Russian Clouds in Sunny Isles

Little Moscow, or Little Kyiv, or Little Odessa. The war comes to post-Soviet characters in north Miami Beach.

Jordan Blumetti
November 14, 2023

Oleg insisted on dinner at Avra, the new Greek restaurant in the Acqualina Resort and Residences at the corner of 178th Street and Collins Avenue. We’d only pulled into the forecourt, and already I was bludgeoned by steroidal opulence and class pretension. A line of multicolor Bentleys was parked at the valet stand. Two svelte hostesses in Dior sarongs deigned to show us our table. A cavernous dining room opened up to a veranda jutting toward the Atlantic which, for a moment, a patron could mistake for a view of the Aegean Sea—that is, until he remembered that the bougainvillea was made of wax paper, the pilasters were made of Formica, and this was Sunny Isles, not Santorini.

A waiter came by. Oleg ordered us a platter of Portuguese sardines and a bottle of Domaine Laroche Grand Cru.

“There are so many Russians here,” he said, surveying the room.

“How do you know?” I asked, conspiratorially.

“I can tell by their faces. The way they dress. The watches they wear, their smell. There’s no mistaking it,” he said. “They came in the nineties, like me, but they were rich. I didn’t get rich.”

Oleg looked like a live-action Felonious Gru: a barrel of a man, mid-fifties, with a slight hunch in his shoulders—the result of a minor deformity—and pointy legs stabbing a pair of leather sandals. He grew up in a small village in western Ukraine, but had lived in South Florida for over twenty-five years. He was part of a large post-Soviet contingent that turned pockets of North Miami Beach into something alternately called Little Moscow, or Little Kyiv, or Little Odessa (the latter mostly by gauche journalists).

I already knew he wasn’t rich. If he’d been rich, he would have lived in the Acqualina Resort and Residences, or another condo tower with an expensive-sounding name, and not across the street with me, which despite the proximity was basically a whole other universe. Oleg and I were neighbors in the building where my wife and I had recently bought a unit, and Oleg was the President of the Condominium Board. This was not a role he took lightly. Most volunteers didn’t.

The first time we met, about a month before, I had mentioned my interest in the cultural overtones of my new neighborhood. This excited Oleg. Since then he’d call or text just about every day to rant about the three tightwads on the Board who were filibustering the state-of-the-art gym he wanted to build in our pool house.


“Ok, but what about all the Russians and Ukrainians?” I’d ask.

“Yes, yes. I’ll tell you about them.”

This was how we found ourselves at Avra. It would not have been my first choice for dinner, but I had to support my President. I likewise didn’t want to disappoint a man who had a master key for my front door.

The waiter dropped off our appetizers and wine. Oleg dug in. “You can eat the bones,” he said.

I was new to Sunny Isles, but my wife wasn’t. Rebecca is a first-generation Ukranian American, who grew up on the two-mile stretch of barrier island between Hallandale Beach and Surfside. Her parents were among the Jewish political refugees from Ukraine who arrived with the second wave of Soviet émigrés in 1990, one year before the dissolution of the USSR. They were spiritual relatives of the Russian and Ukrainian Jews fleeing discriminatory policies in the 1970s—the so-called “Refuseniks”—who were barred from immigrating to Israel, and comprised much of the first wave of Soviet exiles in Miami. By the late 1990s, a third wave had crested, with twenty percent of all refugees arriving in the United States coming from the former Soviet Union. Most of them went to New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but Miami was not far behind.

The overwhelming post-Soviet character of north Miami-Dade County can be summarized by the fact that my grandmother-in-law has been here for seventeen years and never bothered to learn English, except for the phrase My granddaughter is veeery bee-u-tee-fool, which she memorized years ago and recites at dinner as a kind of party trick. She failed to see the point in learning a new language when everyone already spoke her own. There were plenty of other comforts to support her outlook: she could go to the Matryoshka market and buy her quail eggs and ham salad, visit Russian doctors for sadistic medical advice, and play Durak with her fellow babushkas—all while collecting a modest American pension.

But it’s not enough to merely say that, like my babushka-in-law, There are some Soviet immigrants here: there is an entire Soviet universe in Miami, represented in two distinct classes of immigrants, bisected by Collins Avenue along familiar political and economic lines. On the ocean-facing, east side of Collins are the expats with wealth of no known origin—who came from Russian capital cities, and used dubious trusts to buy Miami real estate and avoid paying income tax—sharing a common ancestor with political elites and intelligentsia from the former USSR. Let’s call them the Eastsiders, many of whom became extraordinarily rich during the period of privatization that immediately followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. All-cash firesales of a formerly nationalized economy meant that everything was up for grabs. You could stake a claim in an entire industry—media, agriculture, natural resources—and it was yours, so long as no one successfully challenged the claim. The result was a transfer of enormous amounts of wealth to a small group of people, leading to the creation of the oligarch class, or the “New Russians,” as scholars of the Boris Yeltsin years refer to them.

Oleg brought me across the street, to Avra, and to Acqualina—whose residential units are status symbols for the moneyed Russians—because he liked to be among them.

"Some of the people who live in this building paid ten million dollars for an apartment,” he said. “They’d never make that kind of money in America.”

He had no sense of moral superiority about this. He clearly aspired to have as much money as his more fortunate compatriots. That was high on his list of reasons for defecting.

Oleg’s ambition is typical of the other class of Soviet immigrants, who live directly across the street, on the west side of Collins, facing mainland Miami. Let’s call them the Westsiders. They are middle-class, hailing from lesser municipalities across the former Soviet Empire, and came to America not with fistfuls of ill-gotten gains, but with the mostly humble and conventional dream of building a new life. However, in Miami, these humble desires are warped by two things: first, the generally perverse ethos of the city regarding finances, which destroys any dreams of a simple existence; second, the fact that they are now living in close proximity to their wealthier counterparts—just across the street. Even if much of the rich Eastsiders’ lives still remain hidden from public view, the middle-class Westsiders now have a complete understanding of how (at least, where) the elites live. For the most part, that intimate knowledge wasn’t possible within the deep social stratification of the Soviet Union. Both of these factors have caused the Westsiders to pine for the money, status, and sumptuous lifestyle of the Eastsiders, who, not incidentally, want nothing to do with them. Oleg, my sherpa, my Virgil clad in a lustrous silk shirt and a supple leather murse, was giving me tacit assurance of all this.

A “friend” of Oleg’s privatized a factory in 1992. Something to do with computer parts. He waved off my questions about specifics. The acquaintance now had a condo in Acqualina, and several houses elsewhere. This was followed by an anecdote about a friend of a friend who owned meat-processing plants in the former Eastern Bloc, a so-called “sausage baron” or “meat magnate”; and then another one about a distant relative who was stabbed seventeen times when he tried to privatize a supermarket franchise in Kyiv.

Moral of the story: there was no merit to any of it. “It was all just good luck,” Oleg said, which seemed like a sufficient, if blinkered, explanation, one that also provided comfort to Oleg in what he considered his own relative bad luck. By his count, he’d made and lost his own small fortune on real estate and other unsound investments. Not to mention all the money he’d spent on high-maintenance cars, Italian clothes, Swiss watches, French wine—possessions he admittedly had no business owning. This was all to keep up with the image he fashioned of himself: wealth-adjacent, American, upwardly mobile. His life could feel extravagant, even if the reality of it was modest and controlled.

It was time for mains. Our rascally waiter pushed a buggy in front of our table piled high with ice and several varieties of exotic, death-hardened fish.

“Which would you like?” he asked.

“That one.” Oleg pointed to easily the most revolting species on the block, with cow eyes, a pug face, and a spiny, rash-colored body.

“Scorpion,” the waiter said. “Excellent choice.”


A city built on artifice does not burden you with depth, which is why we have Trump to thank for Sunny Isles. A different Trump, if you can believe it, or more accurately two: property brothers Eddie and Jules Trump, the pair of South African real estate developers who rechristened the region “Florida’s Riviera” in the 1990s. They purchased a tumbledown model with 1,250 feet of ocean frontage and built the Acqualina towers, the first luxury property in the area to attract strong interest from foreign buyers.

Sunny Isles was known as North Miami Beach until 1931, and for much of the last century it looked like the rest of Florida’s Atlantic coastline, which is to say a monotonous frieze of themed motels, bingo halls, and sprawling military outposts with momentary eruptions of natural beauty. Or, as Jules Trump recently called it, “a junkyard.” In the early 2000s, the rest of motel row was torn down. High-rises sprung improbably out of the sand. Sunny Isles Beach (as it was officially renamed in 1997) now has the highest population density in the state, and certainly the highest concentration of Russian speakers south of New York City. As Oleg explained, a not insignificant amount of them are ludicrously wealthy. “Anonymous Russian buyer” tops most quarterly real estate sales reports in the region—the same Russian buyers who have anonymously purchased houses along the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Adriatic with the help of their shell companies and unscrupulous lawyers.

A realtor recently described Sunny Isles thusly: “Dubai meets Vegas on the ocean.” Obsession with luxury and “branded experiences” was a predictable outcome for the population-flattening Soviet virtues of meekness and deprivation, and there is clearly a lot of lost time and money being compensated for in Dubai-Vegas, Florida. To wit, here’s an incomplete list of designer condo towers in and around Sunny Isles: Bentley Residences, Fendi Chateau, Armani Casa, Porsche Design Tower, Ritz-Carlton Residences, St. Regis Residences, Turnberry Ocean Club, and Trump Towers I, II, and III (licensed by the former president, not the South Africans). The great achievement of this architecture, aside from being built on a disappearing beach, is how it so readily telegraphs the needs of its inhabitants, which is to avoid public scrutiny. The mirrored exteriors can actually reject the gaze of onlookers. The type who can afford the lifestyle of Dubai-Vegas, Florida, is small in relation to the total number of immigrants living in Sunny Isles, but not that small. The lifestyle ambassadors are a conspicuous presence. Though, paradoxically, they too have the canny ability to pass unseen. Mrs. Anonymous Russian Buyer is the heavy-breasted woman in diaphanous clothing and sunbursts of platinum hair, climbing into models of BMWs you didn’t know existed. Behind tinted windows, she can very easily blend in with any schmuck who’s rented a sports car for the day.

By contrast, the architecture on the west side of Collins Avenue in Sunny Isles Beach is squat, utilitarian, proletarian—neither odious nor alluring. The buildings are occupied by Russians and Ukrainians, yes, but also Belorussians, Georgians, Uzbeks, Poles, Lithuanians, Romanians, Moldovans. The west side is a unified haven against Communism, endearing its residents to the Cubans in southern Miami-Dade County and usually nudging them to the right on domestic politics—except in the case of the ongoing war in Ukraine. The Westsiders, along with Miami’s community of Latin American exiles from Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, have aligned themselves with the cause of Ukrainian independence, channeling their own struggles with repressive, fascistic regimes. This is the side of the street where the “Free Navalny” demonstrations take place; where extended Ukrainian families have crammed themselves into one-bedroom apartments since February 2022; where F*ck Putin signs hang in the windows (though they’re not necessarily fond of Zelensky either). It might seem like a ripe setting for a political struggle, but that hasn't been true. Resentments for distant things like Vladimir Putin and military incursions haven't resulted in palpable conflicts on the ground in Sunny Isles Beach. If they are frustrated, they don't show it. At least, they seem content to take out their frustration on outsiders, like me.


Before I moved to Sunny Isles Beach, I didn't know much about condominiums. This blindspot was actually a point of pride, since I never thought of myself as a "condo guy," but let me share some useful things that I learned: a condominium building has a board of directors elected by the homeowners to run the condominium. They are in charge of managing the condo association, its budget, and all of the minutiae, rule-making, and rule-enforcement that goes with it. Sometimes the building puts a third-party management company in charge; such is the case for luxury high-rises. As for the mid-tier buildings, more often than not, they prefer to self-govern. It takes a certain type of unsparing, no-nonsense person to want to volunteer his time to such a project. The upshot is that many of the condo associations on the west side of Collins Avenue are being run by Soviet émigrés who voluntarily lord over their buildings in a deadly serious and importunate manner, because the social conditioning and memory of collectivism is a phantom limb not easily forsaken. They are exercising some control over their own lives. It feels good to them.

I learned these things the hard way, late last year, during one of the few times I'd visited Sunny Isles before moving there. My babushka-in-law was leaving the condo where she’d lived for seventeen years (the one with the entry keypad that defaulted to Cyrilic) and moving into a nursing home. Rebecca and I had gone to the old place to pack some of her remaining personal effects. We were overheated and almost finished for the day when I felt an odd sensation of being watched. I collected a few remaining boxes, stepped outside, and saw a short figure standing in the carport. She wore a helmet-like black wig that parted stiffly around her wrinkled, overly rouged face, which made her look like a dried cranberry. She smoked and stared, an unwashed terrier at her heel.

“Did you get permission for this?” she asked in a villainous whisper.

“For what?” I asked.

“You must pay to move.”

“We’re not moving. We don’t even live here. Just helping some family. See?” I said, gesturing at cardboard boxes. “No furniture.”

“In what apartment do you have family?” she asked.

“Do we have to tell you?”

She muttered something in Russian. I looked to Rebecca for a translation, but she just shook her head and looked down at the asphalt, indicating that it wasn’t very nice.

“We have cameras. So, it doesn’t really matter if you do or not,” the woman said. Then she walked to the far end of the parking lot and pulled out her cell phone to make a call. Before hanging up, she looked back in our direction with a glint in her eye that said: yes, you are being tattled on.

A summons appeared in the mailbox one week later, addressed to Guests of Apartment 907, full of typos and containing phrases like “completely prohibited,” and “we’ve received various complaints,” and “this is a direct violation of the condominiums [sic] Rules and Regulations.” We had been fined $300, which sounded excessive, but we’d also be given the opportunity to appear for a hearing in front of something called the “Fining Committee,” which sounded deliciously imperious and too good to pass up.

I thought I’d be able to get the fine tossed out after a heartfelt apology, since we had no previous knowledge that these “moving rules” existed. Rebecca was less optimistic and therefore did not join me in this endeavor. When I showed up for the hearing and saw that cursed marionette with the black wig walking across the lobby—who had evidently come to testify to my indiscretion—I wished I had listened to her.

The Fining Committee met in a windowless room, muggy and wood-paneled. The Building Manager, Yevgeny, stood in the corner with his arms folded, as a phalanx of Board Members filed in. I couldn’t help but notice—unsurprising as it was—that they all had demonstrably Eastern Slavic features: pale, cherubic faces, full lips, slightly protruding chins.

I sat down at the head of a long, warped conference table. They were unmoved by my testimony. Afterward, the self-styled Foreman cleared his throat to speak. “Moving of any kind is supposed to be done between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., on a weekday, with two days written notice, after a deposit of $200 is submitted to the Board of Directors, after a $25 non-refundable floor protection fee is tendered, and once the elevator floor and wall protection and elevator bypass key are issued.”

“I’m sorry,” I cooed. “I didn’t know the rules.”

The woman with the black wig intervened: “Fines are given to people who do not follow the rules. And the Board of Directors does not usually reduce the fines,” she said.

“I guess I was hoping you could make an exception.”

“That’s not possible. We’re not the Board of Directors.”

“Who are you, then?”

Yevgeny uncrossed his arms. “This is a meeting of Fining Committee,” he said, slowly. His English was the weakest in the group. “All we can do is tell Board of Directors, and they make Final Decision.”

“You will be informed of the Final Decision in one week,” the Foreman clarified.

In all likelihood, the “Board of Directors” were the same five ruddy apparatchiks who were in the room with me at that very moment. But pointing this out wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. I tried to respect how genuinely disturbed they were by my misdeed, and at the same time understand that it wasn’t the precise transgression that energized the room. They seemed more excited about the act of coming together to participate in an inert bureaucracy that was structurally opposed to leniency and would result in me paying $300 to a room full of crooks. You see what I mean by Soviet.

On my way out, Yevgeny handed me a bound copy of the condominium’s official set of Rules and Regulations even though, as I explained once again, I did not live in their building. He wanted me to have it. “Our rules. Please, take,” he said. The first page had a note from the Board of Directors that read: You have chosen the Condominium as your new home, and we pledge continuing efforts to make it a source of pride for you…But in this regard, your help and cooperation is needed, as well as the help and cooperation of your neighbors. A footer stated that it was last revised two days ago. There was a glossary, and an index, which pointed to  general rules, community rules, and rules broken down by narrow criteria. Each of those sections had its own enumerated list of rules. The one titled BARBECUING, about the communal grill, had sixteen.


We bought our condo a few months after my run-in with the Fining Committee (and not without some reluctance on my part). The building is on the west side of Collins Avenue—about three blocks away from babushka's. It's a narrow, ten-story, late-deco design, painted white with vertical dove-gray panels and a handsome brise-soleil. It wants to fall apart, but the tenants won’t let that happen. A cast of harried Eastern European day laborers is forever repainting the laundry rooms, conducting vibration tests, caulking window joints, repairing leaks on the ninth floor, re-stuccoing the façade, re-paneling the lobby walls, ripping up carpet and laying tile, and busting up tile and laying carpet. These capital improvements are modeled after the beautiful facilities across the street, and are often paid for, in part, by fines levied against unsuspecting rule-breakers like myself (our building has a Fining Committee of its own). The other line of funding comes from “special assessments,” a tax imposed on the members of an HOA, usually for repairs and maintenance. In the case of my building, those special assessments are devised and voted on by Oleg and his Cabinet. And they do not tolerate dissent.

Once Rebecca and I had picked our precise move-in date—and in accordance with Section VIII, Rule 1 of the Rules and Regulations (All moves must be scheduled with the condominium office at least 48 hours in advance…Fines will be imposed for all violations)—I sent email memoranda to the building management outlining our plans. This was how Oleg and I first became acquainted. He appreciated my thoroughness. Instead of responding to the email, he showed up at my front door with a bottle of cognac and two glasses, and personally invited me to the next board meeting, explaining that they were customary for all unit owners. (He also told me that, for twenty bucks, the Romanian janitor will make unwanted furniture or large pieces of trash disappear, and by disappear he meant cut it into fifty pieces with a Sawzall so it can be thrown into the dumpster without incurring a fine.)

The board meeting itself was held on the second floor of the pool house. Oleg brought his own gavel. He took a seat at the head of a long conference table, flanked by the Building Manager, Alexei, a wiry man with a white mustache and coke-bottle glasses, and the hulking Treasurer, Dimitri. His deputies were from Moldova and Russia, respectively. The first thing he’d like to do, he announced, gazing out at his fiefdom, was express his disappointment that only sixteen out of sixty unit owners attended this meeting. “If you cannot attend this meeting, you cannot expect to know about Condominium business. And we will not help you to know,” he said. The rest of the Board Members nodded in unison.

He moved on to the much more serious matter of the top two floors of the building vibrating under the weight of a malfunctioning air compressor, which was about as lethal as it sounded. “This is going to cost a lot of money,” Oleg said with something like relish. He introduced a motion to fund the project with a special assessment fee divied up among all unit owners. In fairness, there was no other option but to replace the compressor, and he would obviously have to pay his share. But there was also no obscuring the part of him that felt a jolt of pleasure from telling a captive audience that they were contractually obliged to give him money. All seven of the board members voted in favor. New air compressor, $856 per unit. Gavel drop. Meeting adjourned. Dimitri encouraged residents to pay immediately with “Zelley.”


During Oleg’s tirades about American politicians, which were frequent, all I could think of was his gavel and how much he loved being President. During his tirades about Soviet-era politicians, also frequent, all I could think of was him and Alexei in the condominium office standing in front of a wall of security camera feeds, operating their own little surveillance state. When he spoke about money, he was always betraying that novel American paradox of being both suspicious and laudatory of the people who have it. He was the most reflexively contrarian person I had ever met. And yet this all made sense for a man whose life had been cleaved by two deeply opposed sociopolitical ideologies and regimes—the totalitarian scourge of Communism, and the runaway excesses of Western capitalism. That antagonism lived within him.

He often spoke about how urban housing in the USSR was perpetually in short supply relative to the needs of the population. The urbanization, industrialization, and spirit behind the popular slogan “catch up to and surpass America'' put enormous pressure on housing inventory. Most people lived communally, in squalor, with nine square meters of living space allotted per person. “I lived in Kruschevki,” Oleg said, a pejorative for the public housing built under Nikita Khrushchev. “The walls were so thin you could hear your neighbor’s stomach growl. The apartment was ours, and it could stay that way for generations, maybe. But you’d never own it. And they had ways of reminding us.”

Oleg was born in 1960 in Berdychiv, a storied Jewish enclave in Ukraine, birthplace of the writer Vasily Grossman, and resting place of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok—a central figure (some would say founder) of Eastern European Hasidism. Around the turn of the 20th century, Berdychiv was home to the largest percentage of Jews in the Russian Empire; by 1941 they had all been either exported to death camps or massacred in front of their homes, which Grossman witnessed as a war correspondent and would later novelize in his masterpiece Life and Fate. In the years following World War II, Jews tentatively repopulated the town. Such was the atmosphere into which Oleg was born.

As a teen, Oleg relocated to Monchegorsk, in the polar north of Russia, above the arctic circle, when his father got a job working in a metalware factory. At the time, he was reading banned Solzhenitsyn in smuggled samizdat, like many of his peers, but the book that turned him on to America, and led to his early disillusionment with the State, was one that he read as a child in Berdychiv, called One-Storied America by Ilf and Petrov, a writing duo from Odessa. Like much of their work, it was a subtle lampoon of Soviet society, this time masquerading as criticism of the West. But their portrayal of America was complex, and surprisingly generous. The coded criticism of the Soviet Union filled Oleg with perverse delight, and he started to feel a pull toward the West, toward America in particular, that genial country with unbound opportunity and vast, mythological landscapes, where—perhaps most importantly—people weren’t crammed into apartment buildings. One day he’d leave.

In the late 1980s, with Gorbachev’s version of perestroika making immigration a distant possibility, Oleg began to seriously consider fleeing. After securing paperwork in Moscow, he embarked on a Homeric journey through westward checkpoints, walking for days in the Ukrainian hinterlands, and sneaking his way onto a train bound for Austria. In 1990, he arrived in Los Angeles under the official designation of political refugee. A small network of ex-Soviets helped him cobble together a living. He sold used Levi’s at the North Hollywood Swap Meet while in school to become an X-Ray technician. When he had some money, he fixed his teeth, and then his nose, and became proficient in English. He met a beautiful woman with green eyes from the family of a high-ranking Soviet official and, when he had some more money, drove to Las Vegas to marry her. In 1994, he moved with his young bride to Sunny Isles Beach.

After thirty-three years in America, he had a lot of complaints. “I always wanted to come to America,” he told me. “But now I realize it’s all bullshit.” There was a sense of political and personal betrayal underlying all of it. It was the rising cost of living; his contempt for the sitting president; the cultural currents of America shifting an order of magnitude to the left. Even though his life here had been better than in his home country, he had expected his fortune to change more dramatically.

After the condominium board meeting, Oleg and I walked out to the parking lot and watched his ancient Brussels Griffon relieve itself in a square of grass between cars. Alexei, the Building Manager, accompanied us. Even though he was older than Oleg, and had been in America for a decade longer, Alexei had an innate deference to Oleg, his President—a born deputy. And even though Alexei was from the Russian side of the Black Sea, and therefore technically Russified, Oleg refused to recognize him as anything other than Moldovan due to some arcane intra-cultural dispute about Tsar Alexander I and historic boundaries. When I first met the two of them, they would often argue about the cultural history of the Russian Empire and the schizophrenic territorial claims of the Soviet Union, and I’d be reminded of present-day Ukraine. Eventually, I had the nerve to ask them for an opinion.

The war had not improved Oleg’s view of the West. He might be Ukrainian, but his take on geopolitics was predictably roguish. In the short time I’d known him, Oleg had undergone an intellectual journey about the conflict: from broadly supporting Ukrainian independence, to criticizing their refusal to surrender, to expressing wholesale contempt for the West’s support of the war and Ukraine’s accepting billions of dollars in aid, and finally to calling Zelensky a corrupt dictator and making arguments about “the restoration of Soviet territories.”

Alexei made a point of agreeing with Oleg’s last position. “Ukraine is never going to beat Russia because Russia will never give up,” he said, not pridefully, but as a mere statement of fact. “And tell me one war since World War II that America has gotten involved in and it’s worked out in their favor.”

Ukraine was Oleg’s diminutive home country—which he’d never known as a sovereign nation—and he was somewhat confounded that its independence had become a cause célèbre around the world. It felt strange and almost shameful to share the spotlight in that way. He had no capacity for the blind optimism required of those fighting a righteous though pyrrhic war. He had no trust in anyone but himself. I tried to blame this pessimism on him being raised in the Soviet Union, and he did not correct me.


The first time I saw Anna was in front of my building, kicking the tires on a used Toyota Prius with her mother and father. The family took turns starting the car, folding down the backseat, opening the trunk. I had been walking with Oleg, who signaled toward her and whispered that she was a new renter. We said hello, and the family looked up and nodded in our direction. I’d soon learn that Anna immigrated from Ukraine to Miami in 2014. Her parents arrived here one year ago, against their will. They were among the thousands of Ukrainians displaced by the war.

Her hair was blond when we met, notable only because the next time we ran into each other, in the elevator, it was coal-black. I had to study her face for a moment to recall why she looked familiar. “Big change, huh?” She smiled. The most charming thing about Anna was her teeth. The front two delicately crossed like a pair of mournful hands on the back of a church pew. When she smiled at me she flashed them proudly, aware of their power, and their incongruence with the rest of her face, which had been tooled and puffed by imprudent cosmetic surgeries.

Three years ago, Anna had the car; the eastside, ocean-front apartment in Sunny Isles; the husband in very good financial standing. She was twenty-seven then, and seemingly happy. They’d come to South Florida from Kyiv after marrying. He did something with a chain of boxing gyms in North Miami, out of which he ran the real business: falsifying immigration documents (she was never clear on the details). He wasn’t sausage-baron loaded, but rich by any normal human metric. Their lives reflected that. Glare and reflection, that was Miami for Anna back then.

It turned out her husband was having an affair with a woman he worked with. He also had a one-year-old daughter, whom Anna discovered when the mother called to say she didn’t care about keeping his secret anymore and that he could no longer use the pandemic as an excuse to avoid her. Turned out Anna had wanted a child of her own, but her husband had said no. Another woman might have stuck it out, but Anna demanded a separation. She packed her bags and went looking for another place to live, which led her to our westside digs. That was January 2022.

In the aftermath, her ex-husband called often to tell her that he was sorry, that he was in therapy now and wished she could forgive him. She said no. Okay, he said, but there was something else. He had to tell her in person. Her ex had ties to the political class in Ukraine (she wasn’t clear on that one either), and, like a discount Yuri Zhivago, he showed up at the door of her new apartment and said he had intel, well in advance of the Ukrainian public, that the war was coming, and she needed to get her parents out of Kyiv immediately.

“I’m still surprised I listened to him, but I guess I have to be grateful that I did,” she said.

In a rare moment of nobility, her ex-husband met her parents at the airport when they arrived last February and helped move them into Anna’s new apartment, a one-bedroom which they have shared ever since. She refused his money but allowed him to set up Russian television for her father. She didn’t have the heart to tell her parents what he had done, so she just let them think it was her fault. “I don’t blame him for leaving,” her father would say when he and Anna fought.

She got a job selling ad space in medical trade publications to help pay for her parents’ paperwork. Since she already had her green card, they could apply for family reunion through Immigration Services, which would grant them citizenship. The paperwork and legal fees cost over $6,000. They were having a difficult time in America, especially her father. To help pay some of their bills, he looked after the kids of a family down the street. Anna explained this while trying to avoid using the word “nanny.” “That’s why we got him the Pre-yoos,” she said. “He needed a safe car to drive the kids.” This was an emasculating role, she confided, but it was the best they could do for the time being.

On days when her father wasn’t working, he would go to the gym and dawdle in the steam room, or walk for hours on the treadmill. “He’s gone all day,” Anna said. “I don't really know what he  does. I think he’s depressed.”

Her father differed from his countrymen (rich or not) here in Miami in the sense that he never wanted to leave his home in Ukraine. Never daydreamed, like Oleg, about immigrating. Never cared about money or status. Didn’t want to take ESL classes as a fifty-nine-year-old man. Didn’t want to run a condominium board. He simply wanted to work at his accounting practice and then go home to his wife and his apartment. In other words, he didn’t fit the immigrant subcategories that were available in his adopted city. So instead he went to Planet Fitness and watched cable news footage of the war, feeling, one imagines, like a stranger to himself.

Maybe he’d adjust; Anna was hopeful about that. But her prognosis of the war was not as optimistic. In fact, it was colored by the same gloominess as Oleg and Alexei. “Life taught me to be prepared for the worst,” she said. “I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think Ukraine will exist anymore by the end of this.”

She was considering getting a largish Ukrainian tryzub, or coat of arms, tattooed on her left forearm, opposite a fading hamsa on the right side. But this was a risky move, an advertisement of her genealogy and her sympathies that could provoke unwanted scrutiny if and when she returns to a Ukraine that is no longer Ukrainian.

“What would be the point of getting it then?”

“To remember,” she shrugged.


In 2022, a bizarre, but obviously interconnected, phenomenon began of high-profile and otherwise healthy Russian oligarchs dropping dead all around the world. They were going unconscious and falling down stairwells, out of windows, off of cliffs, yachts, and hotel balconies. At least a dozen of them. They all had two things had in common: money (lots), and strong opinions about the war. I was told this was the reason Russians didn’t volunteer information about either one of those subjects. Most people I encountered for this story were rightly guarded and suspicious of question-askers.

Oleg, however, was more of an anomaly. With few exceptions, and especially after several glasses of Chablis, he was fearlessly candid. Halfway through our dinner at Avra, he was making jokes about the table of vaguely menacing Russians beside us, whom he called “Putin’s goons.” He proceeded to list several reasons why he didn’t care much for Russians (“tacky,” “smell weird”) within an earshot of our neighbors.

And then he surprised me again when he turned introspective and acknowledged the emptiness of his life’s greatest pursuit.

“The Soviet system was created to deprive people of basic rights and possessions. The whole country was one big jail. That’s why people here like luxury, expensive stuff,” he said. “I got obsessed with these things too. But it’s a sickness. It’s stupid. I don’t need so many things.”

It’s true that, even though he could never really afford it, he had deprived himself of nothing. But this never led to anything like contentment, or even to high-flying feelings of paranoia and grandeur. He just felt ennui, which transcended all the noise of his past and his assimilation and, inevitably, caused him to question why he ever left in the first place.

“By the time I was born, Stalin was dead. Khrushchev had closed the gulags. Everyone was starving and had bad teeth, but I cannot complain. I had a decent life,” he said. “When I was young, I didn’t have anything, but maybe I was more happy, because of my family, the friendships I had. I guess—” he trailed off. “I guess I’m just bored.”

“Is that why you became President?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Something to do.”

He used to dream about the big house, the country lot. The spellbinding landscapes described by Ilf and Petrov. But Oleg hadn’t lived anywhere except this thumb of sand for twenty-nine years. And that wasn't because he hated moving. According to his most recent estimate, he’d moved apartments nineteen times since emigrating. What kept him from leaving Sunny Isles Beach was a biological imperative that can’t easily be explained, but it reminded me of something the poet Joseph Brodsky said about his fellow Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn. “He thought his problem was Communism, but his problem was people.”

Loneliness and boredom were problems that no economic system could fix. So instead we gossiped and drank. A waiter we hadn’t seen before wheeled over the guéridon trolley with our grilled scorpion and filleted it table-side, dropping a mound of limpid meat on our plates. The fish repaired our brief depression. Oleg’s cheeks flushed and he smiled broadly because he remembered an important question he wanted to ask me. There's an open spot on our building's fining committee. Will I join? Of course, I said. When we finished eating, he ordered us another bottle of wine and we took it outside to the beach-front veranda in the waning light.

A weird thing happens when the sun goes down in Sunny Isles—it gets eclipsed by the skyscrapers. In an instant, the sun was gone. Broad shadows slowly lengthened out to sea and the sand turned dark and chilly. Beachgoers packed their things and got dressed quickly. Some of them moved down the beach, looking for a break in the skyline. Others started to amble toward the parking lot, grumbling that the day was over earlier than it should be.

More from Issue One

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