The Last Soviet-Americans
Russian Life|November/December 2019
In order to get from the center of the Black Sea port of Odessa to that city’s best stretch of beach, you ride for 40 minutes on a tram.
Andrei Borodulin

To find the best beach in New York City, it takes about an hour from midtown Manhattan: you hop on the subway and cross all of Brooklyn to nearly the last stop – Brighton Beach.

Even before exiting the train, you can look through the window and see Russian-language advertisements plastered on the red brick walls of the mid-twentieth-century apartment buildings. A portrait of Healer Natalia gazes down from one wall. Faded Cyrillic script on another façade offers heirs help getting their inheritance. A newer poster offers a service for sending remittances to the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Brighton is not the realm of opulence and the Russian mafia that some imagine. Maybe it was back in the 1980s, the heyday of Russian-Jewish emigration. But those ambitious young Soviet pioneers who arrived between the brief democratization of the 1960s and the perestroika of the 1980s are now pensioners.

I exit the subway, hoping to find them and their descendants, to find out what Brighton Beach was like and what it has become.

The denizens of this shrinking island of Soviet America are likely to call themselves Russian-Americans, but upon closer questioning, they turn out to be Soviet Jews, less often Russians and Ukrainians.* They frequently speak of their Jewishness jokingly, in the idiom of Soviet anecdotes of the years when they left the USSR, most often through programs offering passage to Israel. Group leaders on those programs frequently attempted to confiscate participants’ passports while they were still on the plane, so that adventure seekers wouldn’t get it into their heads to jump ship mid-trip, in Europe. But in Vienna, or sometimes in Rome or other capitals, some pioneers of the late 1970s managed to extricate themselves from their groups, ready to leave everything Russian and Soviet behind and make a dash for America. They were daring, but in their haste brought across the ocean the very same “Soviet-ness” that now causes young “Russian Americans” to wrinkle their noses.

Yulia Levit lived in Brighton Beach in her youth and left the area before her parents did. Today she says candidly, “When I lived there, I despised all the parochialism, the absence of understanding of personal space. Everyone there considers your private life their business. The only good things about Brighton were good, cheap food, and bookstores. I fled at my first opportunity.”

The local color evokes mixed feelings of nostalgia and disdain from Valery Ponomaryov, with whom I was able to hang out after his jazz set in Manhattan. He remembers how he first ended up at Brighton in the 1970s: “I realized that I couldn’t live there! It was a miniature Soviet Union, and I had just left!” Having long since become well-known in American jazz, Ponomaryov confesses: “Now I like it there. I go out there a couple of times a week. I’ll wander around, walk on the beach, stock up on Russian food: salo, for example.”

RUSSIAN BEACH

Russian and Soviet – it’s hard to separate the two, particularly in a melting pot like New York.

The reality is that, having emigrated from Soviet Odessa, Kiev, or Leningrad, the current residents of Brighton brought with them a Soviet way of life, both in how they work and play, that can no longer be found in their homeland. And so we are in the twilight of an era when little scenes from Leningrad, or conversations out of Soviet Kiev, are still being reenacted on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

You’re unlikely to come upon games of dominoes, cards, or chess in the courtyards tucked behind Moscow’s older residential buildings, but this is how many male residents of Brighton spend their Saturdays. In St. Petersburg, sidewalk sales of pirozhki from open trays is a thing of the past, but at the subway exit in Brighton Beach a woman with dyed red curls and a crimson apron will hand them to you hot, filled with cabbage, potato, or sweet poppy seed filling.

In the street next to the subway station there is a “flea market” in the Odessa tradition: the market doesn’t have its own venue; instead, enterprising citizens with old dishes or jewelry display their wares directly on the sidewalk. One lady screeches into her mobile phone: “Angela, quick, come out to the street, they have some very interesting hair clips!”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM RUSSIAN LIFEView All

Sidewalk Art

The lamentable state of Russia’s roads and sidewalks has long been fertile ground for memes and jokes. Irkutsk artist Ivan Kravchenko decided to turn the problem into an art project. For over two years he has been patching ruts in city sidewalks with colorful ceramic tiles.

6 mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

Sputnik V: First Place or Long Shot?

The Russian vaccine seems top-notch, but low public trust and a botched rollout remain formidable barriers to returning to normalcy.

5 mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

the Valley of the Dead

On the Trail of a Russian Movie Star

10+ mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

Food & Drink

Food & Drink

4 mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

POLAR YOUTH

Misha Smirnov has the day off. There are the traditional eggs for breakfast and the usual darkness out the window.

9 mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

Russian Chronicles

Russian Chronicles

10+ mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

A People on the Brink

Over the past century, the ancient people known as the Votes has been exiled twice, has seen its language banned, and has faced the threat of having its villages razed. Today, although teetering on the verge of extinction, it holds fast to one of the last rights it enjoys – the right to bear and to say its own name.

10+ mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

Tenders of the Vine

Visiting Russia’s Nascent Wine Region

10+ mins read
Russian Life
January/February 2021

Restoring the Future

A Small Town Gets a Makeover

10+ mins read
Russian Life
January/February 2021

Ascending Anik

Here I stand, on the summit of Anik Mountain, drenched to the bone amid zero visibility, driving rain, and a fierce wind.

10+ mins read
Russian Life
January/February 2021
RELATED STORIES

Gin 'n' It

Looking for a new drink that mixes the frontier spirit with Jazz Age naughtiness and even a dash of your choice of modern enhancement? Gin'n'It just maybe it.

2 mins read
Cigar Aficionado
May - June 2022

CHAPTER 1 YESTERYEAR: “THE WORLD WAS UKRAINIAN”

A STUBBORN AND SURPRISING IMMIGRANT ENCLAVE, HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
April 11-24, 2022

Russian Oligarchs Take Manhattan

The story of how a small coterie of fabulously wealthy Russians laundered billions in New York City's luxury condos—and how the Feds are now in pursuit

10+ mins read
Newsweek
April 01 - 08, 2022

THE AMERICAN NEON NIGHT

Thomas Dellert, also known as 'Thomas Dellacroix' and 'Tommy Dollar', a given name by the American Pop artist Andy Warhol in New York in 1980, when Thomas did some hand-printed silkscreens for Warhol.

3 mins read
Lens Magazine
February 2022

SECRET REASON HODA JILTED JOEL!

Battle of wills over adopting more children

1 min read
National Enquirer
February 21, 2022

Can You Spare a Million?

Invest in Netflix's glossy true tale of Anna Delvey, a con artist with champagne wishes and caviar dreams

3 mins read
TV Guide Magazine
January 31 - February 13, 2022 (Double Issue)

Locals Only

A cabaret star asks: Can you find yourself without leaving home?

4 mins read
New York magazine
January 17 - 30, 2022

REAL TO REEL

These amazing true stories come alive onscreen

3 mins read
TV Guide Magazine
January 17 - 30, 2022

Because Not All DISASTER MOVIES CONTAIN EXPLOSIONS

Ciao! Manhattan set out to capture Warhol’s New York underground and instead became a symbol of its demise.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
December 6-19, 2021

The Antiquities Cop

Matthew Bogdanos is on a mission to prosecute the wealthy dealers and collectors who traffic in the looted relics of ancient civilizations.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
December 2021