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Entertainment

Reality TV show 'Russian Dolls' stirs controversy

September 1st, 2011 2:24 pm by Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — A mother is lecturing her 23-year-old daughter about her love life, flailing a kitchen knife above her head for emphasis.

Mom's point: She'd like her immigrant daughter, from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, to marry a man with similar roots, keeping the family's East European Jewish tradition.

Alas, the daughter informs mom that she's already dating a Hispanic man.

But she soon dumps him, on-camera, during a restaurant date.

The scene is captured in a new TV reality show called "Russian Dolls," which premiered on the Lifetime cable network in August and airs Thursdays at 11:30 p.m. EST.

It's been called the Russian "Jersey Shore" or "Real Housewives," featuring six women and two men, plus colorful extras like Anna Kosov, the mother. They're all from the former Soviet Union and either live or have lived in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach neighborhood. But only two actually hail from Russia.

The show has drawn the wrath of neighbors and community leaders who say it creates a caricature of their immigrant world, turning cast members into "Russians in tacky clothes who do little more than eat, drink and party," says John Lisyanskiy, founder of the new nonprofit Russian-Speaking American Leadership Caucus and a budget analyst for the New York City Council.

The show's characters do represent "a small portion of our community," acknowledges Yelena Makhnin, executive director of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District. But she says her neighborhood by the Brooklyn boardwalk is mostly "a very intelligent, very well educated, hardworking community."

Kosov, a hairdresser, had to mend relations with her Mexican-born boss over remarks she'd made on the show about her daughter, Diana Kosov, dating the Hispanic man.

"I told her, 'I'm not racist,'" she says. "I love any kind of people."As for the scene with the knife, "I am not killer!" says Anna Kosov, smiling with amusement.

Still, she's serious about correcting any misunderstanding. She took time on a sunny summer afternoon to join the cast for interviews at the Rasputin nightclub and set things straight.

"At that moment, I make borscht!" she explains. "Who is make borscht without knife? I cut vegetables."

The truth is, there's reality TV — and then there's reality.

"Is that what it says?" asks Albert Binman, roaring with laughter as he reads a promo describing him as a spiffy 26-year-old, a "wheeler-dealer" who "parties every night" and "wants to marry a nice Russian girl."

"I do not party every night," he says. "And I want to marry a nice Jewish girl, not necessarily Russian. Or else, why did my parents send me to yeshiva?" A yeshiva is an Orthodox Jewish school.

Albert goes to work every day, doing medical billing. He lives in the New York borough of Queens.

"I love to hang out with my younger brother; he's 17 and he's the love of my life," he says.

Real life may be more boring than TV, but not always.

A fight between two women in the cast erupted during interviews with The Associated Press at Rasputin.

"Get the (expletive) out!" screamed Marina Levitis, 35, who runs the glitzy cabaret with her lawyer husband.

The remark is aimed at Sveta Rakhman, a 47-year-old banker Levitis didn't know before the series. The women developed a distaste for one another, displayed in a tense upcoming episode set in Rasputin.

The latest faceoff was over who would be interviewed first, with Rakhman ending up last "because she came last," Levitis says angrily.

In the series debut, she, her husband and two young children walk out in the middle of an amateur belly-dancing performance by her 56-year-old mother-in-law, Eva Levitis. She "is just my husband's mother. She's nobody to me," Levitis says in the episode.

In fact, "we're a very close-knit family; everybody gets along just fine," Marina Levitis later tells the AP. But "on TV, you have to shock people, otherwise they're not going to watch it."

Her mother-in-law brushes off the "she's nobody" comment with a burst of laughter, explaining that the seeming hostility between them "does not exist, actually."

When auditioning for the show and signing contracts, no one bargained for the negative reactions.

"Left the Volga, Kept the Vulgar," read one newspaper headline.

Anna Khazanova, a 22-year-old commercial model, is wearing an ultra-short dress that gives her few options for sitting politely in front of an AP television camera. But she says there's much more to her than meets the lens, including mentoring teenage girls who attend the modeling school she started and runs.

"Family means the world to me," says Khazanova, who shared a bedroom with her older sister until the sibling went off to medical school recently. "I've been working since I'm 15, and helped support my family."

Rakhman, the banker, welcomes any punches and hits right back.

She calls Rasputin's owners "these people. I can eat them for breakfast, and spit them for lunch."

And if viewers see "some overblown stuff," she says, "it's good TV, it was fun."

Makhnin, of the business improvement district, agrees, saying she's "not offended" by the show. "It's not a documentary; it's a commercial TV project, with stereotyping," she says.

"Unfortunately," she adds, "this is what the public buys."

Others are less forgiving, including Lisyanskiy, who is friends with Marina Levitis and husband Michael.

"This is not who we are," says the advocate for Russian-speaking Americans. "Even if it's of entertainment value, when people are watching this kind of material, it sticks with them, they start to believe it."

But when all is said and shot-for-TV, says Michael Levitis (who doesn't appear in the show), "if you take this reality show seriously, the joke is on you."

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