At the edge of Coney Island, morning fog covers grey streets of a stern Russian exile, Brighton Beach. As you reach the end of the boardwalk, passing by occasional empty vodka bottles and Cyrillic signs, you can hear the sounds of the music of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. In the classrooms of the Brighton Ballet School, little swans learn their first flap of the wings and young Clara floats in the Nutcracker’s arms. Irina Roizin, who founded the school in 1987, has been protecting this remaining piece of Russian culture in what was once a vibrant Soviet habitat.
Soviet immigrants escaped from the Soviet Union they hated only to recreate it in this seaside neighborhood. Brighton Beach came to be known as Little Odessa. For many immigrants, all the ties to home were broken, but the Soviet aura of Brighton Beach resurrected them.
Now, however, the culture of Little Odessa, like the now-vanished Red State, is under the threat of extinction under the vigorous pressure of modernity.
In 1976, Roizin, then a 16-year-old, and her parents left Lviv, Ukraine, and settled in Brighton Beach. Like many Soviets in the ’70s, Roizin’s family fled Jewish persecution in the USSR. They came to New York with a single suitcase, leaving their past life behind the Iron Curtain.
An American replica of a Ukrainian seaside town, Little Odessa opened its comforting embrace to the newcomers who needed to assimilate into a new, American reality. Roizin’s parents tried to make sense of their new lives. They lived with Roizin’s aunt, who had emigrated in 1958. Despite being under her protective wing, it still was not easy for the family. Roizin’s mother worked day and night as a caregiver, and her father, once a lawyer, found work at an optics factory.
Roizin, though, quickly accepted Brighton Beach as her new home. The neighborhood, with the subway rumbling overhead and side streets lined with brick houses, was different from the petite cobblestone streets and Baroque churches of her beloved Lviv. But her fellow Soviet émigrés worked hard to recreate the life they lost. At “Sadko” and “National,” Roizin’s favorite, though now-defunct, Russian restaurants, she and her compatriots could hear musicians performing popular Soviet and Western songs. There were also her favorite food stores, now closed as well, where she could buy the ingredients for borscht. She made new friends, some from her hometown.
Roizin feels it was easier for her to assimilate because she was very young. Although she does not feel nostalgic about her actual home, she struggles to make sense of her true identity. “I am not Russian because I’ve lived my entire life here,” she said. “Yet, I am not fully American because my mentality is still Slavic. I am also not really Jewish because I am not religious.”
Many immigrants also feel that they do not really belong to any place. But in Brighton Beach, everyone she knew was on the same page. Roizin remembers her youth with warmth but laments the inevitable changes that have transformed her community.
“Back in the ’80s, Brighton Beach was vibrant and fun,” she said. “We all knew each other. Russian immigrants would come to the boardwalk on warm summer evenings to chat. People were beautiful. There was the intelligentsia.
“Now, everything is different. Brighton Beach used to be very Russian. Now, it’s not anymore. The best restaurants and shops have closed. People are dull and unfamiliar. When I walk in the boardwalk now, I feel like a stranger.”
There were four major waves of immigration to Brighton Beach. The first and the second were Russian Jews finding refuge after World War I and II. Roizin’s family was part of the most significant wave: the third. According to Thomas R. Beyer, professor of Slavic languages and literature at Middlebury College in Vermont, nearly 500,000 Russian Jews emigrated to the US in the 1970s. “Anti-cosmopolitan” policies, in effect anti-Jewish discrimination in the USSR, forced many Soviets to flee the country. Among them were some of the most prominent intellectuals, like Joseph Brodsky.
The largest group of Russian Jewish émigrés settled in Queens or Brighton Beach. Roizin’s aunt used to tell her that in the 1950s the neighborhood was empty. But by the time she was an adolescent in the 1980s, Little Odessa was at its social and cultural peak. Twenty years later that had all changed.
Roizin’s observations about the changes in the community are backed by numbers. She sees fewer familiar faces because, in fact, Soviet-born residents of Little Odessa have been slowly disappearing. The population of Soviet-born residents declined from almost 2,000 people to 1,210 in just the three years between 2014 and 2017.
Meanwhile, new people have been coming to the neighborhood. From 2014 to 2017, nearly 1,840 Uzbeks, 400 Ukrainians, and 160 Belorussians settled in the area. On the other hand, Russians have been moving out of the neighborhood. From nearly 11,300 Russian residents in 2014, only 9,660 remained in Brighton Beach in 2017.
From afar, there may seem to be little difference among those born in the USSR and those from Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Belarus, or even Russia. But the USSR was a different country, a country that does not exist anymore. As the country vanished, its people have been vanishing, too, together with the culture and mentality they used to maintain in the community of Brighton Beach.
Now, Roizin wants to preserve that vanishing spirit of Little Odessa in her ballet school. Brighton Ballet has grown from a small ballet studio of only five children to one that accepts around 350 students a year. Roizin knew she would teach ballet when she met Galina Emelianovna Rybak in a tiny room, teaching ballet to a couple of immigrants’ kids, in the 1980s. Rybak had come from the famed Mariinsky Theatre in Leningrad where she was a student of Agrippina Vaganova — a legendary ballerina and the founder of the Vaganova method, one of the most prestigious and elitist ballet techniques in the world. Rybak was the one who inspired Roizin to open a school, where she was the first and the only instructor for a long time.
Entering one of the classrooms, you can hear the piano playing, sometimes interrupted by strict instructions in Russian.
“Where did you place your leg? And your hand? You should become as long as a string!” says Larisa Akincheva, a former Bolshoi dancer, as she adjusts a girl’s hands into a proper position. Off to one side is an Asian girl, elegantly raising her hands in a triangle. In the middle, two African American girls are carefully following Akincheva’s voice. Some girls are chubby and others are skinny. Unlike the tough ideology of selectivity in Russian ballet academia, the school accepts everyone who wants to learn ballet.
“I want kids from all ethnicities and all economic backgrounds to experience the beauty of ballet,” Roizin said. “Ballet changes you intellectually and spiritually.” Some students receive scholarships that allow them to pay a reduced fee or study for free. Brighton Ballet also runs a free program, called Su Casa, designed for the elderly.
In the next room, there is Edouard Kouchnarev, Brighton Ballet’s choreographer, artistic director, and a graduate of Kiev’s Choreographic Academy. Kouchnarev writes the ballet programs, chooses the music, and choreographs the programs. Like Akincheva, he instructs the kids in Russian. Not all of them are Russian speakers, but somehow they understand him.
“We educate all the kids at our school about Russian culture,” Roizin said. “They learn about Russian classical music, Russian literature, and the history of Russian dance. We also speak Russian to them.”
Kouchnarev shows the students the correct way to move. Polina, 10, and Rebecca, 11, sit on the floor by the mirror. One of Polina’s favorite performances is a solo of a dying swan, a role created for the iconic ballerina Anna Pavlova. Rebecca will play a spoiled princess in “The 12 Months,” a famous Russian fairytale.
While some cling to Little Odessa’s past, others from the Russian speaking community are critical and even embarrassed about Brighton Beach.
Mikhail Samoilovich lives in nearby Midwood with his wife Ella; they are both in their 60s. He emigrated from Belarus in the ’90s and has never gone back to visit. He thinks that the Russian-speaking community has assimilated well, and those who haven’t should “get over themselves” and move on.
“The USSR does not exist anymore,” he said. “Now, we are not Russians, we are Americans. We enjoy living in this country. Our children serve in the army here and pay taxes here. Brighton Beach people are helpless. They are here for 30 years, yet many of them don’t even speak English!”
Still, he admitted that he occasionally comes to Brighton Beach to hang out and to buy Russian chocolate and korzhiki, Russian milk shortbread, because they remind him of his childhood. American pastries, he said, do not taste the same. Ella likes to walk along the beach with her granddaughter and buy ice cream from Grisha, the owner of the ice cream truck on the boardwalk.
Samoilovich confessed that he sometimes hides his ethnicity from Americans because of potential biases and discrimination. “When new scandals involving Russia happen, I don’t want to become a target for hate,” he said. “Sometimes, my colleagues tell me mean jokes, and I have to swallow it.”
Some young Russians agree. Tatiana and Masha are both in their 30s, and while they live in Manhattan, they return to Brighton Beach for inexpensive manicures. “People here are just a bunch of losers who did not gain anything,” said Masha. “They live someone else’s lives.”
Those who come from Putin’s Russia, like Masha and Tatiana, share a way of thinking that differs from that of the older immigrants. Belonging to a so-called fifth wave of immigration, they came to the U.S. for financial opportunities, not to escape oppression. Masha and Tatiana refer to Little Odessa’s residents as “they.” In Russian, “they” communicates separation and disconnect, especially when referring to compatriots.
“Tatiana” is a Russian restaurant that faces the ocean. It is a place to come for a borscht and a glass of kompot, a drink with boiled fruit. One recent afternoon, a large party of middle-aged women had gathered there for a birthday party.
The women offered toasts to love, hope, and faith — the three essentials of a proper Russian salutation. At one point they noticed me and recognized that I, too, was Russian. They invited me to join them in drinking nastoika, a fruit-juice-infused vodka.
I politely declined, explaining that I needed to write.
They replied, “With vodka, you will write a better story!”
Perhaps Little Odessa was not quite gone.