population has also exerted a rightward push on national politics, and they tend to reward Republicans, whom they view as more unswerving defenders of that nation.

    Another inspiration for their conservatism, scholars and political professionals say, is the legacy of President Ronald Reagan. Kalman Yeger, a campaign manager for Lewis A. Fidler, a city councilman and Mr. Storobin’s Democratic opponent in the State Senate race, said many Soviet immigrants never lost their gratitude to Reagan for his role in the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. His 1987 exhortation to Mikhail Gorbachev that he tear down the Berlin Wall still flutters hearts in Brighton Beach.

    “The Republican Party was the party that brought them out of despair,” Mr. Yeger said.

    As with any demographic group, Soviet immigrants are not monolithic. They will largely support veteran Democratic officeholders, like Senator Charles E. Schumer, whom they see as having funneled government money to their communities or who have campaigned heavily in Russian areas. And they tend to support Russian-speaking candidates from either party when they run against non-Russian speakers, which partly explains why Mr. Storobin got an estimated 60 percent of the Russian vote against Mr. Fidler, said Ari Kagan, a Russian-language journalist.

    Given the importance of primaries in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, Soviet immigrants may register as Democrats in roughly the same numbers as they do as Republicans, political professionals say. In fact, the Russians of southern Brooklyn may prove influential in the Democratic Congressional primary battle between Hakeem Jeffries, a moderate state assemblyman, and Charles Barron, a city councilman who has criticized Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

    Still, they are far more likely than most New Yorkers, even immigrant New Yorkers, to support Republican candidates. Soviet immigrants make up almost one-third of the 27th State Senate district, which includes parts of Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Manhattan Beach, Mill Basin and Sheepshead Bay and voted 55 percent for Senator McCain in 2008 — the second-highest proportion of the state’s 62 senatorial districts, said David Simpson, a spokesman for Mr. Storobin.

    “They are not your average New York City voter,” Mr. Simpson said.

    Of course, the Soviet immigrants in New York are, in part, self-selected, having come to the United States because they were disenchanted with Communism, said Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

    Ruslan Pelin, 40, a software developer who left Moldova and lives in Westchester County, said those who preferred state-run economies chose to immigrate to “more socialist societies.”

    “Russians who immigrated to the U.S. are looking for and believing in core or true capitalist ideals,” Mr. Pelin said. “Otherwise they would go to Scandinavian or European countries, or to Canada.”

    Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, a Democrat and the first Soviet immigrant to win elective office in New York, said that despite the antipathy many Russian immigrants expressed toward state programs, a large number of his compatriots worked in hospitals, nursing homes and social-service agencies that received government financing, and that elderly Russians in particular were beneficiaries of those programs. But the local businessmen who profit from consumption by those wage earners and public-benefit recipients do not understand the link, he said: they simply want low taxes and believe “the less government, the better.”

    Mr. Brook-Krasny said he believed that younger Russian speakers and those who had educated themselves in American politics would ultimately move toward the Democrats.

    “In my opinion,” he said, “the more you know, the more liberal you become.”

    But people like Arkadiy Fridman, 54, who publishes Citizens, a monthly, Russian-flavored magazine with a circulation of 53,000 that has endorsed Mr. Romney in the presidential contest this year, disagreed.

    “I grew up under Communism; I know what it’s like,” said Mr. Fridman, who also runs a child-care center on Staten Island. He said he believed too much government involvement in the economy would lead to an economic crash, adding, “The Russian government took money from the people and waste it.”


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