By Sabrina Tavernise
For New Yorkers, Brighton Beach is a charming curiosity, a
little bit of Russia in their own backyard. They go to shop
for food, mill among the stout old-timers and hear the exotic
language. Even the occasional financial swindle in the news
is regarded, at least by those who are not prosecutors, as more
cultural quirk than grave crime.
But lately Brighton Beach is a tourist attraction for another
group of people -- more recent immigrants who have come to America
from a transformed Russia, where Moscow sparkles with shopping
options for the affluent, where malls have sprung up in suburbs,
and where sushi bars are more popular than McDonald's. To them,
Brighton Beach, in the eastern part of Brooklyn's Coney Island
peninsula, is a place frozen in time -- a Brezhnev-era closed
world, one full of sour looks, suspicion, and hopelessly outdated
Like the American-born tourists, they come to visit, not to
stay. But while Americans smile, they, well, wince.
"We're sightseeing," said Alexander Morozov, 30, a graduate
student at Rockefeller University in Manhattan, who comes to
Brighton Beach occasionally to sample the food. "I might buy
a loaf of black bread. I could never live here."
In the traditional arc of the immigrant experience, the first
ethnic outposts, like Little Italy or the Lower East Side, can
often become anachronisms, resembling, at least to later arrivals,
an exaggerated version of home that has become badly dated.
In New York, Russians have been settling in places other than
Brighton Beach for more than a decade now. Bensonhurst in Brooklyn
and suburban New Jersey are popular destinations. But with each
year, and each new move into other parts of the city and region
by young people from a newly capitalist Russia, Brighton Beach
seems ever more foreign.
"It's very much like I have gone back in a time machine, and
I'm looking out into the 1970s and 1980s," said Maxim Stoklytsky,
30, an M.B.A. student at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and
a native Muscovite, who was visiting Brighton Beach for the
first time. "It's strange for me. I'm in the United States,
the most powerful and progressive country in the world. And
here I am back in time."
Even Brighton Beach locals sense the distance and, with it,
feel the disapproval. Lev Abramov, 74, a cobbler in a small
shop off Brighton Beach Avenue, said his daughters, both in
their late 30's, had moved to New Jersey since the family arrived
together 26 years ago.
"Only the old people remain," he said, while he sliced worn
heels off old shoes. "There are fewer and fewer new young people
here. Brighton Beach can't find a common language with our young
people anymore. What is there for them to do here?"
A wave of Russian immigrants in the late 1970s settled in
Brighton Beach. The predominantly Jewish migration defined the
boundaries of what became known as New York's classic Russian
Immigration from the former Soviet Union surged again in 1991,
the year of that nation's breakup, and more people poured into
Brighton Beach. But by the late-1990s, the flow of Russians,
in smaller numbers and with greater range, began moving and
settling farther north in Brooklyn, away from their immigrant
roots, according to the city's Department of City Planning.
"The early flows in the early 1990s were primarily to southern
Brooklyn, but now they are moving north," said Peter Lobo, deputy
director of the population division at the department. "It gained
momentum as the decade wore on."
A new Brooklyn-based market research company called Press
Release Group, which studies the Russian consumer market, recently
found Brooklyn slipping as a magnet for Russian immigrants in
the New York City area. Of those who came to the area more than
10 years ago, 7 percent live in Manhattan and 56 percent live
in Brooklyn. Among those who immigrated in the past two years,
however, 14 percent live in Manhattan and 49 percent live in
There were 236,163 Russian-born immigrants living in the New
York City area in 2000, said Professor Andrew A. Beveridge of
But throughout the shifting migrations, Brighton Beach was
a place of plenty for Russians visiting their American relatives.
They returned home with giant bags of goods -- often food --
during long years of bare shelves and shortages of basic consumer
goods in the Soviet Union. Locals referred to these visitors
sardonically as "vacuum cleaners" and pitied their frantic scrambling.
Now, though, those who arrive from Russia, who visit Brighton
Beach but settle in other parts of the region, view the old
neighborhood less lovingly.
"It's like an amusement park," said Alexander Grant, a journalist
at Novoye Russkoye Slovo, a Russian language daily in New York.
"People go there to look but not live. It reminds them of their
background. New people who come from today's Moscow -- everything
is done with a grand flourish there. They see this as provincial."
Ilya Merenzon, 27, a student at the New School for Social
Research, lives in the East Village. He keeps his connection
to the Russian community by working at a Russian-language radio
station in Brooklyn.
"Brighton Beach is a cartoon of Russia," said Mr. Merenzon.
"The stores are too Russian. You can't find them in Russia anymore.
It hasn't changed since the 1970s. It's like a museum."
Denis Ossipov-Grodsky, 28, lived for five years in Brooklyn
Heights and Manhattan before going to graduate school at Georgetown.
He rarely traveled to Brighton Beach. When he craved Russian-style
food, he went to Veselka, the fashionable Ukrainian-Polish diner
in the East Village. He celebrated his wedding in Brighton Beach,
but only so that his elderly in-laws could make it.
In spitting rain on Saturday, shoppers crowded into Brighton
Beach's food stores. At International Foods, one of the most
popular stores, women in aprons marched behind glass counters
piled high with smoked fish and sausage. Shoppers fingered black
bread in bins near the bakery counter. Marina Lagev, 28, from
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, waited while her meat was sliced. "It's
unpleasant here," she said, surveying the store with a disapproving
look. "In Moscow, young people are really alive. There is so
much happening. I don't like coming here."
But Brighton Beach's charms can survive even such harsh disdain.
It can still give comfort.
Mr. Ossipov-Grodsky, the student in Washington, said the bakeries
and restaurants in Brighton Beach prepare Russian food according
to old recipes he remembered tasting in childhood. "We smelled
freshly baked bread," said Mr. Stoklytsky, in a suede jacket
and rimless glasses. "It reminded me of school days."
And there are still some who choose to live in Brighton Beach.
Oksana Khmelnitskaya, 32, came to the United States from Belarus,
a country that even today, under President Alexandre Lukashenko,
can resemble a Soviet state. She recalled her delight at the
food stores and bustling feel of the neighborhood, so different
from her home.
Ms. Khmelnitskaya, sipping a soda in an upstairs cafe of a
local grocery store, smiles fondly when she talks of the elderly
Brighton Beach ladies in their furs, or the saleswomen who promote
fake designer merchandise as stuff as real as Armani or Gucci.
Still, Mr. Stoklytsky, the student at Georgetown, just shook
his head. "Moscow is power, it's money, it's change," he said.
"Like Manhattan. Not Brooklyn."
Originally published in The New York Times on October
8, 2003. Copyright © 2003 The New York Times. For more
New York Times articles please visit www.nytimes.com.
For more information go to:
New Rich Are Living It Up, but Oligarchs' Children Wonder: How
Long Will It Last?" (July
"To Young, a Russian Enclave Is Too Much the Old
Country" (October 8, 2003)
With Sabrina Tavernise
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