FIVE years ago, this working-class neighborhood of Boston was not freckled with Cyrillic signs. There was no Russian television programing. And the Babushka Deli (and video store) was still a dream of Muscovite Nathan Slezinger.
But today, the combination of perestroika and the pull of Beantown's big-name universities, high-tech industries, and a large Jewish community willing to sponsor Russian Jews, the Boston suburbs of Brookline, Newton, as well as Brighton have become hothouses of Russian businesses.
Companies ranging from Russian bakeries to broadcasters have been spawned by a burgeoning Russian community. Compared to New York or Los Angeles, the estimated 35,000 Russians in the Boston area is small. But it has grown rapidly. The current Russian population is double the size it was in 1992, according to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
``When we first moved to Brookline seven years ago, our street had only two small, rather inconspicuous, Russian shops,'' recalls Eugenia Pavlovsky, publisher of the Boston Russian Bulletin.
``Now there are Russian day care centers, restaurants, health-care services, lawyers, auto repair shops, bookstores, bilingual youth theatrical studios, and even a Russian dating service,'' Ms. Pavlovsky says.
INS figures indicate that 84,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in the US from 1981 to 1990. But in 1992 alone, some 43,600 legal immigrants made the journey. This has helped stimulate the development of businesses providing basic goods and services aimed at Russians here. It is also bolstering the economic fortunes of the first wave of Russian immigrants.
When Pavlovsky founded her monthly Russian newspaper six years ago, it was the first of its kind in the Boston area. Now, other Russian publications have cropped up, such as the biweekly Boston Courier, The Boston Times, and Russian-language news within the Newton Tab, a local weekly advertiser.
But the Bulletin is considered the medium of choice for many Russian readers and advertisers in Boston, New York, and even parts of Connecticut. Two years ago, the Bulletin was a 20-page paper. Today, it weighs in at 40 pages, thanks to the growth in mostly Russian advertisers. And Pavlovsky doesn't see any sign of a slowdown.
``The Russian community seems like a huge, living self-reproducing organism, merging two societies and two different dimensions: that of yesterday and today,'' she says. ``And it will keep growing if the current level of emigration continues.''
Pavlovsky isn't alone in capitalizing on serving the needs of this new community.
Sam Vidrin gives Russian residents living in Boston or anywhere in New England the opportunity to surf local television channels in the evenings while listening to a simultaneous Russian translation. The $25-a-month service is available through special radio receivers rented by the Fort Lee, New Jersey-based Russian American Broadcasting Company (RABC), which has offices in several US cities.
During the day, the radio broadcasts Russian music, news, and talk show programs that orginate in New York. Last year, RABC expanded into Russian television broadcasts. A satellite dish is installed on the customer's roof that can capture broadcasts of movies, news, and even Russian soap operas.
``We don't want people to feel isolated and abandoned. We try giving them full information on everything that goes around the world. During the day we have various open lines so that anyone can be involved and discuss with others their problems,'' says Mr. Vidrin in broken English.
Vidrin, the founder and general manager of RABC's Boston branch, arrived here four years ago. ``In Moscow, I was engineer, electronics. Now, I'm small business man, very small business man,'' he jokes. But he adds, ``We started at zero. Now we have 1,600 customers and eight employees.'' He hopes to double his customer base in the next three or four years.
Local American-owned businesses and government services are finding it useful to hire Russian-speaking employees to provide better service and attract Russian clients. And some professionals - such as lawyers and real estate and insurance agents - are tapping into the new market.
``For arriving Russians, the United States is a very dense paper jungle of legalese,'' says Julian Lowenfeld, a New York City lawyer. ``Our services become a necessary evil,'' he says. But Russian unfamiliarity with the profession has made it more challenging to get clients. And unscrupulous competition is a problem. ``Very often immigrants fall prey to pseudo-lawyers who rip them off,'' he says.
Lowenfeld notes that one reason some Russian businessmen come here is to avoid paying taxes on money earned in Russia. He estimates that two-thirds of the businessmen here seeking a green card, come to set up an offshore business as a tax dodge.
Most Russian-owned businesses are run by immigrants with no business experience, unless they were once blackmarketeers. ``Almost none of our past skills are applicable in the American system, in terms of business. Nothing, except hard work,'' says Ilya Lapshin, co-owner of the Boston Russian Bulletin.
Some businesses stay focused on servicing the Russian community. Others establish their track record and gain experience with a Russian clientele, then broaden their client base. ``My barber, Aron Valevich, started four years ago in Lynn with just Russian clients. Then, he moved to Wellsley. His clients were about 50/50 Russian and non-Russian. Two months ago, he moved to Winchester. He's not promoting himself as a Russian barber anymore. And he's too expensive for me now,'' laughs Mr. Lapshin.