For most of the 20th Century, your government has been the enemy of the people. Most of your choices about where you will live, and how, have been made for you by fiat. Freedom of speech and religion are oxymorons. So in moving to the United States, the psychological adjustments are enormous. But that's not all: It turns out that much of what you've been told about the United States by Russian TV is wrong.
"In Russia they think all black people in America live in boxes on the street," says Moldovan-born Michael Kira. "On Russian TV, they show only the very rich or the very poor. No middle class. It's been a total brainwash."
Realizing how much the United States has been misperceived by people who live in the former Soviet Union, he decided to do something about it. Along with another businessman (who later dropped out) and musician Maxim Dunayevsky, Kira, 47, started up a TV company catering to Russian immigrants.
"American TV is the strongest medium in the world," he says. "But from the standpoint of local television, the Russian community has had very limited information and cultural programming. We know the Russian mentality and the community here knows me. A lot of people misunderstand America. They think everything is easy and everyone is rich. If they come as guests, they're treated one way. But as immigrants who come to stay, they have to find a job, which is difficult because of the language."
Over recent years, more than 500,000 Russian-speaking emigres have settled in the greater Los Angeles area, with a heavy concentration in the Fairfax District.
To help with the transition, CRN-TV, which went up in April of 1994, offers 21 hours of programming a week, six of them original, on various cable-TV outlets in Los Angeles and San Francisco, from Friday through Sunday. The schedule consists of news, political discussion and analysis, culture and entertainment. There are also children's and educational shows, and, rare in an all-purpose format, religious programming.
"Whatever the immigrant needs to know," Kira says.
And it's a two-way street. Several camera crews posted throughout the former USSR send news from home, and CRN exports coverage of Russian artists and celebrities on tour in the United States (who often stop in at the station for an interview chat). As a kind of last laugh, the station often profiles Russian immigrants who are making it big in America.
A lot of the programming is timely and sophisticated. Despite a lead time that prohibits a breaking-news format, CRN claims it was the first American TV outlet to report the murder of Russian TV journalist Vladislov Listev, an event widely covered in the mainstream news media.
And in 43-year-old Eugene Levin (who is also editor in chief of Russian-language radio station KMND-FM), CRN enjoys a smart and wide-ranging political commentator.
"Most of the people who come here are Jewish political refugees, so there's a great interest in issues that involve Israel and the Middle East," Levin says. "Our coverage is divided up into American issues, developments in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and international issues--particularly the former Yugoslavia. We report extensively on changes on Capitol Hill, as well as local available social services. And it isn't just political, it's economic news, which affects everyone."
But it's the day-to-day goings-on in the neighborhoods of West Hollywood and the Fairfax District that most intrigue Kira.
"We've sent our crew out at night to ride with the West Hollywood police, just like in 'Cops,' " he says, beaming.
The station's effort to acclimatize immigrants to their new condition has not gone unnoticed in the city. Says John Heilman, West Hollywood's mayor, "CRN has really helped us get the word out to our Russian residents, who make up such a large part of the community. They know about the services we have, and how to report crime, fires and earthquakes. We're excited to have them in the city."
In sharing his observations on life in the new world, Kira often affects the genial "What a country!" incredulity popularized by comedian Yakov Smirnoff. After all, it's been a Panglossian trip. He has a doctoral degree in physical therapy from the Georgia State Medical School in Tblisi, and a degree in sports journalism. He has experienced an unusual measure for self-worth.
"My life cost a ton of wheat, which President Jimmy Carter offered the Soviet Union for every Jew who was allowed to emigrate," he says. "I saw freedom and opportunity ahead."
Kira, who became an American citizen 10 years ago, worked as a health director for Getty Oil and now has an office adjacent to his TV station, where he maintains his physical therapy practice. He also publishes a Russian community newspaper, called Contact.