By Jason Javaherian, Emma Kazaryan, Milena Kozlowska and Rebecca Ungarino
At Kebeer Draft Bar and Grill in Brighton Beach, in the heart of Brooklyn’s Russian community, every television was tuned to the XXII Olympic Winter Games hosted in Sochi, Russia on a recent Sunday evening.
Notwithstanding that men’s cross-country skiing—not a popular spectator sport—was the focus of the evening’s telecast, enthusiasm for the games appeared scant. Patrons at Kebeer, which is at the intersection of Brighton Beach and Coney Island avenues, glanced briefly at the screens to catch results, only to quickly return to their conversations.
“Russia did not need these games,” said Sergey Zinoviev, who was standing at the bar with several friends, alluding to the estimated $51 billion cost of the Sochi games, more than seven times the cost of the winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, four years ago, and larger than the $44 billion of the 2008 Beijing summer games, the next most expensive. “I think they could have spent money on more important things, like schools.”
Zinoviev, a banker, said he is not indifferent toward his native Russia. “Every time I watch the games I feel proud for Russia, especially when our sportsmen are winning,” conceded Zinoviev with a smile.
“I don’t cheer for Russia,” said Igor Galiakhmetov, 60, an owner of a Brooklyn moving company. “I cheer for good sportsmen.”
For Galiakhmetov, who moved to New York 14 years ago with his family from Novorossiysk, a port city on the Black Sea, 176 miles from Sochi, the distrust he feels for the regime of Valdimir Putin, who has ruled Russia as either president or prime minister since 2000, colors his view of the Olympics. “Knowing the Russian government, I am pretty sure that after the Olympic games, the region as well as the newly built infrastructure, will be abandoned,” he added.
As Russian émigrés follow the Sochi games from their new homes in New York, they are experiencing divided loyalties to two countries—the Russia they left behind and their adopted U.S. For many émigrés, whether they fled the former Soviet Union or Putin’s Russia, their view of the Olympics is colored by the corruption they associate with both regimes.
“Many people come to cheer for the U.S. rather than Russia,” said Rassul Massimov, an employee at Kebeer and a student at ASA College who is from Kazakhstan, which was part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991.
“We are American and are rooting for America!” agreed Matwiej Dommith, 85, also of Brighton Beach via the U.S.S.R, who has been a U.S. citizen for 20 years and has grandchildren born and raised here.
Meanwhile, on Staten Island, at the NetCost Market, on Amboy Road in the Richmondtown neighborhood, the sentiments toward the Olympics were much the same.
“I am rooting for Russia, Estonia and America, but mostly for America because they are my home,” said Igor Shurygin, who was stocking the shelves at the store, which is part of a chain popular among the community’s Russian, Estonian and Ukrainian residents; the store carries traditional Eastern European specialties, such as pierogi (potato or cheese dumplings), plov (a hearty rice dish), and kotlety (breaded meat cutlets). Shurygin, who moved to Staten Island two years ago from his native Estonia, said that when he was not working he watched the Olympic games at home, and especially enjoyed the snowboarding competitions.
Rachel Mickley moved to New York from Ukraine nearly 38 years ago and said that she, her children and U.S.-born grandchildren were all rooting for the United States. Mickley said she watched the Olympics on Channel One whenever she gets the chance; Channel One Russia, the Russian Federation’s first television channel, is available via local cable companies.
“My husband and I, we don’t want Russia to win medals,” said Ella Pil, a 39-year-old barber in the Floral Park neighborhood.
“The Olympics are a show for Putin and his friends,” said Pil, who came to the U.S. in 1994 from Uzbekistan, and reflected the animosity that many residents of former Soviet satellite countries still feel toward Russia.