Behind the Headlines: Collective Sigh of Relief Heard on the Streets of ‘little Odessa’

Though they did not celebrate quite as jubilantly as their relatives and friends in the Soviet Union, Jewish emigres in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn breathed a collective sigh of relief Thursday that the attempted military coup in Moscow had failed.

“Everything’s OK now” was an oft-repeated refrain as the Jews who had once lived in Minsk or Moscow went about the business of daily life.

On the morning after Mikhail Gorbachev was restored to power, they could be seen opening up their restaurants and delicatessens, or shopping at the colorfully laden fruit and vegetable stands that seem to dot each corner of “Little Odessa.”

“Most of the people are happy, but don’t care that much,” said Sofia Palkin, 40, owner of Symphony Cafe, just off Brighton Beach Avenue, the neighborhood’s main street.

“People had many troubles before they left Russia,” she said. “Now they say ‘God bless America, God bless Israel.’ “

Palkin, who arrived in New York 12 years ago from a small town near Kiev, said she thinks the Soviet Union will not be all that much better off than it was before, now that the coup has come and gone.

“It is a very poor country. Big lines are everywhere,” she said, adding: “It is not a good country. It has been many, many years since it was.”

Leo Turovets, 53, said that he was “shocked” when he learned that Gorbachev was back in power, which he heard Wednesday afternoon when people came into his small grocery store asking for champagne.

“Gorbachev is not strong like (Boris) Yeltsin, not strong enough to keep the country running,” he said, referring to the president of the Russian republic, who led the opposition to the attempted takeover.

“Gorbachev is always changing his mind about this policy or that one, like playing,” Turovets said. “Around the world he did nice things, but for Russians, not. Prices have gone up 200 percent; a dozen eggs is like $6. There is no food, no clothes. This is his fault.”

“They must put Yeltsin in power, to the top. Yeltsin should be president of the Union,” he opined.

During the three days of the aborted putsch, Turovets tried to call his sister, who lives in his native city of Kiev, as well as cousins and uncles who live in Zhitomir, about 80 miles outside Kiev, and in the Urals.

He was able to get through to his sister, a high school teacher, who said she knew nothing of what was happening in Moscow and Leningrad, because there were no reports on Soviet television or radio stations, which had been effectively censored by the ruling “emergency committee” from broadcasting anything other than what the junta issued.

Instead, the television played only music, “just Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and a few movies,” said Turovets, who came to the United States 14 years ago.

‘WOULD HAVE BEEN LIKE STALIN AGAIN’

Luda Spirt, a clerk behind the salami counter of Stolichnaya Deli who said she was in her 40s, spoke of her frustration trying to get in touch this week with friends and the few family members remaining in Odessa.

And even when she was able to reach them by telephone, “if they didn’t like what you asked, they cut you off,” she said.

When asked who “they” were, Spirt, who has been in America for 15 years, just nodded knowingly. When asked if she thought the KGB listened in on calls, she said, “Oh yes, now more than before.”

Spirt, who sells at least 50 kinds of sausage in the fragrant shop, said she was glad when Gorbachev was restored to power Wednesday, because “it’s better than the KGB taking it in their hands. It would have been like Stalin again.

“At least under Gorbachev, people can think and dream of a better life,” she said.

“My family in Israel is happy,” she said. “It’s hard to find a job, but it’s better than Russia.”

Lilly Gutnik, 72, came to this country alone nine years ago, after her husband died and her son was felled by pneumonia. She loves this country, because “America gave me the chance to stand on my own feet and gave me the chance to see freedom,” she said.

Now that Gorbachev is back in control, she hopes that President Bush will “help him.”

“The Russian government has to finish what it began,” she said, “and go to a free market. They have to give the Russian people to breathe, to eat, to raise generations, to open their eyes to how other people live.

“It is now a different world,” she said. “Everything must be open.”

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