After the Berlin Wall fell and Gorbachev drew back the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, Russian émigrés who had spent ten or fifteen years in the United States with the certainty that they could never go home again were suddenly able to visit the Motherland. After years of vodka-soaked nostalgia for Moscow's high culture, they returned to Moscow – only to find the same schlocky émigré culture they deplored.
The new stars in Moscow were crooners from the Russian cabarets in Brighton Beach. In this section of Brooklyn, nicknamed Little Odessa, the grandchildren of victims of Tsarist pogroms drank and wept as they listened to songs by post-Revolutionary White Russians about the good old days under Papa Tsar. These were Jews from then-Russian-controlled Ukraine and many of them were gangsters. Or spies.
Once seaside resort-style enclave of the Jewish middle class, Brighton Beach saw an unparalleled influx of Soviet Jews starting in the 1970s. Little Odessa was unmatched in its shameless kitsch, its Mafia dons, its overflowing delicatessens where if a stray native-born American ventures in, the salami-counter girls cry out in Russian, “Sveta, go serve the foreigner!”
Stout ladies and gentlemen sit on benches on the beach, handkerchiefs knotted on their heads to protect them from the sun. Apartments are furnished in a style I can only describe as High Godfather. Think gilt. Lots of it. These furnishings are the cheaper versions of what has come to be recognized as Trump's Dictator Style. As Peter York, author of Dictator Style, noted, this consists of lots of glass, gilt everywhere, and bad reproductions of eighteenth-century French furniture, because, well, l'etat c'est moi, baby.
As York wrote: “'If I’ve only got one life,' most dictators seem to think, 'let me live it surrounded by gold.' When you have all of your country’s resources at your disposal, why not? Gold furniture, gold wall decorations, columns with gold capitals, gold taps. Bright gold, fake gold, shiny alloys for functional metalwork. Viktor Yanukovych, the recently deposed pro-Russian leader of Ukraine, lived in a positive blizzard of gold, which was revealed to a waiting world when he was ousted in the country’s 2014 revolution."
Melania's taste improved over the years. We'll give her that.
Donald Trump became an honorary member of this community while working on his first big real estate project. He bought TV sets for his renovation of the the aging Commodore Hotel, which he transformed into the four-star Grand Hyatt. He got them on credit from Semyon Kislin, an immigrant from Odessa whose electronics shop with all-Russophone staff catered to Soviet diplomats, émigrés, and their visiting relatives.
Prices at the store were low, for whatever reason. (Goods that fell off trucks? Subsidies from the KGB?) The relationship between Trump and Kislin proved stable: thirty-three years later, Kislin was still around, in the middle of Trump’s first impeachment trial, having claimed to be an advisor to the president.
Kislin became a prominent figure in New York Republican party politics, starting in the Reagan administration. Emigres from the USSR loved Reagan for his “evil empire” remarks so Kislin’s presence made perfect sense.
Brooklyn's El Caribe Country Club, where Young Michael Cohen was led astray.
Then along came Lev and Igor, Felix and Michael: Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman, Felix Sater, and the feckless Michael Cohen, with their ties to the “Russian,” i.e., Ukrainian, mob, were all thrilled to hang around with Donald. And Trump’s buildings filled up with Russian émigrés. Which goes a long way to explaining the kitschy style of the buildings.
Now Craig Unger writes in his book American Kompromat that Kislin was a “spotter” for the KGB, identifying potential spies, informers, and useful idiots. Brighton Beach was full of all of them.
So Donald wound up with a Russian accent, or more precisely, an Odessan accent. Not the accent of the engineers and computer programmers who came in force after Jackson-Vanik, the 1974 law that pressured Russia to allow Jewish immigration and as an unintended consequence, introduced a startling number of Russian spies to the U.S. No. Donald Trump spoke in the racy tones of the mob. Brazen lying, confidence schemes, management by threat…it's all so sharkskin suit and big gold watch. (See Manafort; wardrobe.)
So we had the Brighton Beach president, for four years. I say “we” because in Russia, we take the American president very personally, even though we can’t vote.
Watching Alexei Navalny’s film about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s $1.37 billion palace, it's hard to deny that, in terms of execrable taste alone, Russia has her own Brighton Beach president. Symbolically enough, the over-the-top Italianate mega-villa - really, it is a palace, you can't see it as anything else - has been stripped from top to bottom by contractors because of a mold problem. Not exactly rot, but close.
In case you aren’t as glued to Kremlin politics as we are, the man responsible for the video, Alexei Navalny, is the anti-corruption activist who has refused to be intimidated by Putin. Even after barely surviving being poisoned, Navalny bravely returned to Russia Jan. 17, only to be clapped into prison.
Upon his return, Navalny released a two-hour documentary about the palace on the Black Sea coast that attracted 110 million views, and according to a Levada poll, has changed the minds of 17 percent of Russians about their president. The proof was on the streets. After he was taken into custody, demonstrators in all of Russia's 11 time zones braved sub-zero temperatures, thronging the streets and demanding that Putin leave office.
Over the past two weeks more than 11,000 citizens have been arrested as a result of demonstrations. On Valentine's Day, 300 Russian women marched in support of Navalny's wife and other women affected by mass arrests.
Americans have sent their Brighton Beach president packing to his retirement palace in Florida. Russia’s Brighton Beach president is still in power, but preparing his beachfront retirement mega-villa in the sunny South. For the time being, walls of armed men protect…something, no doubt, in 100 cities all over Russia, every weekend and some weekdays. Perhaps there are TVs involved. At a discount.
*Anton Mudretsov is the pseudonym of an architect and designer based in Croatia.
Scott Horton interviews Craig Unger, author of American Kompromat, and former KGB agent Yuri Shvets at New York's Strand Bookstore
The Strand works with JOTPY's partner, Bookshop.org. We just finished Unger's book. Highly recommended.
Russia ::: Derek & Clive
Putin ::: Randy Newman
Things Are Worse In Russia ::: Sam Mayo
From Russia With Love ::: Roland Alphonso
TV Is The Thing This Year ::: Dinah Washington
Russian Dance ::: Tom Waits