New York's largest Russian-speaking community divided by Putin’s war

Brighton Beach, in the borough of Brooklyn, is home to the highest concentration of Russian-speaking immigrants in the US

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Pat Singer has been gripped by fear for days. The 82-year-old president and founder of the Brighton Beach Neighbourhood Association is the unofficial mayor of New York City's largest Russian-speaking neighbourhood, long known to many as “Little Odesa".

Located in New York's borough of Brooklyn, Brighton Beach takes its nickname from the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, which sits on the Black Sea. It is home to numerous Russian restaurants, markets and one of the best schools for Russian ballet in the US, where Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians dance together.

“I have such a traumatic sense of loss and fear for Ukraine,” said Ms Singer. “These are my roots and I don’t want to see it destroyed.”

While the missiles are being fired nearly 8,000 kilometres away, the impacts are reverberating throughout the bustling streets of Brighton Beach, where Ms Singer's grandparents arrived after leaving Odesa in the early 1900s.

“It's an awful thing, absolutely awful,” said Gennadiy Strebkov, who immigrated from Russia 20 years ago. “And I can't totally explain it, but we feel regret; we feel depressed because of it.”

Brighton Beach has become a melting pot of Russian speakers over the past 50 years, with some coming from what is today Russia and a large percentage coming from Ukraine and other former Soviet countries.

On Brighton Beach Avenue, Russian speakers can be heard chatting over the rumbling elevated train as they shop in stores sporting Cyrillic signs, with caviar and other products lining the shelves.

“Brighton Beach is the starting point of every Russian-speaking immigrant,” says Michael Levitis, who immigrated to the neighbourhood from Moscow when he was 12.

Mr Levitis hosts a popular local radio show, broadcast in Russian. He said Russian-speaking immigrants picked Brighton Beach because its proximity to the ocean reminded them of Odesa's sweeping views of the Black Sea.

“It was very easy for us to come here because we didn’t know English, we had no contacts in the US,” he told The National. “Here, everybody spoke Russian, still speaks Russian. You can buy Russian food, see Russian movies.”

New York City is home to about 600,000 Russian-speaking immigrants, a huge percentage of whom live in Brighton Beach as well as neighbouring Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach.

The neighbourhood, which is made up of mostly low-slung working class homes and the occasional new condo building, is thought to be home to the largest concentration of Russian-speaking people in the Western Hemisphere.

Whatever the situation in Eastern Europe, over the decades, the community has become united, with residents defining themselves not by their countries of origin but by their use of the Russian language.

But Mr Levitis is concerned that will change after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

“I have a feeling after this conflict [that] more and more people are going to say 'I’m Russian-Jewish, I am Russian-speaking Ukrainian' to try to differentiate themselves from Russians.”

More than one million people have fled Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin started the invasion on February 24, the UN reported, and more than 2,000 civilians have died, Ukraine State Emergency Service said.

All that bloodshed and hardship does not sit well with most in the community.

Some now fear that the enclave may start to feel anti-Russian backlash similar to what Muslim Americans experienced following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

“There's a lot of anti-Russian sentiment,” said Mr Levitis. “People are afraid we're going to be conflated with the Russians overseas.”

But Mr Levitis believes the community will rally together and remain united, despite the events in Europe.

“Nobody is getting divorced over this, we’re all intertwined,” he said. “We still live here together in one community, we all go to the same stores, same restaurants, patronise the same businesses and everybody is intermarried with each other.”

Ms Singer, however, is slightly less optimistic. Most of her family in Ukraine were killed by the Nazis in the Second World War, and fears are high both here and in Europe that the current situation will escalate into a third global conflict.

“We’ve had enough,” she said.

Updated: March 15, 2022, 12:51 PM
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