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