"I simply don't use banks."
That's what most of the estimated 85,000 Russian immigrants living in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach are likely to say when asked about where they bank.
As in other minority communities, the main problem for banks trying to do business here is language.
The fact that Russia began development of a Western-style banking system onlyh about five years ago complicates matters even further.
Even now, most of the people in the former Soviet Union use banks only for making deposits and receiving pensions.
For many of the Russians in Brighton Beach, bank use is restricted to check cashing. In part that's because many of these new immigrants are retired or on welfare.
When they do have extra money, Russian immigrants don't use savings accounts, for fear the banks will notify the government and jeopardize their welfare payments.
Yet things have changed significantly since the late 1970s, when the flow of immigrants to Brighton Beach began to grow from a trickle to a flood.
"When they first came here, they did not understand what a bankbook was, because in Russia they were not allowed to have them," said Esther Soscia, assistant vice president and branch manager at the Dime Savings Bank office on Brighton Beach Avenue, one of two Dime branches in the area.
"People were very reluctant to open an account. They used to come in and they wanted only cash. At that time we even sent 15 of our employees to study Russian banking terminology," Ms. Soscia said.
"We started to show immigrants what a bankbook was and how the neighborhood economy could improve if they started to bank with us.
"At first, they began to make deposits, and now about 75% of Russian customers have savings accounts. Along with deposits, many of them buy U.S. government savings bonds."
Bank branches all over Brighton Beach currently sport signs proclaiming, "We speak Russian." At the Dime Branch on Brighton Beach Avenue, 10 of the 26 employees are fluent in Russian.
Russian immigrants interviewed said they did not see much difference in service between the various banks operating in their community. Those that do use banks are most likely to choose a branch near their home. Some said they did consider transaction charges when they chose their bank, but not many shopped around.
Members of Brooklyn's Russian community also said they were not concerned about the size of the bank they used. In general, Russian immigrants believe, as Alexander Tsvetkov I.D. tk put it, that "American banks do not become bankrupt."
Chase Manhattan Bank has done a good job positioning itself in this difficult banking market. Under an agreement with the New York Association for New Americans, all new immigrants getting financial aid through the organization have Chase checking accounts and ATM cards.
Chase also has Russian-language ATMs in three of New York City's five boroughs and provides product literature written in Russian.
"We can be called the leading bank of Russian emigration," said Tatyana Okshteyn, vice president and Russian subsegment manager at Chase. She estimates that there are 250,000 Russian immigrants living in all five boroughs of New York City, though the highest concentration is certainly in Brighton Beach.
"Russians are considered a very successful community. They learn very fast, and many of them open businesses of their own. And because they are already used to working with Chase, it means we get most of their commercial accounts also."
Chase organizes special seminars in Russian to teach immigrants from the former Soviet Union about the U.S. banking system. The bank also advertises in Russian-language newspapers. Chase soon plans to make a special educational program about banks and banking products in cooperation with one of the Russian cable TV channels.
And it has sponsored local cultural events, including a concert by the Russian National Orchestra, held last January at Lincoln Center.
This October, Chase will sponsor an exhibition of Russian painters at its branch in Soho.
Not to be outdone, Dime has also tried to lift its stock with the Russian community here. For example, it provides free office space to the Brighton Business Improvement District, an association of local businesses.
For all the headway New York's larger banks have made in the Russian community, there are still huge obstacles. Russian immigrants have a particularly negative attitude about taking out loans or home mortgages.
In the former Soviet Union, taking out a personal loan is still a very rare practice, and a mortgage-making system only began to develop there in the last three years.
"Taking loans is profitable only for the banks," said Michail Bloomstein, the owner of a small grocery on Coney Island Avenue. "You will only lose your money, paying huge interest."
Mr. Bloomstein said he did try to get a $15,000 loan to develop his business, but, like many other local entrepreneurs, he failed to qualify because his store was considered too small to provide sufficient collateral.
Despite their initial reluctance and fear of banks, some Russian immigrants do succeed in taking out mortgages to buy their own homes. Banking becomes more attractive to Russian customers once they realize that using a bank to make payments and other transactions will provide them with a credit history.
Still, the newest group of immigrants from Russia have had the most experience with a market economy, and that seems to be the biggest factor in changing their attitudes toward banks.
"They want to become part of the American dream, to have a profession, to buy a house," said Ms. Soscia.
Mr. Yerasov, a Moscow-based employee of the Tass news agency, spent a month at the American Banker as part of a program funded by the United States Agency for International Development.