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As delightful as glasnost, Marina Levitis co-owns Rasputin Restaurant & Cabaret, the go-to spot in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where revelers of all backgrounds commune over vodka, caviar, and performances (but mostly vodka). Even if they seat you in Siberia, the place is as crazy fun as the old Russian Tea Room without the stick up its ass.
These days, Levitis is raising a toast to the Lifetime channel, which just started airing Russian Dolls, a reality show about herself and seven other Brooklyn Russkies working out their high-pressure issues without ever resorting to games like Russian roulette.
My recent conversation with the pioneering zhenshchina went like so:
Me: Hi, Marina. Have you ever thought of naming your restaurant for someone other than the controversial mystic who was poisoned, shot, beaten, and drowned?
Levitis: No. I think it's a good name because Rasputin was known for his opulence. He liked to live hard and party hard. You get to experience all of it at Rasputin. We renovated it to be a lot more opulent, a Russian czar type of experience. When you come in, you feel you're transformed.
Me: For what price?
Levitis: It's actually very affordable. On Saturday nights, our fixed menu starts at $100, and it's all you can eat, drink, and party—you can stay all night.
Me: I might stay for a month. Is there prejudice about Russian Americans in Brooklyn?
Levitis: People are prejudiced, but if you show them your life and open your home and family to them, they are gonna be comfortable with you. Our community needs this show. There's a lot of different stereotypes out there, like the Russian mafia, and Russian women are easy. This show will show all kinds of people. It's not just Jersey Shore party girls. It's an eye-opener.
Me: One of your co-stars noted that you always act like the whole world revolves around you. Is this true?
Levitis: I don't think so, but in this community, when you're somebody, you have to maintain a certain lifestyle, drive a certain car, and maintain a certain appearance. Russians are all about appearances.
Me: So some stereotypes might be true! Anyway, you were in high school when you met your husband and restaurant partner, Michael. Ever have a cheating crisis?
Levitis: I hope not. I would never cheat. I'm a good girl. But a crisis is not all about cheating. There's other issues—money issues, in-law issues. It helps when you know each other for a long time and have a sense of humor and no secrets.
Me: Speaking of in-law issues, why were you so mortified when your mother-in-law entered the senior pageant, as seen on the show? You left before she won the talent prize!
Levitis: It was extremely embarrassing. You're a socialite in your community and people talk about you. You have to maintain a certain image. And when your mother-in-law goes nuts all the time, it doesn't help. She never feels any embarrassment. She has a lot of fun—more than the younger girls on the show. But it's at my expense. If she has a good time, it's me and my husband that are suffering.
Me: It's true that the young girls seem a little more tortured. Maybe it's because they're oppressed by their parents' sense of tradition? How do you feel about the girl whose mother pressures her to only marry a Russian?
Levitis: Traditionally, everybody likes to keep it in the family. I'd prefer my kids marry someone in the community. Is it a must? Probably not. But these girls are first-generation and were brought here when they were young. It's still part of the culture. I had my kids in my early twenties. I'm in my early thirties now. You can have your fun in your twenties or raise your kids and then have fun in your thirties, when you can afford to have fun. That's what I did.
Me: You're 34. That's considered early thirties?
Levitis: It's not 38. It's still pretty young. I'm only 34, but look at my life, my husband, the pressure to always be perfect, a restaurant every Russian person in the world has heard of. There's an image you have to uphold, and you're only in your thirties!
Me: Speak for yourself. Any second thoughts about doing the show?
Levitis: Of course. You give up your privacy. The first couple of weeks were very stressful, but I hope it's gonna benefit the business and the whole community. It will put this part of Brooklyn on the map.
Me: Not to mention your fashion sense!
Levitis: I'm very fashionable. It has to be high-end designers, all European and quality. I shop at Saks and Neiman Marcus. And I have my tan on all year 'round.
Me: So you'd never leave the house in just jeans and whiteface?
Levitis: I would wear jeans, but they have to be nice jeans, of course. It's a part of the game. The husband wants to feel like a king; he has to have a queen next to him. That comes from the Russian culture. Good looks are a lot of work. Nobody wakes up looking glamorous.