MIAMI — Ukrainian Olena Doronina and Russian Alexandra Ignatkina huddled over their cellphones to watch videos sent by Doronina’s son and siblings, who are trapped in Kherson, a Black Sea port city in the south of Ukraine occupied by Russian soldiers.
They watched a video showing destruction in Kyiv, sent by Ignatkina’s friend, and another clip of anti-war protests in Moscow, sent by Ignatkina’s brother.
“I am worried about everyone in Ukraine, because they could be bombed in the next minute, and I am worried about anyone in Russia who says, ‘No war!’ because they could be put in jail for 10 years,” Ignatkina said.
Doronina and Ignatkina met to share news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at Matryoshka, the Russian grocery and delicatessen in Sunny Isles Beach, where Doronina had just finished her shift as a cashier. Similar tense conversations unfolded inside and outside the store, which is a popular local gathering place for Eastern European immigrants.
But unlike back home, the war seems to have only strengthened ties between neighbors in this small oceanfront city of 22,342, where the greatest concentration of Eastern Europeans live in South Florida, according to U.S. Census data. Most hail from Russia and Ukraine but also from Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and other former Soviet bloc countries, and they say they have always been linked by language, culture and history and rarely allowed old borders to be barriers to friendship.
That’s evident in the aisles of Matryoshka, where shoppers filled their baskets with dried fish, rye bread, borscht, dumplings, caviar and Baltika beer as ads for a chess club and a real estate firm played in Russian from loud speakers. They paused to commiserate about what was happening to loved ones or neighborhoods back home since Russian President Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine.
“Putin is crazy and he will destroy not just Ukraine but Russia, too,” said Ignatkina, a hair stylist who immigrated from Stavropol nine years ago after police beat her up during an anti-Putin rally. “No thank you, I will never go back to Russia. Very, very few people here support Putin and those who do are the zombies who have been brainwashed.”
The war has suddenly thrust Sunny Isles Beach and its expat population into the spotlight. Putin himself took a shot last month at “Miami” Russians, branding them spoiled traitors to the Motherland. National media has trotted out the “Little Moscow” label that locals despise.
While there may not be any high-profile oligarchs actually living in Sunny Isles Beach, there is plenty of Russian money of opaque origin that has been poured into gleaming high-rises, exotic cars, yachts and corporate businesses.
Six Trump-branded towers have been marketed directly to Russians because Donald Trump’s big, brash persona and his friendly relationship with Putin has great allure in Russia. A 2016 Miami Herald investigation found that most of the units in Trump Towers are owned by shell companies and at least 13 buyers have been the subject of government investigations, either personally or through their companies, including members of a Russian-American organized crime group convicted in the United States for their role in an illegal high-stakes sports betting ring that catered to oligarchs, and a Ukrainian businessman arrested for fraud and accused of money laundering.
There’s even a rumor around town that Putin, described as one of the richest men in the world by economists who have investigated his secret sources of wealth, owns property on the beach. The city, along with other wealthy Russian enclaves, is now on the radar of federal agencies working to freeze or seize assets linked to the Russian leader as well as oligarchs who have made a fortune off of his government.
From motel row to millionaire’s row
The last few decades have seen a remarkable transformation for what was once a middle-class tourist haven defined by its kitschy “Motel Row.” Today, it’s more like “Millionaire’s Row” — a self-proclaimed “Florida’s Riviera” that is home to affluent, transient luxury condo dwellers overlooking the beach from sterile sky’s-the-limit towers stacked one after another along 2.5 miles of Collins Avenue.
From the 1950s heyday starring the Castaways Island Hotel and its Shipwreck Bar, only the Thunderbird Motel and the Sahara — with its dilapidated camels and shepherds still standing sentinel — survive. They’ve been replaced by the 50-story Muse Residences, the Acqualina Mansions, where the 9,100-square-foot, 47th-floor penthouse sold for $27 million last year, and the future 70-story Bentley condo, where — as is also the case with the 57-story Porsche Design Tower — an automotive elevator will whisk your $300,000 car to your private garage. The Federal Aviation Administration has just approved a St. Regis tower that can boast that it’s one foot taller than the Bentley.
The barrier island, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary as an incorporated city, trumpets itself on the website as “The Height of Living.” A handful of strip malls separate the condos from about 500 houses nestled near the Intracoastal Waterway, which is the western boundary of the city.
The city’s towers have long been a magnet for Russian investors and foreign flight capital from Latin America. The first building boom coincided with the rise of Russia’s elite following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The money, and the people, have continued to flow in.
According to the most recent U.S. Census data, compiled in the 2016-2020 American Community Survey of place of birth for the foreign-born population, 2,708 people who identify themselves as Eastern European live in Sunny Isles Beach, and of those, 1,082 are from Russia, 947 are from Ukraine, 175 are from Moldova, 109 are from Belarus and 102 are from Poland.
The survey, which has a margin of error of 33 to 50%, also lists 8,370 people born in Latin America, including 2,726 from Colombia, 1,510 from Cuba, 1,007 from Argentina, 925 from Venezuela, 644 from Peru and 535 from Brazil. Another 314 people said they were born in Canada and 254 are from Israel.
That diversity is why many residents detest the nickname “Little Moscow.”
“To refer to our city as ‘Little Moscow’ is an oversimplification that irritates everybody here,” said Larisa Svechin, former mayor of Sunny Isles Beach and a native of Belarus. As far as she knows, she was the first and only Russian-speaking mayor from a former Soviet republic of a U.S. city. “A lot of people in the United States don’t understand how complex Eastern Europe is. It is made up of such a variety of nationalities, ethnicities and religions.
Svechin estimates that 30% of the population is Russian-speaking. She also believes the Brazilian population is undercounted.
“The Census figures are inaccurate and will never reflect the true volume because most Russian-speakers identify as American, want the status of America and make an effort to be fully assimilated,” said Svechin, who has been a volunteer Census taker in the past. “They don’t answer these questions because they do not want to be marked as Eastern European and they fear they’ll be tracked somehow by the government.“
As an example, Svechin cites her interactions with students at the city’s only Miami-Dade County public school, Norman Edelcup K-8, which has an enrollment of 2,200. Svechin, a mother of four, speaks to classes about civic leadership.
“When I ask the kids how many were not born here, 50-60% raise their hand and when I ask how many of their parents were not born here, 99% raise their hand,” she said. “I always look at the school as an unscientific reflection of the city’s composition.
“I would venture to say our school has more foreign-language dictionaries — including Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian — than other Miami schools, which typically have Spanish, Creole and maybe some Portuguese dictionaries.”
‘A good city for immigrants’
Andrei Linev, 34, a former history teacher and native of Siberia whose grandfather is Ukrainian, immigrated to Brooklyn where there is a large Russian-speaking community in 2014 after Putin annexed Crimea. Three years later, Linev and his wife moved to an apartment in Wynwood and then, after hearing more about Sunny Isles Beach and its Russian businesses, bought a condo there and started a remodeling company. He says about 80% of the residents in his building speak Russian, Ukrainian or Belarusian.
“I always wanted to come to Miami, which I learned about from watching American movies like ‘Scarface,’ and I knew it was a good city for immigrants and that every day is summer — it’s palm trees and ocean,” he said. “I love this place. It feels like family.”
Malka Shahar, 58, immigrated to New York in 2004. Like Linev, she was a political activist who felt increasingly unsafe in Russia as Putin’s popularity grew. She worked for Boris Nemtsov and his opposition party in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Putin, was shot in the back and killed while walking across a bridge near the Kremlin in 2015. His murder remains unsolved.
“My life was threatened by the government and I was forced to leave,” said Shahar, who resumed her career as a psychologist and mental health counselor in the U.S. Three years ago, she moved to Winston Towers in Sunny Isles Beach, where she estimates 70% of the people in her building are Russian-speakers.
“I chose Sunny Isles Beach because it feels very comfortable and the people are very supportive of each other,” said Shahar, mentioning a Facebook group called Let’s Help Each with 40,000 followers run by her friend Marina Kuznetsova. “This is a paradise with a lot of potential.”
No longer just a vacation spot
Longtime Sunny Isles Beach residents like Svechin say the city is evolving into a permanent, year-round home for younger, wealthier Russian-speakers. It’s no longer merely a vacation spot or a haven for parking investment money or a magnet for well-to-do expectant Russian mothers, who pay “birth tourism” agencies to arrange for them to give birth at a South Florida hospital’s maternity ward, where their baby is accorded instant U.S. citizenship, then enjoy a pampered recovery in a rented Sunny Isles Beach condo.
“It’s less about the cachet of taking vacation, owning property or having a baby who gets a U.S. passport and more about establishing a life here and being part of the community,” Svechin said. “It’s still a transient population with people going back and forth to renew visas but I would say today only about 10% of the Russians are part-timers or ghost residents.”
One bellwether of change is the number of dark windows in the towers at night.
“There are definitely more lights on. I used to sit outside and look up and wonder, ‘What the heck did all these buildings get built for?’ Because they were empty and dark,” Svechin said. “What you had was the city’s approval of large buildings under the assumption that only 20% would be occupied. Russians would invest and pay property taxes but they didn’t live here. City founders wanted as much density as possible for tax revenues. City Hall used to be on the second floor of a strip mall. We had no police department, no services, no school. Nobody guessed it would blow up as it has once the developers started buying up the old motels and oceanfront land.”
The No. 1 subject of debate in Sunny Isles Beach is whether the city should adopt a height limit and rein in growth, “but no matter how much people complain about traffic, they admit that all that development paid for this to become a real city with quality resources and great public access to our beautiful beach,” Svechin said.
Edelcup K-8, opened in 2008, has been a big draw for families. There’s Russia America TV, a station based in Aventura that translates local and international news into Russian. There are clubs and classes in violin, piano, dance and gymnastics taught by Russian teachers and coaches. There are Russian restaurants, pharmacies, insurance agencies, law firms, synagogues and real estate companies.
“Traditionally the real estate agents sold Sunny Isles Beach to Russians as an investment and the skyline is still featured in Russian magazines,” Svechin said. “But now it’s a neighborhood where you can settle down. The condos are really becoming more like tall brownstones.”
In contrast to New York, populated by older Russians from the first waves of immigration, Sunny Isles Beach is attractive to recent arrivals.
“Here you have younger people and many different nationalities,” Shahar said. “Some have a lot of money. Some are escaping political persecution or discrimination against gays and transgender people.”
Svechin was 6 years old in 1979 when she and her parents and two sisters moved to Miami Beach from Gomel, Belarus, a city close to the Ukrainian border. Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Communist Party, was allowing Jews to leave the Soviet Union and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation helped sponsor them.
“America said, ‘Come,’ and my father said, ‘Let’s go,’ even though the more common path at that time was to go to Israel. He showed us a map and said, ‘Do you want to go to New York or Miami?’ and my sister said, ‘I like Miami,’ ” Svechin said. “We moved to small, cockroach-infested efficiency on Sixth Street in Miami Beach. My mother cleaned hotels for $3.12 an hour. My father, like many Russian immigrants, was a taxi driver.
“When we first got here, I was told ‘You’re a Commie and a dirty Jew.’ One of the first things I was taught to say at Fienberg Fisher Elementary was ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’ I learned English quickly and within six months I was translating for my parents and other kids. We were among a large, tight-knit group of Russian and Belarusian Jews and we all moved to Sunny Isles Beach about eight years later. That was a move up in status.”
Svechin recalls hanging out at Pier Park as a North Miami Beach High teenager. She and her friends would rent rooms on Motel Row for $30 on a Saturday night and hold parties. She went to college in New York, got a job in advertising and moved back to Sunny Isles Beach in 2010 so her children could be closer to their grandparents. Svechin became involved in the city, served as commissioner and mayor, PTSA president and is currently a Guardian Ad Litem and vice president of the Sunny Isles Beach Children’s Fund, a nonprofit with a mission of enriching the lives of the city’s children.
She marvels at how her hometown has changed, at the profusion of Rolls-Royces and $5,000 Cartier bracelets but also at how a sense of small-town nostalgia pervades the place.
Putin insults ‘gnats’ in Miami
Of course, the war in Ukraine — and Putin’s criticism of Miami Russians — is the main topic of conversation these days.
In a scathing March 16 speech, he said those who oppose his “special military operation” comprise a “fifth column” of traitors who have adopted Western values, forsaken their roots and “sold out their own mother.”
“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths — spit them out on the pavement,” Putin said, drawing on the rhetoric of Joseph Stalin. “I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to respond to any challenges.
“I don’t condemn those who have villas in Miami or the French Riviera, those who can’t live without foie gras, oysters or so-called gender freedoms. It’s not a problem. The problem is that many of those people are mentally there in the West and not here with our people, with Russia. They don’t remember or just don’t understand that they are just expendables used for the purpose of inflicting the maximum damage on our people.”
Not long after, letters spelling out “Putin Kaput” were stuck on a trash bin at Matryoshka grocery and deli.
Svechin heard the speech in Russian and understood the nuances of his message. When he said Miami, he was alluding to Sunny Isles Beach, Aventura and Hallandale Beach, she said.
“He’s a tremendous orator who uses emotional language to trigger people,” she said. “He emphasized that if you follow Western thinking you are in their caste and it makes you weak and disloyal to your history, your people. Russians are simple hard-working people, so you can buy all those luxury apartments and eat all the foie gras you want but you’ll never be one of them, they’ll never accept you there, you will never belong. He was hearkening back to the days of the Soviet Union. American leaders do the same thing when they talk about democracy.”
A generational political gap
If there’s any rift in Sunny Isles Beach, it’s not between Russians and Ukrainians but between the generations. Some older people who grew up in the Soviet Union do feel an affinity for Putin and his goal of rebuilding the Russian empire. Svechin has chosen not to discuss Putin with her mother, who is 77.
“Soviet values and the idea of Soviet dominance have been instilled in them since childhood,” Svechin said. “In fact, I am a child of the Soviet Union and the very first portrait I drew as a child was of Lenin. The figure of the strongman, the aggressive, authoritarian big man is very appealing. Just like Donald Trump has a lot of appeal. The propaganda machine is effective, through censorship, poetry, music. You’re not going to change the minds of older people, so I ask my mom to make her potato pancakes and I don’t lecture her.”
Linev said fear of the Russian government and its tentacles reaches all the way to Sunny Isles Beach. He attends local meetings of the political party he left behind, New Freedom for Russia, but communicates mostly on What’sApp to avoid being hacked.
“I’m afraid for Russia, not only because the sanctions could destroy the economy but because of the possibility of civil war between the people who want to build the future and the people who worship Putin like a new Stalin and want the old Soviet Union back to dominate Europe,” he said. “There are so many family connections with Ukraine. It is a terrible, sad war between brothers.”
Shahar said some friends and relatives back in Russia are appalled at Putin’s invasion but have to be careful what they say in public.
“I do not miss Russia and I could go back to collect my pension but I won’t,” she said. “It’s painful for me to think of my home. We were not able to root out the evil Putin. The Russian people deserve to live a better life but if they support Putin, they must share in the responsibility of his destruction.”
There is also trepidation in the city that U.S. government economic sanctions against Russia could trickle down to local business and property owners. The Biden administration has targeted dozens of Russian oligarchs close to Putin who have amassed billions from dealings with his government and invested their money in the United States. Federal agencies in South Florida insist they aren’t going after everyday Russians.
“Small business owners are scared of any blowback that could hurt them,” Svechin said. “It’s a worry. People who have bought expensive condos and are not citizens are scared it could be seized. We have no clarification from the Biden administration about what might happen to property owners.”
(Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.)