“Is This What We Need?” Russian Immigrant Leader Questions Brighton Beach Reality TV Show

John Lisyanskiy

John Lisyanskiy, a Russian immigrant and community activist, speaking to a crowd during Russian Heritage Day in 2008.

In recent weeks Russian-speaking residents of Brooklyn have become concerned with Lifetime TV’s plans to launch a “Brighton Beach” reality TV show. Many community members fear that the project—currently in production—will be modeled on MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and will depict Russian immigrant stereotypes. Fi2W spoke with community activist John Lisyanskiy about this and other issues of bubbling in the New York Russian immigrant community.

Lisyanskiy is an assistant to the New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn. He and his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1992 from Ukraine, when he was twelve years old. A graduate of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, he started his career in government and politics in 1998 as a legislative assistant with the New York City Council under then-Speaker Peter F. Vallone, and he has worked in the Speaker’s Office ever since. He also founded the Russian-Speaking American Leadership Caucus—a broad coalition of Russian-speaking lawyers, medical doctors, academics, law enforcement officers, media personalities and other civic leaders.

Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska: You were the initiator of the letter sent recently to Lifetime TV on behalf of the community where you asked the Brighton Beach show creators to “formally abandon the Jersey Shore motif in favor of a non-biased and more appropriate depiction of the Russian-speaking community.”

John Lisyanskiy: Yes. We were discussing what would be the best reaction to this project and decided that a formal letter might be a good idea. Then we started showing it to different leaders and asking them if they can support this. We focused on getting people who represent other people. We got 42 signatures but out of those we had some prominent elected officials like Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former Congressman Michael McMahon.

I had no illusions about the effect of the letter going to Lifetime. I know how the corporate world functions and do not expect to hear back from them. But we wanted to get it out to the press.

EKJ: But apparently the Brighton Beach show is not supposed to be as controversial as “Jersey Shore.”

This is a tricky part of it. Some people in my community say that the show will be multigenerational and it’s totally different than the one on MTV. So there is actually an opposition to my efforts because some people think the show is going to promote Brighton Beach.

But to me the point is not about what they are actually shooting, but what they are selling. When in October Lifetime announced they were picking up the pilot of the “Brighton Beach” show, the way it was sold to the mass media and the way it was reported was “Russian Jersey Shore.” The original casting call for “Brighton Beach” was seeking vodka-drinking “Russian Snooki and The Situation,” who “love attention” and do little more than “eat, drink and party.” And that was what my neighbor was reading, that’s what my boss was reading… People who see this in media may start saying: “Hey, look at these Russians, they are polluting this society. Is this what we need? The schemers, the gangsters, the fraudsters?

John Lisyanskiy

John Lisyanskiy

At this point we do know that it’s not going to be, like they said initially, a bunch of kids drinking vodka and listening to the house music. But the truth is that not one time did Lifetime officially or formally said: “No, it is not a Russian version of the Jersey show.” Because they like it. That’s what they sell: controversy. And that’s how they get their viewership, that’s how they capitalize on it. And that’s why we didn’t like it.

EKJ: Russian-speaking immigrants also seem to be more and more visible in the political landscape of New York.

I’m proud to say that we have made tremendous progress. We are gaining some momentum and more people are getting involved. The participation level depends of course on what cycle of elections it is. During presidential ones we get more attention, during local, midterm and congressional less… But there is a lot more work to be done. And sadly, the largest proportions of the people who are voting these days in the Russian-speaking community are the senior citizens.

EKJ: Is there any common denominator in terms of how Russian-speaking immigrants vote?

Not any more… There was during Ronald Reagan times when they united around the Republican party. But now I think people are becoming more oriented, more savvy about what’s going on, they read more and there is more information about it. There is also more debate about it and we’ve seen people switching their party affiliation from Republican to Democrat after we explained to them that certain candidates reflect on us and listen to us, but in order for them to run in the general election we need them to win a Democratic primary first.

EKJ: Is it possible to say who the community voted for this election season?

We got mixed results. And it’s not surprising because even in the way Russian leaders conducted themselves there was a lot of contradicting statements. For example, there were discrepancies whether we should support Mike McMahon for congress because he belongs to the majority party or we should go with the new Tea Party movement because that’s the new DNA. Michael Grimm certainly had support within the Russian community and some folks on Staten Island did organize for him, although to some voting for him was a way to express their dissatisfaction with this president. I hate to admit it but the truth is that a lot of people in my community are not particularly excited with Barack Obama.

EKJ: So what’s your overall assessment of the current civic and political impact that the community has?

We are making concrete steps as far as putting folks together and organizing them. Now we need to try to stay united. But the shovel is in the ground and we can start building the real foundation now.

EKJ: What would you like to build on it?

First, I want to build a Russian American community center, a real community center that won’t be affiliated with any religion. We need a home that would identify with what we are trying to do in the future—any kind of propositions, any kind of collective movements… And then maybe in the future if we gain certain prominence we will be able to do national politics as well. I always tell people: you are here to stay, you’re not a visitor, you are here to set up families and raise your kids.  And it’s our duty to provide for them. Everything that we do now will reflect on them. People should also understand how things happen and how everything works: who is shaping this country, the policy, our city, our borough and neighborhood. This country is so new and everybody has an opportunity for a deep impact.

EKJ: You have ambitious plans for yourself, too.

I was planning to run for city council in 2009 and then in 2008 they [Mayor Bloomberg and the city council] got away with term limits. I felt like I lost certain momentum because at that time I had people around me who were very eager to get involved. The next election is not until 2013 so we’ll see what the turf will be like when the time comes. But in the meantime I’ll continue to do what I’m doing. What I’m constantly trying to do is to fight for the respect for this community. A lot of things come with respect. When you have respect, it’s easier to function and accomplish things.

Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska is a Feet in Two Worlds political reporting fellow.  Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.

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