Sunday, February 22, 2009

Russian TV in America

There are four major Russian language TV channels in the US. They are very different, and represent two point of views: American and the Kremlin. Unfortunately, in recent years the Kremlin-based ideology is slowly overtaking the American-based viewpoint. You can watch locally produced programming only on the Russian Television International (RTVi) and on the Russian Television Network of America (RTN/WMNB). The two others, NTV America and Channel I (formerly ORT) have almost no local production, with the exception of advertising. NTV America also has one daily local program, "Today in America", which ironically contains few stories about the United States. In the last few years, NTV America produced one popular local entertainment show, called, "Time Out" by Oleg Frish.

The owner of RTVi is Vladimir Gusinsky, former Russian oligarch and former leader of the Russian-Jewish Congress. A vocal critic of the Putin regime, he barely escaped imprisonment and managed to emigrate to Israel, where he lives today. Gusinsky also owns the Israeli daily Hebrew language paper, "Ma'ariv", and the popular soccer club there. His TV station has studios in New York, Jerusalem, Berlin and New York. RTVI local programming include news by-the-hour, some entertainment & sports, and several other shows. The most popular journalist at RTVi is Victor Topaller, a talented right-wing journalist, and a controversial host on his weekly TV show.

RTN is owned by the Reform Rabbi Mark Golub from Connecticut, who is also a talented drama producer, and host of the Jewish radio program, "Le'chaim". RTN rebroadcasts several news & entertainment programs from Russia, Ukraine, and Israel, but it is mostly famous for its local productions. RTN employs about fifty journalists and other staff. RTN reporters and TV hosts are well known Russian-speaking immigrants who live in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Channel I (ORT) is the propaganda from Moscow. The quality of its programming is superb. They have reporters all over the world, the best studios and equipment, and high quality audio & picture. It offers a huge variety of entertainment programs, movies, news and talk shows. But the content of its news is obviously anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Western.

NTV America is also owned by the Russian government, specifically by GASPROM (the government-controlled gas monopoly). That is why its news programs often depict America as a collapsing empire, with a weakening dollar and with a lack of morals. Sometimes, NTV America and ORT describe the world events in similar terms and even show similar footage.

You can imagine that the budget of the Russian Federation is definitely bigger than the wealth of Rabbi Golub and Vladimir Gusinsky. So, RTN and RTVi are competing in a very tough environment, against the Kremlin propaganda machine. In my opinion, this is not a fair fight. I'm a strong believer in the local programming - with immigrants as TV hosts, guests, and producers. I understand that the quality of Moscow-based shows is significantly higher than the quality of shows produced in the small studios of ethnic TV stations in the US, but Kremlin doesn't care about our life here. Moscow wants to create the so-called, "Russian Diaspora", loyal to Russia. Kremlin needs it for business investments from the US, for political purpose (lobbying Russian interests in Washington), and for other goals that have nothing to do with American interests.
I hope that RTN and RTVi will stay in business despite the competitive pressure from Moscow. We are not Russian compatriots abroad, we are Russian-speaking Americans, who love this country with all of its problems and successes.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Holidays in the Russian Community - Mix of Old and New Countries

Nothing would describe the Russian-speaking community in the United States better than the list of holidays it celebrates. Some of them are the leftovers from the Soviet times, others are American and Jewish, and some are international, but not widely known in the US.

We love to celebrate some traditional American holidays in our own "Russian" way. Thanksgiving Day? You can see signs all over Russian stores like "Discounted Turkeys" ("Deshoviye Turky", to be exact). Labor Day weekend? Everybody is on vacation.

Independence Day? There are plenty of events with freshman citizens carrying the Stars and Stripes, and embracing the popular slogan, "God bless America!" and listening to patriotic songs on TV and radio.

Instead of celebrating Mother's Day and Father's Day (don't get me wrong - some people do celebrate them), our community prefers to stick with February 23 and March 8. The first one is celebrated as Men's Day, while the second one is praised as International Women 's Day.
In reality, February 23 is an official holiday in the Russian Federation - Russian Army Day. This Communist holiday was established by Lenin and his Bolshevik colleagues in 1918 to boost morale of the Red Army soldiers. The point is quite simple: this day has nothing to do with the Victory over Nazis in 1945. Still, every year on February 23, here in the U.S. Russian TV and Radio stations, newspapers editorials and members of war veterans families celebrate this "Great Holiday". Many women in our community use this occasion to congratulate their men because that was customary in the Soviet Union. Personally, I refuse to celebrate this Communist holiday because it has nothing to do with the USA, nor the Victory over Nazis nor fatherhood. Unfortunately, the Russian embassy in D.C. and the Russian Consulate in New York always try to manipulate elderly Russian-speaking veterans into celebrating this occasion.

Next comes March 8 - International Woman's Day. It's not celebrated in the U.S., and it also has some kind of Communist/feminist history. But, at least, March 8 was not invented by Lenin, Stalin or Brezhnev and was not associated with the Red Army. On this day, women in the Russian-speaking community are used to receiving flowers, perfume, and other gifts. Usually on March 8, I congratulate my wife, my mother-in-law, my sister, my female co-workers, but not my American-born friends.

May 9 is also a sacred day for all Russian-speaking immigrants. On that day in 1945, the Soviet Union officially declared "Final Victory" over the Nazis. That is why we celebrate this holiday as the most important day of the year. It's a special holiday for Holocaust survivors, World War II veterans and people who barely escaped the Nazi occupation (like my mother-in-law). We usually don't celebrate similar American holidays like Veteran's Day, Memorial Day or even D-Day (when anti-Hitler allies landed on Nazi-occupied Normandy in 1944.)
Moreover, in recent years Russian diplomats started actively engaging Russian-speaking seniors on May 9, attempting to promote Russian patriotism, by playing nostalgic themes. I don't like these KGB spies hanging around Brighton Beach.
Unfortunately, our veterans feel comfortable inside the Russian Consulate...

Finally, we celebrate New Year and Yom Kippur. On New Year, Russian immigrants must put on the dinner table the classic Russian salad " Olivye" (mix of green peas, carrots, potatoes,eggs,bologna and mayonnaise) and a Champagne bottle. On Yom Kippur, Russian Jews usually show up at their local synagogue (often for the first and last time in a year) and donate $100 in memory of their deceased parents.

We are all still struggling to answer the same question about our identity: who we are? Russians? Jews? Americans? Religious or atheists? The proper answer would be the unusual mix of everything. We like Russian culture, but at the same time we feel passionately towards Israel and our Jewish roots. We celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, Yom Kippur and Purim while ignoring kosher, Shabbos and prayers. Where else can you see Hanukkah Menorah and Christmas tree at the same time? We try to adapt to American traditions and we love to say "God bless America!", but we still enjoy watching most of the programs of the Channel I, which is nothing more than direct rebroadcasting of the state-controlled channel from Moscow.

The Russians are here... and over there as well...

I forgot to mention that younger Russians also embrace Halloween while older people like to celebrate Valentine's Day.

Congressman McMahon: A Breath of the Fresh Air

He is a non-traditional politician. Democrat Michael McMahon was elected last November in the very conservative 13th Congressional District that was represented by Republicans in the last 28 years. He received 61% of votes in Staten Island, Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and parts of Bensonhurst.

People voted for him because Councilman McMahon was not a liberal ideologue, but was a pragmatic fighter for some important bread-and-butter local issues like free ferry service, garbage clean-up, Internet connection and air conditioners in schools, free children clinic and so on...

So, it was not a surprise that he was endorsed by Independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, Conservative Borough President James Molinaro and all unions of law-enforcement professionals, including police officers and firefighters.

Unlike his disgraced predecessor Vito Fossella, Congressman Michael McMahon is not planning to create a "Family Values" caucus in the House of Representatives. He sincerely loves his great wife Judy and their two fabulous children, he cares about them, no matter how busy his schedule is.

When we campaigned together on Staten Island last year, Mike proved to be an honest, humorous, appreciative and decent person who always kept his word and knew how to tak to ordinary folks. He never promised something he could not deliver (he preferred to say "I will never let you down"). He paid huge attention to the Russian-speaking community, appearing at Davidzon Radio, campaigning in Staten Island neighborhoods like Captain's Quarter, Midland Beach and South Beach, meeting with Russian seniors at 9000 Shore Road (Fort Hamilton). I was very surprised to receive from McMahon the hand-written "thank you" note after his Victory Day.

On February 4, 2008 I was hired as his Assistant for Community Affairs and started to work part-time in his Brooklyn office (in Bay Ridge). I am very grateful to Congressman Michael McMahon for giving me a chance to work with him for the benefit of Russian-speaking immigrants. I am excited and proud to represent him at community events.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Disabled People Make Us Strong

For outsiders, he is just another wheelchair-bound man. But for people who know Michael Kremerov, he is a hero. In my opinion, Kremerov can replace any army of able bodied, energetic young people. For example, he traveled from Staten Island to Brooklyn just to appear on the Boardwalk where I declared my candidacy for NYS Assembly. Or he can work as Editor-In-Chief and Publisher of a monthly newspaper, "Vesti ABRUD" (ABRUD stands for American Brotherhood for Russian Disabled). Or he can be one of the main organizers of the Annual Brooklyn Disability Awareness Day in Seaside Park with more than 5,000 people, entertainment, food, stands with souvenirs, brochures, and gifts from the sponsors of the event. Michael Kremerov became disabled during his childhood. He was active in the Disabled People' s Organization in Russia. And here in New York, he joined ABRUD more than twelve years ago, when this Brotherhood had less than 500 members.

Today, ABRUD is a major presence in the Russian-speaking community, with almost 10,000 members (elderly and disabled), regular meetings and annual festivities, its own publication, and a Board of Directors with many prominent leaders of the community. Kremerov left the SSI rolls several years ago and now he works for the medical clinic, "Intermed", as a coordinator for patients with disabilities. Michael has a creative mind and plenty of interesting ideas. He successfully lobbies elected officials to pay more attention to problems of elderly and disabled people. Last year, after his trip to Albany, where he and his colleagues met several legislators, New York State reinstated subsidizes for the important programs like services for disabled, nursing homes, and day care centers.

It is refreshing for me to talk to a friend like Michael. He has sense of humour, he loves his wife and son, he enjoys picnics and holiday parties. He is very reliable, and always likes to finish the job. But what is most amazing, he never forgets things like birthdays, anniversaries, and someones hobbies. Basically, Kremerov always thinks about others, and serves as a reminder to all of us that physical appearance could be misguiding.

I feel calm, assured, and relaxed when I'm in his company. Thank you, Michael, for your warmth and hospitality.

Ari Kagan, member of the Board of Directors of ABRUD

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Immigrant New York:The Invisible Media

It's an open secret for many New Yorkers: almost half of the population in the capital of the world was born outside of the United States. Immigrants are rarely mentioned in the mainstream media and almost everybody assumes that the New York Times, The New York Post, and the Daily News are the most influential media outlets for the entire city. Another wrong perception puts CNN, FOX NEWS, CBS, ABC, and NBC as the most watched TV channels in New York City. But the reality is different. Overwhelmingly, immigrants prefer and trust their ethnic community newspapers, radio, and TV stations over mainstream major media outlets.
Readers of Vecherniy New York (Russian Language Weekly), Nowy Dziennik (Polish Daily News), World Journal (Chinese Daily), El Diario (Spanish Daily), Irish Echo (Weekly) receive most of their information about the city, state, and country as well as news about the world from their favorite ethnic newspapers. Why? Because they know their editors and reporters; because they recognize their relatives, friends, and neighbors on the photos in these publications and because they find there the point of view closer to them. People who work for these immigrant newspapers followed the same paths, faced similar challenges in adapting for new conditions -- just like their readers. People who work for ethnic radio and TV stations know the mentality, traditions, and habits of their audiences much more than even the best journalists of the National Public Radio, or CNN. That is why, immigrants often feel ostracized by the mainstream media that usually focuses on the stories about the Russian Mafia, Chinese illegal immigrants, or Hispanic high school dropouts and the like.

So, I feel proud to be one of the first members of the Steering Committee of the Independent Press Association of New York (IPA-NY), which for the first time united more than 150 ethnic and community newspapers all over the city. Today, NYCMA (New York Community Media Alliance), formerly IPA-NY, provides crucial assistance and support to this important, but often ignored, part of the media market. It's hard to underestimate the tremendous power of NYCMA. It organizes the annual IPPIES Awards ceremonies, where the best reporters from various ethnic & community media receive prizes for their journalistic achievements. NYCMA also provides technical support, places ads through its advertising service, translates the most valuable stories from many foreign languages and publishes them on its online digest, "Voices That Must Be Heard". In the last several years, NYCMA organized seminars, workshops, journalistic retreats, and fellowships. For example, this year eighteen journalists from ethnic & community newspapers participate in the Fellowship Program (Educational Beat), where they meet representatives from the Department of Education and teachers union, high school principals, educators, advocates for children and parents. All fellows write stories about educational issues in their respective communities. Usually, underpaid immigrant reporters receive $600 monthly stipend for 10 months of participation in this fellowship. But the most important achievement of NYCMA is the creation of the "Feel Good Community" of journalists from all communities of our great city. Last year, thanks to NYCMA, many of us banded together and covered the US Presidential primaries and national party conventions. It was truly a remarkable experience to meet and cover Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and other presidential hopefuls. Besides, our journalistic friendship helped our communities to understand each other much better than before.
On my own initiative, I started to invite ethnic reporters to be guests on my weekly TV show on RTN. Recently, I interviewed Luna Liu from the World Journal. We talked about the growing power of the Chinese community, the celebration of the Chinese New Year, and the similarities between Russian and Chinese parents (we both want to see our children get the best education).
I believe that NYCMA has a great future. Even in these tough economic times, non-for-profit foundations are eager to support an organization which reflects the diversity of New York and represents the views of almost half of the city's population.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Michelle Obama Receives Fashion Tips from A Former Model

September 5, 2008

This article was written by Ari Kagan who was in Minnesota to cover the Republican National Convention under a project sponsored by the radio Feet in Two Worlds and the New York Community Media Alliance

Tatiana Sorokko is a beautiful former model, tall, and an all-about-business person. An energetic, self-confident and proud young woman, she is a contributing editor for Harper’s Bazaar and a former freelance reporter in Moscow for the Russian edition of Vogue magazine. Her husband Serge Sorokko works as a real estate developer in San Francisco. During his 30 years in America he has admired Republicans, especially President Ronald Reagan.

Tatiana and Serge came to St. Paul, MN for the Republican National Convention. But they were not regular delegates. They proudly flashed their VIP credentials as “McCain 100 Team” members: the Sorokkos say they raised about $100,000 for the presidential campaign of the senator from Arizona.

I met this interesting couple from California inside the Xcel Energy Center, where the Republican National Convention was being held (I overheard their conversation in Russian). “We believe in tax cuts, strong leaders like John McCain and Sarah Palin, and staying on the offensive against terrorists. That is why we are hard core Republicans,” said Serge.

Tatiana offered some comments on so-called political fashion. “Michelle Obama made the same mistake as Teresa Kerry four years ago. Michelle wore a light blue dress that was totally similar to the color of the background video of blue sky. Teresa wore a red suit that reminded everybody of ketchup (the sauce that made her family fortune). Both of them did not understand fashion and the importance of good taste for public figures.”

Tatiana introduced me to her longtime friend Georgette Mosbacher who is a chairwoman of the New York-based organization Women for McCain. “Look at her,” said the Russian writer for the popular fashion magazine, “she is gorgeous and hot, she just gave a 30 minute interview to Fox and Friends, and she really knows how to dress, so everybody gets excited about her candidate. Not like those clumsy Democratic wives.”
Georgette Mosbacher (left) with Serge and Tatiana Sorokko at the Republican National Convention

Photo by Ari Kagan

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Coney Island: Glorious Past, Bright Future... Dark Present



Recently I attended a meeting between Coney Island Development Corporation, City Planning Commission and Brighton Improvement District. I listened to the designated speakers with growing disbelief. I caught myself on the thought that I attended more than fifteen similar events in the last five years. There were numerous public presentations by CIDC, CPC, Thor Equities (President Joe Sitt), Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Community Board 13, New York City Economic Development Corporation, and so on. All of them looked and sounded absolutely the same: concerned about the future of Coney Island, praising the beginning of the 20th century in the neighborhood history, ignoring the tough and unpleasant realities of Coney Island today.
During my campaign for NYS Assembly in 2006, I met with many local residents who expressed total luck of confidence in this confusing and very long process. They told me they do not believe Joe Sitt as well as Mayor Bloomberg. They felt complete ignorance by the city and state authorities to their needs and problems. They asked me, "How could we like any of these plans to build condominiums, restaurants, hotel towers and stuff like spa, while we live in low-quality public housing with high crime, and drugs around?" They were reasonably disappointed with a lot of talk and no actions whatsoever.
So, here we were for another round of the same talk. This time, the city was making an effort to reach not just the black community of Coney Island and the local Community Board, but also Russian-speaking businessmen, and community activists from Brighton Beach. The speakers tried to assure us that they know and care about the scarcity of available parking in the area (the plan predicts the creation of more than seven thousand parking spots), the importance of the thousands construction and hospitality jobs for local residents, the necessity of the year-round busy amusement district. They deflected controversial questions about developer Joe Sitt who controls huge chunks of property in the amusement area and about State Senator Carl Kruger who recently became Chairman of the influential Finance committee. Joe Sitt and Carl Kruger together can easily block any city plans by stalling the process for a long time.
I believe that Coney Island residents as well as all New Yorkers deserve to see the better future of this unique neighborhood during their lifetime. To achieve this milestone, all parties, including controversial ones should put their ambitions aside and work together to reach a sensible compromise.