Leaders from New York's Russian-speaking community are calling on Lifetime to pull the plug on its new reality television series “Russian Dolls,” due to what they think is a stereotypical portrayal of life in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach community.
"The entire point of this show is to ridicule our community — to make us look like stupid, sex-crazed partiers," said Ari Kagan, a journalist and neighborhood activist who hosts a TV show on the Russian Television Network of America. Kagan also serves as Comptroller John Liu's liaison to the Russian-speaking community, but clarified that he was not speaking out against "Russian Dolls" in an official capacity. "Sure, we have our bad apples but we are mostly decent, hard-working, educated people. Why don't they do a show about the many Russian women who are studying hard in college to be doctors?"
The producers of "Russian Dolls," which will premier nationally on Lifetime on August 11, called the show "a look at Brighton Beach's multi-generational families whose dramas and dreams contend with their Russian heritage" in their promotional materials. But in the preview video for the series released this week, the dominant themes appear to be clubbing, young women clad in lingerie, brawls, and plentiful shots of vodka.
Kagan was one of 41 prominent Brighton Beach residents who signed onto a letter to Lifetime last year asking the network to pull the show. He said Lifetime's Senior Vice President Gena McCarthy responded, saying that Lifetime would not be making a "Russian Jersey Shore," referring to MTV's reality TV show about eight housemates spending their summer on the Jersey Shore.
But when the show began shooting, Kagan said he saw signs around the neighborhood that led him to believe Lifetime was not sticking to its promise. He said he saw Lifetime casting call flyers circulating around the neighborhood that read, "Are you the Russian Snooki or The Situation? Can people hear the Euro/Techno/Russian music blasting from your car before they see you pull up?" And he observed "Russian Dolls" producers shooting much of their footage in the neighborhood's lavish catering halls and nightclubs, such as Rasputin, on Avenue X.
A look down Brighton Beach Avenue, under the Q train tracks. (Violette79/Flickr)
"I'm disappointed," said State Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasni, who represents Brighton Beach. The community, which straddles Coney Island on the Southern end of Brooklyn, is home to many Russian-speaking immigrants from around the former Soviet Union. Sitting under the rumbling Q train tracks, Brighton Beach Ave. is lined with hundreds of small businesses that advertise in Cyrillic script.
Brook-Krasni saw the trailer earlier this week. "I certainly hope that one day the coverage for the Russian-speaking community will be more positive," he said. "The Russian community is arguably one of the most educated and successful immigrant groups. There's a lot of positive things to say."
Pictured at right: (L to R) Anna, Diana and Anastasia, who star in "Russian Dolls." Photo Credit: Barbara Nitke © 2011Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC, All Rights Reserved.
Some Russian-Americans, however, said that the trailer may have hit the mark.
"These are caricatures of the community I grew up in, but they aren't that far from the truth," said Elina Galperin, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Washington, who emigrated from Belarus as a young child and spent her adolescence in nearby Bensonhurst. "Those characters are what made me want to do whatever I could to find different values to live by and a different life entirely to have. But now that I'm older, I can appreciate the stereotype and laugh about it."
The characters in "Russian Dolls," as portrayed in the trailer, fit common stereotypes of the so-called Novyi Russkiy, or "New Russians." The term is used within the community to refer to newly wealthy Russians who rose up after the fall of the Soviet Union on both sides of the Atlantic who are often lampooned for their conspicuous consumption habits.
Novelist and frequent New York Magazine contributor Michael Idov said he suspected the show would not actually be about ethnicity, but about class.
"We've been giggling at the nouveau riche since Moliere, and the invention of trance music and Armani Exchange just made things that much easier," said Idov. "Still, what I find interesting here is that the producers of the show, one of whom I've met, are of Brighton Beach stock themselves. In other words, what we have on our hands is a couple of assimilated Russian-Americans breaking into show business by exploiting the image of the unassimilated Russian-American. And that's the definition of minstrelsy."
Lifetime did not return WNYC's call for a comment. Watch the full promotional trailer is below.