Moscow poisonings bring only shrugs and rumors here

The phone rings and it’s the media. I get the usual questions: “How does the Russian-speaking community feel about the poisoning in Moscow of Marina Kovalevsky, 49, and her 26-year-old daughter, Yana?”

The two women, who are Jewish and have contributed to Israeli charities, fell ill in late February, a week after they arrived in Moscow on a pleasure trip to visit with friends and to attend a wedding. They were rushed to a hospital and found to have been poisoned with thallium, and after being treated with the help of Leon Peck — Marina Kovalevsky’s brother, who is a Beverly Hills oral surgeon — the women returned to Los Angeles, where last week Yana Kovalevsky told federal and county investigators that she believes the poisoning was an accident.

“Would you say that the people are upset?” I was asked. As a journalist in Russian-language media and longtime advocate for Soviet Jewry, I am often called upon to explain how the Russians think:”Are they nervous? Is it anti-Semitism? Did she know the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko — the guy who was poisoned by polonium in London?”

Most of the questions are impossible to answer, either because I don’t know the answers or because the question is not specific enough.

How does one judge a community’s feelings? What part of the community? The older immigrants who spent their bleak lives in the Soviet Union and came to a country that is so different that it might as well be Mars? The younger ones who came here as children, who speak English better than they do Russian, but still date one another and aren’t all that comfortable with the “real” Americans their age?

The most recent entrepreneurs who came here with money, eager to make more, who travel back and forth, convinced that the good times will go on forever?

I am part of that community because I spoke Russian as a kid, speak Russian with my wife and most of our friends and was involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. But I am also an American who speaks English better than Russian.

I have lived here most of my life, have had a wife and children who didn’t speak a word of Russian, and I find that much of what is normal for the Russians is actually very strange and, very often, funny. In Russian, I am “ni ryba ni miaso” — neither fish nor meat — and in English I am neither fish nor fowl. I don’t really know how the Russian community feels about the Kovalevskys’ misfortune of being poisoned by thallium in Moscow. It all depends.

So what should I say to the media? Should I say that the most frequent response is a shrug and a “What did you expect? What’s the big deal? That’s the way things are over there.” And if there are others listening, someone will usually chime in, “And they always will be like that.”

There are very few who were surprised by what happened. If they talk about it at all, the question, “Why?” Is usually seen as pointless speculation. “What’s the use? We’ll never know what really happened.”

Rumors abound. Conspiracy theories flourish. The Russian community knows — absolutely knows — that nothing is ever what it seems.

Take your pick: It was a robbery. She tried to invest in a Russian business and offended the wrong people. She was contacted by political opponents of Putin and refused (or agreed) to collaborate with them. The whole thing is an effort to embarrass Russia/America/ Israel. There never was a poisoning (who can believe that there was no antidote, an artist’s paint, Prussian Blue, available in all of Moscow, and that it had to be brought in a by a private individual from America — and what else did he bring in, hmm?)

And if I look doubtful when I hear some of this nonsense, I get the pitying look that Americans get from Russians — “God, how naïve these Americans are?”

In a way they are right. Americans know next to nothing about law enforcement over there.

When I was in Moscow about 15 years ago, I was invited by a friend to dinner in his apartment. One of the guests was a Moscow police colonel, resplendent in his uniform and medals. As we sipped our post- (and pre- and during) dinner ice-cold vodka, he told me how he envied American cops. I looked surprised, and he gave me that — “how naïve you are” — look.

“Don’t you see? An American policeman can stop anyone, and if the guy gives him a hard time, he can just pull out his gun and shoot him, right? Well, we can’t do that here, you know….”

A few weeks ago, a group of Russian law enforcement officers came to California to meet with local law enforcement in order to learn how we deal with hate crimes and how our officers develop relationships with communities they serve. I am a member of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department Russian Community Advisory Board, and we were all invited to meet with the Russian officers for an informal exchange of views and ideas.

I came prepared. I pulled off the Internet, in just that one day, seven reports of racially motivated attacks throughout Russia: beatings, kidnappings, threats, arson against Asians, Caucasian minorities and black foreign students.

I told the Russians that I am often called to testify as an expert witness at immigration courts, where a refugee is asked to prove that it would be dangerous to be sent back to Russia, where he or she would be persecuted for racial, religious or political reasons.

The cases are diverse but, overwhelmingly, have one thing in common: the distrust of law enforcement. Most applicants smile bitterly if asked whether they reported the incidents to the police and generally reply, “No, not this time. I had done so in the past but nothing happened, so I stopped bothering.” Or even worse: “No, it is too dangerous. If I complained, I probably would be dead — and probably the cops would be the ones who would catch me in a dark alley.”

I was shocked to see that some of the cops nodded when I told them — politely — that they had a terrible image; that people didn’t trust them, believed they were no better than the mafia they were supposed to control. Our visitors knew and probably were surprised — maybe pleased — that here was a Russian-speaking American who knew what was what.