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Putin’s Men: A Story

Jeffrey Kassel
December 28, 2014

by Jeffrey Kassel

26F67D71-650D-4E5A-B28B-DFBD4B5E6966_w640_r1_sON AUGUST 6TH, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Black Fleet base in Sevastopol, Crimea, formerly of Ukraine, now of Russia. With the international and domestic press corps listening, he said, “Russia will protect the interests of Russians wherever they are, in Russia or abroad.”

On September 3rd, a strange-looking vessel, more at home in Arctic waters, showed up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. The vessel had been disguised to look like a fishing boat, and the name had been changed from Akademician Vitaly Nemorsky to Angelina IV. This special mission by able Russian seamen who had some working knowledge of English was intended to defend the interests of the Russian community in Brooklyn.

Each sailor had been briefed on what to expect, issued maps and dollars, and dressed in the latest smart versions of warm-up suits & Adidas. They were ordered to separate so as not to cause attention, but to report back to the dock by 0100 hours. That gave them twelve hours to find the Russian-speaking community and see how desperate the locals were in the face of the hatred and prejudice of the misguided Obama administration and the American people.

IN THE EARLY MORNING HOUR, the seamen reported their findings to the Political Officer on board. Here are some excerpts:

• Dmitri reported that he had walked over to Sheepshead Bay Road. He said that in some ways the street reminded him of his hometown, Dnepropetrovsk. He followed a man who was dressed like himself, in a warm-up suit. He entered Big Body Gym, one flight up. The receptionist, a blond beauty originally from Riga, welcomed him and gave him a visitor’s day pass. He had such a wonderful day that he signed up with a yearly membership;

• Feodor hadn’t gone far from the ship. He saw a couple eating outside on the patio of Baku Restaurant. He told them he was new to the neighborhood, and to start a conversation, asked them how the shashlik was. They invited him to join them, and after two bottles of St. Petersburg Pepper Vodka he felt right at home;

• Igor (who had necessarily kept his sexual orientation a secret) also didn’t go far from the ship (and didn’t tell all in this report). While walking down Emmons Avenue, he noticed that at a beer hall down the block, the waiter, another blond beauty, on this quiet summer day, had removed his shirt, and was sunbathing outside the restaurant. Igor asked him if he had the time, even though he himself was wearing a watch. Next Thursday, they have a date. (What he said in his report was that he had met a friend who had emigrated last year, and they would be getting together soon).

• Josef (the only Jew amongst the crew) reported that he had walked down to the Holocaust Memorial on Corbin Street. He thought this might be a good place to find local Jews from the late Soviet Union so he could get an idea of what things were like for his landsmen. He came across an elderly couple sunbathing at the foot of Sheepshead Bay at the Memorial. He had learned some Yiddish from his grandfather, so he started in Yiddish by asking them if they were Jews. Of course, they said. He asked them how things were here in Brooklyn for the Jews. How should it be, they responded. They were comfortable. Life was good. He asked them where they were from. They were from Kharkov. He asked them about their life in Ukraine. The Russians? The Ukrainians? Look, they said. Life was life. Here they are happy. He was a doctor in Ukraine; here he was an Emergency Medical Technician, retired. She was a dentist there; here she was a dental hygienist. (She smiled, and showed her new teeth: no gold showing.) Did they miss socialism, he asked? Miss socialism? Here they had more socialism than in the Soviet Union: pensions; Social Security; health insurance; Rent Stabilization; Access-A-Ride; the Shorefront YMHA. Josef was envious.

• Nikita had also gone to Sheepshead Bay Road, but he was looking for a Russian Orthodox Church. He saw an elderly woman with a babushka, and she told him to take the train to Kings Highway. There, he found the Russian Orthodox service at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on Avenue P. Not many believers, he thought, but nonetheless believers, icons, candles, prayers. He was surprised to find this in America, after what Putin had said.

• Gregor had wandered around the neighborhood. He walked down Avenue Z, and came upon the largest fruit & vegetable store he had ever seen. The Golden Blossom was run by a man from Tbilisi. He told Gregor that this was indeed a daily abundance, not something set up to impress. Gregor asked if this store was for the rich. The store owner said no, those who are poor or need assistance buying food use something called food stamps. The government helps with their food bills and many customers use them to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. Gregor told his fellow seamen that he had no proof that this was true or just propaganda.

• Vladimir, too, had a food story. He had decided to take a long walk, so he headed up Ocean Avenue, past lots of signs in Russian. There were dentists, physical therapists, a medley of doctor’s specialties, even synagogues with signs outside in Russian offering free meals to seniors, plus free transportation. He turned off when he came to Avenue N, and when he came to East 18th Street again. There he found the most amazing store selling nothing but Russian-style smoked fish: sable, white fish, lox; and an assortment of caviar! The customers were plump and as happy as a salmon up-stream.

• Fillip had wandered over to the Bensonhurst People’s Center where he heard music playing. He was welcomed inside, where a large room was filled with elderly Russians listening to a singer/pianist, and a violinist. They were performing old favorites, “Kalinka,” “The Birch Trees Cry for Spring,” “The Boatman,” and the like. After a free meal of cold borsht, chicken cutlet with kasha, bobka and tea, he wandered back to the ship, satiated.

• Aleksandr had slipped on a tomato on the sidewalk outside of the Baltic Fancy Foods store on Brighton Beach Avenue. Within two minutes, an ambulance had appeared from Hatzoloh ambulance service. To his amazement, one of the Orthodox Jewish Emergency Medical Technicians spoke fluent Russian. Aleksandr insisted he was fine and did not want to go to the emergency room, and to his surprise, he was not charged a kopek!

AFTER ALL THE SAILORS REPORTED, the Political Officer, Gleb, summarized his day. He began by saying that he knew his duty to the President, Vladimir Vladimirivich Putin. He had gone to Naval Officers’ School in Kaliningrad with a fellow who had decided ten years ago to emigrate to America. They had kept in touch, and when Gleb got to Brooklyn, he called Yuri. Ten minutes later, a black BMW had pulled up outside the Sheepshead Bay dock. Yuri told his story to Gleb. He had arrived with little money and some English and had secured a job as a car-service driver. A year later, he had purchased his first car. Now, after ten years in Brooklyn, he owned the Black Sea Car Service, with the largest fleet of both black cars as well as new green taxis. He told Gleb that life was sweet, and he was always looking for new drivers, particularly ex-military, who could be relied upon. Yuri offered Gleb and the crew jobs if they wanted to stay in Brooklyn.

The seamen could not believe their good luck. Yuri had advised Gleb to head down to the 61st police precinct with his crew where they would ask for asylum. When they arrived at the precinct, the desk officer was surprised by these ten Russians who wanted asylum. The officer called the precinct captain, who remembered the new directive from Mayor DiBlasio and the City Council. Police were no longer to contact Homeland Security to verify immigration status. The captain called the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs. They dispatched a staff member with what looked like a large attaché case. In it was a portable ID card machine. The ten Russians were photographed and issued city ID cards, fulfilling the new policy of No Questions Asked. The Russians then headed over to the Black Sea Car Service. Many of the sailors were concerned that they knew only a little English and knew even less of the streets of New York. Yuri, the owner, assured them that most black car drivers knew little English, and also did not know the streets of the city.

When word reached the Kremlin, the Minister of Defense announced that the entire incident was a provocation of NATO and the CIA. Anyone with knowledge of the language, he said, could tell immediately that the sailors were speaking Ukrainian not Russian.

Jeffrey Kassel has been a Jewish Currents reader since the 1970s. He retired after thirty-four years in the civil service. He was a founder of his union, the Public Employees Federation, and served as a union officer for twenty-eight years. His last article for us was “In Cuba, Thirty-Five Years Later.”