Resentment simmers in New York's 'Little Odesa' as Ukraine war drags on

New York City is home to about 600,000 Russian-speaking immigrants

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A year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, coexistence is fraying in New York's “Little Odesa” neighbourhood.

In fact, the city's largest Russian-speaking neighbourhood is now undergoing a kind of “de-Russification”.

Located in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach enclave, many of the community's residents are from the former Soviet Union. Russians and Ukrainians who for decades lived side by side are grappling with complex emotions and resentment stirred up by the war in Ukraine.

Michael Levitis, who immigrated from Moscow in 1988 and hosts a Russian-language radio show on Radio Freedom FM 104.7, told The National that the community has fractured.

“There's a lot of anti-Russian backlash,” he said.

When tens of thousands of Russian-speaking Soviet Jews fled persecution at home, many chose to settle in Brighton Beach and the new community soon took its nickname from the Ukrainian Black Sea port city of Odesa.

Many of the businesses here are owned by Ukrainians or Russian Jews who now distance themselves from their Russian roots. For example, one of the most popular grocery stores in the area was, until recently, called “A Taste of Russia”.

But last February, the store’s owner took down the shop’s sign after customers complained. It is now simply called “International Food”. Other restaurants and shops associated with Russia have been the target of boycotts.

A Russian restaurant in the Brighton Beach neighbourhood iof Brooklyn, known as 'Little Odesa'. Getty / AFP

Allies become foes

When he first arrived to New York’s Little Odesa as a teenager with his family, Mr Levitis said the community never differentiated between those from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan or other Soviet republics.

Russian dominated conversations on the streets of one of the largest Russian and Ukrainian communities in America, said Mr Levitis.

“Even if you were from Ukraine and spoke Russian, it meant you're Russian,” he said.

“Now, Ukrainians are speaking their own language to differentiate themselves from the Russians and other former Soviet Union immigrants.”

Mr Levitis grew up surrounded by stories of the Second World War.

“My grandfather was a Ukrainian Jew who served in the Russian Soviet army against the Nazis, shoulder to shoulder with all the Russians, Ukrainian and Georgians … and now the people he was serving with are fighting each other,” he said.

Yan Yufit, a film producer from Uzbekistan, said there are people who have been living in New York's Little Odessa for 30 years and still side with Russia's President Putin.

"It's unbelievable," said Mr Yufit.

Michael Novakhov, a politician from the former Soviet Union who now serves as a member of the New York State Assembly, told The National that both Ukrainians and Russians are “hostages” of the war in Ukraine.

He noted that even as the death toll soars in Ukraine, people in his community are losing interest in the conflict.

“It was very easy to collect donations for Ukrainians when the war began, and it's nearly impossible to do it now,” Mr Novakhov said.

New York City's 'Little Odesa' — in pictures

Praying for the war to end

Like many who fled Russia’s invasion, Alona Stoliar’s thoughts constantly drift back to her Ukrainian husband who was killed by Russian special forces two days after the war began.

The 25-year-old mother told The National that leaving was one of the most difficult decisions she had to make.

Ms Stoliar wanted to travel to the US because she believed she could be of more help to her native country.

However, she longs for the life she had to leave behind and has made the decision to return home and resettle in Kyiv. A trained psychologist, she wants to help treat traumatised troops.

Iryna Karpenko, an actress and former beauty queen who represented Ukraine at a pageant last year in Athens, said she did not want to leave her native country but had to at the behest of her husband.

“I pray every day for the war to end,” she told The National.

So as not to lose her mind, Ms Karpenko has been actively involved in sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

She has also supported and hosted Ukrainian children who have come to the US to escape the war.

Ms Karpenko is staging a musical, Breath of Freedom, which captures the disaster in her country to send a message to the world that Ukraine is an “independent nation that needs to be respected”.

People shop in Brighton Beach, also known as 'Little Odesa'. AFP
Updated: February 23, 2023, 1:59 PM