How a Brother and Sister Took L.A.'s Russian Immigrant Community on a Wild Ride | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

How a Brother and Sister Took L.A.'s Russian Immigrant Community on a Wild Ride 

Thursday, Oct 10 2013
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Dolenko claimed $8 in regular wages, $36 in overtime, a stiff statutory $750 penalty against Rafaelov for ignoring the request to provide records to an "employee," costly waiting-time penalties for deficiencies in Zina's "final paycheck" — and two years of interest on all of that.

Zina wanted $3,500 to drop her case.

"I couldn't believe it!" Rafaelov says today, defiantly. "I said, 'I won't give you 3 ½ cents!' "

click to flip through (7) The only known images of Zina and Gennady Dolzhenko
  • The only known images of Zina and Gennady Dolzhenko

A few weeks later, Rafaelov got a call from Igor Zadov, owner of Dvin Market, a small Russian deli on Sherman Way. Zadov asked his longtime customer an unexpected question: "What's your last name?"

She told him it was Rafaelov, and he asked: "Are you also having a problem with Zina?" Zadov had seen the name "Shura Rafaelov" on a docket at the Van Nuys Boulevard state labor office and thought it might be his customer.

Back in 2007, Zadov tells L.A. Weekly, he had hired Zina through an ad in the L.A.-based Russian newspaper Kurier; she'd mostly sold salads and deli meats behind his counter. She was a terrible employee, Zadov says, often late or a no-show, usually rude to customers, and lasted only two months.

Three years later, Zadov got a letter from Zina Dolenko requesting her employment records. He says he only vaguely remembered employing her, and like Rafaelov, he ignored the letter — it didn't seem official, he says, and admits his bookkeeping was shoddy then. He, too, soon received a complaint filed by Zina Dolenko with the Labor Commissioner. It accused him of a slew of violations, including unpaid overtime and failure to pay minimum wage.

So Zadov dug from his files a copy of a California driver's license identifying his former employee as Zina "Doljenko." Whether Doljenko or Dolenko, he tells the Weekly, she was skewing the dates, saying she worked at Dvin in 2009 — but it had been 2007.

Rafaelov and Zadov shared their troubles with many in the Russian-speaking network in the Valley and Los Angeles. They learned they had a lot of company.

Rafaelov heard from the owner of Barin, a Tarzana Russian-cuisine restaurant that features a dance show, who'd paid Zina rather than fight a costly and unpleasant battle. So had a West Hollywood tailor specializing in bridal alterations, Luba's Tailoring. But the owner of popular Stolichnaya Bakery in West Hollywood and Bazaar Market in Tarzana, they learned, had decided to fight Zina — who used her third, and most common, last-name variant, "Dolzhenko," to accuse them of wage violations, according to documents obtained by the Weekly.

In time, these hardworking immigrants would learn more about Zina Dolenko/Doljenko/Dolzhenko and the tall man who accompanied her to hearings at the labor office and frightened Shura Rafaelov by sticking his foot in her doorjamb years earlier. He turned out to be Zina's explosive younger brother, Gennady. And his own penchant for suing mom-and-pop businesses founded by Russian immigrants eclipsed that of his sister.

The Dolzhenkos are shrouded in mystery. Former employers and opposing counsel offer hard-to-believe anecdotes about them, and bits of biographical data are scattered through case files shelved in clerks' offices where they have sued people in Burbank, Glendale, downtown, Van Nuys, Chatsworth, West Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

Those bits reveal that Gennady was born, educated and worked in Kyrgyzstan before arriving here in June 2004 — a lucky winner of the limited U.S. "diversity immigrant visa," or green card lottery, randomly awarded each year. Only about 200 were chosen from Kyrgyzstan the year Gennady got a spot.

Gennady Dolzhenko appears to have filed his first American lawsuit in 2005, when as a renter in Van Nuys he claimed housing code violations against Bluebird Investments, which managed the property from which he was evicted. Gennady sued and Bluebird settled; thus an American career was born. (Gennady and Zina Dolzhenko did not respond to several email requests for comment from L.A. Weekly, sent to addresses they gave the courts.)

About two weeks after suing Bluebird, and a year after he failed his driving test at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Winnetka, Gennady boldly sued the DMV.

Letters he and Zina wrote to high-ranking DMV officials blamed the agency for causing Gennady to "lead a miserable life without a car" and preventing him from getting a job.

The DMV drolly advised Dolzhenko to simply retake the test. He argued that the examiner who tested him "was not emotionally steady." Gennady wrote: "The score sheet looks disgusting because of an examiner's dirty and sloppy marks."

Gennady failed to shake an eye-popping $25,000 in damages from the state.

Four years later he sued Fry's Electronics in Burbank for failing to stock a television converter box the store advertised online, causing him, he claimed in court documents, to be "deprived of television entertainment for almost two years."

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