Nearly two months after Eduard’s funeral, Rafael Nektalov, his cousin and the editor of the Bukharan Times, was in the below-ground office of his newspaper in Forest Hills. Known in the community as an agitator who likes to use the Times to create controversy, Rafael began life as a journalist when he came to America in the early nineties. In Uzbekistan, he was a noted composer and professor of music. He had about an hour before he needed to leave for court to attend Roman’s money-laundering trial. He was dressed in black pants, a shiny black open-necked shirt, and black felt yarmulke. “I am shocked by the press coverage of Edik’s murder,” he said, half in English, half in Bukharan, through a translator. “All this mafia talk, all this talk about crime. Edik was guilty of nothing. My daughters burst into tears when they heard what happened. This murder is not a problem with the Nektalovs, it is Bloomberg’s problem. It is Bloomberg’s problem the city is so dangerous.”
When I tried to question him about this, he went even further. “It is not only Roman or Edik Nektalov that’s on trial,” he said before leaving for court. “It is the whole Bukharan community.”
One morning, I sat in a second-floor office on Austin Street in Forest Hills with Rabbi Yehoshua. The rabbi, still youthful-looking despite his long, untrimmed salt-and-pepper beard, came here from Israel eighteen years ago. His parents are from Samarkand. While he slowly explained what the Talmud says about circumstantial evidence, I had difficulty hearing him. The office, whose walls were decorated with portraits of Ariel Sharon and the Lubavitcher rebbe, belonged to the contractor overseeing construction of the new, five-story, $6 million Bukharan community center. The contractor, the president of the Bukharan Jewish Congress, the founder and curator of the Bukharan Museum, and two Hasids from Israel were arguing loudly around a conference table, waving their arms, pounding on the table, and, in the case of the Hasids, stroking their beards with very pale, delicate-looking fingers. They were yelling in both Bukharan and Hebrew, and when I asked what they were so passionately fighting about, I was told it was me.
Or at least whether talking to me was a good idea. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that any attempt to tell the story of the Bukharans through the prism of Eduard Nektalov’s murder was sure to reflect badly on everyone. They were certain that, once again, the entire community would look like a bunch of misfits and crooks.
“The Bukharans are so sensitive about their image because they have an inferiority complex,” says Gloria Blumenthal, director of acculturation and community organization at the New York Association for New Americans, where she helps resettle Bukharan immigrants. “It’s an issue for all Soviet Jews because they spent so many years as outcasts, being looked down upon. But it’s twice as bad for the Bukharans. They were not only viewed as inferior because they were Jews, they were also viewed as backward and primitive because of their Oriental culture.”
Blumenthal says the Bukharans are fighting the classic immigrant battle. They are struggling to adjust to their new home, to assimilate and become Americans, while at the same time trying not to completely forfeit their own 2,000-year-old culture. Some of the cultural differences are almost comical.
Frequent complaints are lodged in Rego Park’s apartment buildings over Bukharans making too much noise in the hallways. Bukharan tenants regularly argue and do battle in the hallways because, where they come from, hallways are viewed as an extension of the home. Similarly, you can easily spot a Bukharan house in Rego Park and Forest Hills by the front yard. If it is elaborately gated and filled with furniture, it is likely Bukharan—Bukharans prefer to sit in the front, where they can watch the street and see who goes by rather than cloister themselves in the backyard.
Some of the issues, however, are more serious. There is, Blumenthal says, a great deal of poverty and unemployment. Things can be particularly difficult for teenagers caught between New World friends and Old World parents. “Intermarriage for them,” Blumenthal says, “means marrying someone who is not Bukharan.”
Near the end of July, two months after Eduard Nektalov was gunned down, his father stood trial for money laundering. The scene in Part 18B of the federal courthouse was both tragic and strange. Still in mourning, Roman came to court every day dressed in black, as did the rest of his immediate family. He followed the case against him through a translator. The courtroom was always filled with 50 to 100 people from the Bukharan community, who turned out to show support for one of their leaders. During the last week of the trial, Roman, who is 75, suffered two heart attacks.
“We visited him in the hospital,” says Christopher E. Chang, one of the defense attorneys. “And he signed a waiver allowing the trial to go forward without his presence in the courtroom. He was crying, he looked terrible, and he said one way or the other he needed the ordeal to be over. His son Leon said the trial was killing him.”
The morning after Roman’s second heart attack, the case was wrapped up and given to the jury that afternoon. In the end, Roman Nektalov was acquitted of the four most serious charges he faced, but convicted on one count of money laundering.
This despite the fact that the government seized $1.8 million worth of diamonds that were spread out on a table in the back of the store when Roman was arrested by federal agents. They claimed the stones were about to be sold to the Colombians. Though no decision has yet been made about whether the lone guilty verdict will be appealed, Chang says that even if it stands, Roman will likely get probation instead of jail time.
In the end, the most compelling aspect of the trial may have been what it revealed about Eduard. “You don’t get shot once in the head and twice in the back in broad daylight for no reason,” says Chang. “And it’s clear on the tapes, he was the person doing some kind of deal. The truth is, once Eduard was killed, the strength of the government’s case really changed.”
Chang points out there is one tape from October 2002 in which Roman and his son Leon are speaking in Bukharan. Leon can clearly be heard pleading with his father not to get involved. “He says, ‘We don’t do things like this,’ ” Chang recounts. “And eventually you can hear Leon say, ‘Fine, do what you want, but don’t get me involved.’ It’s almost like this snapped Roman back to reality. Because you can hear him later on saying to the undercover, ‘No, I can’t do this. I can’t do this.’ ”
Chang seems genuinely surprised when I tell him that the impression in the community is exactly the opposite. People talked about Roman’s vanity, his ego, and his need to feel important. But no one criticized Eduard. The feeling clearly seemed to be that if someone were capable of doing something illegal, it would probably be Roman, not Eduard.
“While I realize that Roman was the much more public of the two, Eduard was running the business. Roman was semi-retired,” Chang says. “And Eduard was incredibly smart. If I were going to analogize his personality to someone, I would have said Michael Corleone. His English wasn’t very good, but he was always at least two steps ahead of me. In retrospect, if Eduard had been alive, this case may not have been as triable as I initially thought.”