Miami Beach

Russian immigration to South Florida boosted by war in Ukraine

Elena Polyakova
Elena Polyakova For the Miami Herald

In the middle of Sunny Isles Beach, looking for a local Russian community, suddenly I see a table with a samovar — now I know I’m in the right place.

A samovar is a traditional Russian kitchen device, a boiler used to prepare large amounts of tea for big parties and family gatherings. Here it stands on display at the front of a store that offers an array of Russian products: packs of grains, sauces, conserved vegetables and milk products — the sorts of products that can be easily purchased everywhere in Russia but are hard to find in the United States.

Inna, a blond and extra-young-looking 32-year-old manager of the Russian Matreshka deli shop, readily agrees to talk but with a shy smile declines to share any details of her personal story. Like many other Russians I tried to interview, she asks whether the article will appear in American or Russian media — the latter of which is unlikely.

Many Russian immigrants don’t want their stories known — some don’t want the publicity in Russia, others feel insecure because they haven’t yet received permanent resident status in the U.S.

“There are a lot of rich Russians living here — look at these skyscrapers of Trump,” Inna says.

Yes, the “Trump Palace” is right across the street from this plaza where Matreshka is situated — and this is may be the most Russian plaza in Miami-Dade, with shops and restaurants featuring ethnic cuisine, real-estate companies owned by Russian nationals and the mother tongue frequently used as the language of choice for verbal exchanges.

But it is not only the wealthy who have left Russia for Miami. The middle-class and white-collar Russians come in big numbers, too.

In Sunny Isles, one can meet a Russian pop star of the ’90s and 2000s, as well as a former Moscow bistro cook. The flow of new people into the local Russian community has grown significantly over the past two years, when Ukraine stepped into a war and Russia backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine — setting off a string of sanctions and international isolation.

“It seems there are full aircrafts of them arriving,” Inna says. “A lot of people come to give birth here because the babies automatically become American citizens.”

While official data on Russian immigrants settling in South Florida is not readily available, the obvious rise of those fleeing Russia and Ukraine can be partly explained by the hard times the two countries have been facing since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis in 2013.

At the end of 2013, protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square began. In February 2014, Ukrainians overthrew President Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych, a longtime partner of the Kremlin. In March, Russian troops appeared on the Crimean peninsula that rapidly became a de facto part of Russia. Then pro-Russian separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine, inspired by the bold move in Crimea, confronted the Ukrainian army in a series of bloody battles that devastated the Donbass area.

For Russia, the Crimean affair and war in Ukraine, which is largely believed to be fueled by the Kremlin, led to sanctions and mutual export embargoes with the West that made an already stumbling Russian economy fall into deep recession. In addition, being at odds with the United States boosted anti-American propaganda on state-controlled TV channels and, therefore, an atmosphere of a Cold War-like anxiety in the society.

Elena Polyakova, a 31-year-old Ukrainian journalist who used to write for glossy magazines like Cosmopolitan, lived in Kiev but was born in Luhansk, a town in the eastern part of Ukraine that greatly suffered from the war. She says she came to the United States in 2013 for personal reasons but also because of fear that she was not safe in Ukraine anymore. Polyakova’s mother remains in Luhansk, now controlled by separatists, which means nobody can leave the town. Elena is now waiting for an interview to obtain permanent residency, dreaming that one day she will be able take her mother out of the ruins of their homeland.

Her move to Miami-Dade was hard. She had some friends here but no job and no legal status, plus her English wasn’t good enough. Soon, though, she found a job at the Russian-language SociaLite Magazine, allowing her to keep doing the same job she was doing in Ukraine.

“I didn’t have a car, so I covered every mile of this neighborhood on my bike,” Polyakova says while sitting at a cafe in Miami Beach.

Polyakova says that of all the non-Russians she knows here, Latin American people seem the easiest to deal with.

“Their mentality is somehow close to ours, kind of easy riders: We are usually all about hope for sheer luck, and they are all about mañana. If you listen to them speaking even for two seconds, you will hear this word for sure.”

The Ukrainian conflict that split families and friendships in Russia had the same impact here, Polyakova says: “Marriages have been breaking and friendships ending. Luckily, I didn’t have such experience.”

“It turned out to be a test of sanity for many people,” adds Vitaly, Elena’s friend, who also came from Ukraine a couple of years ago. “Suddenly came hatred, prejudice. Yesterday, we were brothers, and today, all of a sudden, it turns up we’re old enemies.”

Vitaly, 40, used to be head of IT for a large company back in Kiev, he says, but he declined to share details of his emigration or his last name. He explains why many Russian immigrants wouldn’t go public with their stories: “People here start from scratch. In most cases, neither your education nor your work experience will be of any help. When I came here, I had to do the jobs I have never done in my life before — I won’t tell you what.”

Some who immigrated in recent years have managed to carve out new success.

Sergey Kalvarskiy, 51, is a prominent Russian TV producer and member of the Russian Television Academy who used to make shows for top Russian TV channels. Now he is starting a new fashion enterprise in Miami’s Design District. Ready to cut the ribbon together with his American partner, he’s keeping his fingers crossed but would not reveal any more.

Kalvarskiy settled on Allison Island in Miami Beach with his family in 2013 after many vacations spent here.

“Even before the Crimea events, I felt that things were going the wrong way — it was clear those guys in power are slowly getting crazy because of their power and it won’t end well, so I needed to move here legally. I applied for a green card and got it,” he says.

“In Russia, I see that even some of my close friends have changed. The propaganda coming out of every hole has its effect even on sensible people. The Ukraine issue has cut the country in two parts, and people can’t discuss it in human language anymore. The main crime this regime committed is that the society became immoral: People are lying, hating everyone, hating each other for political reasons. There was no such hatred in the air even in the hell of the ’90s when there were all those gangsters.”

Kalvarskiy says he knows some people of similar background who left Russia recently for the same reason. “I recommended my immigration lawyer to more than a dozen people, and all of them got green cards. Some moved to New York, some to Miami, some to California,” he says.

For Kalvarskiy and his family, the adaptation to the new environment was easy. His teen son was first to feel at home here. The idea to settle in Miami came after the boy told his parents he wanted to study in a local school where he already studied during summer vacations. Kalvarskiy’s wife entered a medical college with the dream of working in an emergency room. “This year, she ended with all A’s,” the husband notes proudly.

Kalvarskiy says he feels comfortable in Miami — not only because of the nice climate. “For me, America is different from any other country because here every city is all sirens and everybody is rushing to the rescue. I hear the sirens day and night and, for me, it’s a symbol of America.”

“Many times, I’ve seen a dirty homeless man falling on the street, and right away women in diamonds and with expensive purses rush to him, help him rise,” he says. “For me, it’s a sign of a healthy nation where everybody is ready to help each other.”

Anna Baydakova is a reporter with Novaya Gazeta in Moscow who spent two weeks in Miami as a fellow with the Washington-based International Center for Journalists.