We sat in the jury box while the Judge gave us an overview of what to expect in the case. The prosecution was expected to prove it’s arguments not the defense. We would all be in court from 4 to 6 weeks. We should not read any newspaper articles, if any were written about the trial. When each side rested, he would give us further instructions on deliberation procedures.
I was only vaguely listening to him. It was far too late for excuses now. At one point during voir dire, it was asked if the cultural background of the case would be a problem for anyone.
And that gave me pause for awhile but I never spoke up. How could I explain what was in floating in my thoughts? Cultural problems with Russians or the Russian community?
My connection to Russians began years before the trial, hundreds of years before my birth and thousands of years before the moment of being sworn into the jury.
I am an Alaskan Native. My ancestors traveled through Siberia over the Bering Strait into Alaska around 20,000 years ago. Thousands of years after that journey the genesis of the court trial I was chosen for began in the same area. In the Gulags of Siberia, Josef Stalin attempted to destroy the Russian crime families by allowing the internecine Vor wars to proliferate. He only strengthened their resolve to survive. Some of those survivors emigrated to America in the late 20th Century.
As many know, Alaska was under the control of Russia from 1799 to 1867. During those years Russian trappers lived and fought with Alaskan Natives. They enslaved the Aleuts. They had numerous clashes with the Inuits, Tlingits and my people, the Athabascans. As with all European settlers, the Russians had disease as an unknown ally. My people and other tribes were decimated by illness’ for which they had no immunity. It was disease that kept Russian settlers from being overwhelmed by Natives. Eventually a different tact was taken, intermarriage. Some of these ties were through kidnapping and rape. But many were the result of savvy political arrangements between both groups. Natives had become dependent on certain items that only Russian traders could provide such as Tea or colored Padre beads from China. Chieftains offered their daughters in marriage to Russian traders in order to create exclusive trading rights. These marriages allowed Russian traders to travel further into the Alaskan interior. It was much better to arrive to new areas as family rather then an invading force. The remnants of these marriage alliances survive in Native culture with Russian surnames and worship at Russian Orthodox churches.
But all of that was the past, as far as I was concerned. My personal contact with the Russian emigrant community was in New York during the late 80’s/early 90’s.
In the mid 80’s, many Long Island vacation communities received an influx of Russian immigrants. My family’s community was one of them, which for years was the haunt of strictly middle-class Irish Americans. We were an insular bunch, like a small town and everyone know everyone’s business. Into that tight knit community were now equally middle-class, insular Russians. I use Russian very loosely. The immigrant wave included all nationalities from the former U.S.S.R. We called them Russian because Russian was the main language they spoke. This new group of fellow vacationers perplexed us. They were a secretive bunch. But then I guess they probably thought the same of us. All of us now part of the same community but separate and staring at one another over picket fences. They had strange customs, one being that they had no shame about undressing in public. We all used to watch in wonder as Russians of all shapes and sizes wore skimpy bathing wear at the beach. Then when the bathing day was done, they would change into regular clothing right on the beach. Sometimes they would use a towel for privacy’s sake. It also struck us that it was the Russian women who were the aggressive partners in their marriages. We would always see husbands trailing behind them in a meek fashion. They spoke loudly. If there was any mixing going on at the time, it was between the community’s teenagers. There was quite a bit of tentative dating through those years. After a time things began to thaw and we got the scoop from the more gregarious bunch of newcomers. As I stated before, our new members were middle-class, like us. Our summer place reminded them of the dachas in their own country. It took awhile longer for some of the folks to party with us on national holidays. It helped that they were heavy drinkers. They fit in after all. They would drink straight vodka which was stored in the freezer at all times.
The next experience I had was working as a theater usher. At one time there was this “psychic” working the immigrant community in Brooklyn. I never knew the full story of this shyster. His shows were always in Russian. But his gimmick was psychic healing. Which he claimed as one of his talents. My fellow ushers and I would watch in horror as the audience filled the theater. It was mostly distraught mothers looking for this man to help their children. There were so many ill and disabled children in that theater. It broke my heart. As you can probably guess, this man never healed anyone. He would spend two hours chatting mystic nonsense at them. His engagements would last about four nights. Many of the audience members purchased tickets for each night. Believe me, the tickets were expensive. All of us ushers were outraged. To the point that we would be nasty to the psychic guy and his cronies. Not that they cared. They probably fleeced those people of big money.
It was in the early 90’s when a more sinister bunch of immigrants arrived. They had a different style. The men would be big, muscular and possessed good looks that were starting to go to seed. Their women gave a whole new definition to the word Harpy. They were beautiful, bottle blondes with the nastiest tempers this side of hell. This group would travel around town in expensive cars and wear expensive clothing. I would see their wives in the supermarket, shopping in their gorgeous fur coats. While the men would pay for their groceries by whipping out big wads of food stamps. They would also go to the Doctor with full coverage medicare cards. The reason for all of this? They claimed themselves as refugees or something. They were totally oblivious to the loathing they engendered around themselves.
I fought with this group the most when I worked in Insurance. It seemed that their expensive vehicles attracted every thief and vandal in the NY area. They drew hit and runs to their parked cars like pollen drew bees to flowers. While driving in NY they were always involved in the wildest rear end pileups. It was like bumper cars but outside the amusement parks. Of course, the person who started the pileup was never found. Of course, their delicate bodies were oh so injured. All the insurance employees complained about this strange group.
It got so bad that once, during a business trip, a bunch of us went on a tirade about Russians to non NY Insurance people. They got nervous by our vociferous outburst. The icing on the crazy cake was reached when it was stated that these people didn’t pooper scoop after their puppies. We were silent for a bit and noticed the fear on the faces of our fellow insurance employee friends. They didn’t have Russians in their area so our complaints were just bizarre to them. You’ll see, we told them. Not long after this trip it was announced to us that a big auto insurance fraud ring was busted. The bust had been a joint effort by various insurance companies and law enforcement. They didn’t tell us much more than that but the whisper around the office was that the fraud ring was Russian mob.
I eventually quit my insurance job and forgot all about Russian fraud rings. Until one lazy Saturday afternoon I received a call from my credit card company. They wanted to know if I ordered $5000 dollars worth of Beluga Caviar from Caviarteria. Before the call I had been enthralled with a book and my brain was just snapping back to reality. Then hysterical laughter bubbled out of me. “Of course,” I told the rep. “All of it is in my living room now. I’m eating it.” My credit card was cancelled and luckily the charges wiped from my credit record. I don’t know where all that caviar was shipped. But someone had a good time in my name.
So it was this that I thought about in court and the irony that I was even involved due to my heritage.