At Senior Center, She Learns ‘Nobody Can Compete With Putin’
Until recently, Nadia Luzina gave lectures on culture and politics to her fellow elderly Russians at a senior center in Mar Vista.
In one talk about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his role in the takeover of the Crimea region in Ukraine, she called him “dictator.”
The audience quickly became annoyed with her and accused her of anti-Putin sentiments. One woman warned Luzina, an 84-year-old Russian Jew, that her anti-Putin comments might offend ethnic Russians. Someone called Luzina a traitor. The following week, not a single person showed up at her lectures.
“Everyone turned away from me that day,” she said.
In recent weeks, there has been much talk of the mutual admiration between Putin and Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president of the United States. The annexation of Crimea and prosecution of opposition leaders turned some world powers against Putin and many Americans have expressed dismay at Trump’s laudatory remarks about the Russian president, but not everyone shares that skepticism.
Among many Russian-Jewish expatriates in Los Angeles, the second most populated Russian-speaking community in the United States, Putin gets high marks.
“Nobody can compete with Putin,” said Leonid Ivanov, who moved to L.A. from Belarus 15 years ago and now lives in West Hollywood. “With him, the unemployment rate went down and many people got a job.”
For decades, the fate of Russian Jews depended on the czar’s will. Before the Bolshevik revolution, they were segregated in the western part of the Russian Empire, known as the Pale of Settlement, terrorized by Cossacks’ pogroms.
Under Soviet control, synagogues were shut down and Jews were banned from any administrative positions. But in recent years, Jews have seen anti-Semitism weakening in Russia, a change many attribute to Putin’s peacemaking efforts.
“With Putin, there is less anti-Semitism,” said Victor Petrov, a West Hollywood resident who emigrated from the Black Sea port city of Odessa 25 years ago. Of course, that could be due to changing demographics, too. “Maybe it’s because there are not that many Jews left,” he added.
For many Russian Jews who remember economic hardships of the post-Soviet era, Putin symbolizes times of economic stability and growth, when Russia finally got up from its knees.
The country hit rock bottom in the 1990s in the time of financial collapse, political crisis, war in Chechnya, and the bombing of residential buildings in Moscow.
“It’s mind-blowing that someone would want a dictator until you lived through 1990s in Moscow,” said Robert English, director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. “If you lived through a decade of President Boris Yeltsin and his efforts to make democracy work, it would make sense. Those efforts produced crime, corruption and criminals.”
Those turbulent times also made many Russians reluctant to support building a Western-style democracy.
“They had such a bad experience in the 1990s that they gave up on democracy,” English said. “A lot of people said, ‘If I have to choose between democracy and freedom of press or stable society with less crime and steady income, I choose the stability.’ ”
Russian-Jewish expatriates also believe Putin protected Russia’s sovereignty by taking over the Crimean Peninsula, historically populated by Russians.
“Crimea belongs to Russia because everyone speaks Russian there,” said Victor Tankelevich, who moved to Los Angeles from Moscow in the late 1990s, fleeing economic turmoil. “Ukrainians are trying to eliminate Russian culture in Crimea. So why would we need to give it to Ukraine? Crimea has always belonged to us.”
Since the day of the heated discussion, Luzina has stopped giving lectures at her Mar Vista senior center, but has continued the political debates with her 94-year-old Russian Jewish boyfriend, who is a big supporter of Putin.
“He saved Russia from destruction, and I respect him for that,” said Isaac, who asked that his last name not be used. Isaac moved to Los Angeles from St. Petersburg 24 years ago. “Putin was able to keep the country together.”
Luzina came here from Moscow in 1990 with her husband Lev, who passed away a few years ago. To distract herself from the grief of losing her husband, she started spending hours at her laptop digging into Russian history and politics. A friend suggested she give lectures on politics and culture at the Universal Adult Day Healthcare center.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Luzina sat at a table covered with a clear tablecloth, along with four fellow seniors. Sitting next to Isaac, she wore a long black skirt. Her pearl necklace matched white sandals and a white top with large blue leaves and sparkling buttons.
Their square table was in a long auditorium, and as the group waited for breakfast, their conversation shifted toward Russian politics.
“Putin is a dictator and Russia needs the dictator because it has the slave mentality,” said Anna Z., who declined to give her last name. “Russia needs a person like Putin to keep the country together.”
A woman wearing a brown apron served, and the group started breakfast. Black-and-white plastic jars with signs “coffee” and “tea” sat on the table next to bowls of steamy oatmeal and a glass vase with artificial roses.
A large painting of a fountain decorated the yellow walls. On the opposite wall, a sign that read “Happy Birthday” hung next to an American flag.
Luzina has been coming to the senior center for several years, but since the beginning of the Crimean crisis, she said, she has had trouble connecting with fellow Russians.
“I read news on the internet, and those old fools watch Russian channels, which is nothing but propaganda,” she said.