From the USSR to Brighton Beach

The immigration of Soviets to this small Brooklyn neighborhood is a story of struggle, desperation, chaos, discrimination, survival, and community.

Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach is a gritty neighborhood full of character. It’s a lesser-traveled-to part of Brooklyn that photographers find “far from typical,” like John Vetromile, who I take around the area.

Brighton is also known as Little Odesa because of the many ex-USSR families who move there. While walking down Brighton Beach Ave., there are older women selling piroshki to the public. Many awnings are in Russian or reference the culture in some way. And if you know where to go, you can find a few Russian bathhouses. Almost every cashier, business owner, and resident is Russian-speaking. Even the Mexican workers who live in Brighton with their families speak the language.

The beach of Brighton Beach is unlike any American seaside. There’s a row of fine Russian restaurants on the wooden boardwalk, resembling seacoasts in Europe. And in the winter, you will probably encounter a person going for a quick swim.

“More than half the stores on Brighton Beach Avenue are owned by immigrants from the former Soviet Union”

— NYT

The 1990s is the latest wave of Soviet immigrants. However, the first wave of Eastern Europeans coming to NYC is in the 1880s.

The second wave of Eastern Europeans happens after WW2. There are refugees, mostly Ukrainian, who are sent to different countries, including the US. Existing Eastern European neighborhoods help refugees integrate with low-cost living, storeowners who speak their native languages, and access to products from their home country. This is the same kind of support the community provides for immigrants today.

By the 60s, Soviet Jews are desperate to escape the extreme antisemitism. Rumors about the little Brooklyn neighborhood start to spread.

Soon reports were filtering back to the Soviet Union of a strange place called Brooklyn. ‘In Odessa everyone was talking about Brooklyn,’ Ms. Vareljan said. ‘A letter would come, and we would all read about it.’”

NYT

At first, a small number of Soviet Jews are allowed to leave. Then in the 1990s, a large wave of Soviets, mostly Jewish families, immigrate. This is the story of my high school friend’s family. Natalie tells me a bit about their arduous move to the United States.

Not only are Jewish people discriminated against, but the whole ex-Soviet state is in disarray. The fall of the Soviet Union makes it a dangerous place to be. The economy is at its worst, and ordinary citizens are starving.

The hatred is so intense that Jews are imprisoned for practicing their religion. Natalie’s great grandfather holds secret underground meetings to pray and sing in Yiddish. It’s difficult for her relatives to hold down jobs or even date in school because of their last name.

The antisemitism here runs deep. At the start of communism, religion is banned in the Soviet Union. Some Soviet rulers keep the Russian Orthodox Church open, while others oppose any religious practice. The Roman Catholic Church has no real presence. While Judaism is strictly banned throughout the nation.

“Attacks on Judaism were endemic throughout the Soviet period, and the organized practice of Judaism became almost impossible. Protestant denominations and other sects were also persecuted.”

— Library of Congress

Even before communism, Russian Jewish citizens live far worse than others, by law. Only 2 rulers ease the lives of Jews, Catherine the Great and the last czar, Alexander II, who is assassinated in 1881. His death is a big shock to the Jewish community, resulting in the first significant wave of about two million Jews leaving Russia between 1881 and 1914, mostly emigrating to the United States.

“…areas in Russia… most Jews lived in great poverty, crammed into towns often making up the majority of the inhabitants. Only some members of the small Jewish upper class were permitted to live in Moscow or St. Petersburg.”

— United Nations Report

Natalie’s parents meet here, both coming from Ukraine for the same reason. Her father’s family is first placed in a refugee program. And her mother’s family faces a long journey with the help of the mafia. Since “Jewish” is on every passport, it’s hard to escape the harassment from the government without some form of protection.

The day they have to leave is the most strenuous day of Natalie’s mom’s life. They pack in intense silence as the mafia waits to escort them out of the country. Natalie’s family is forced to pay the mafia thousands of dollars for their protection.

During the 90s, people are extremely poor. After 70 years of communism, the state fails its citizens. The supermarkets are practically empty with no fresh produce or grains — only canned fish or meat. The mafia is violently taking over, harassing citizens, and taking advantage of desperate families.

Every immigrant struggles when first moving to the states. When her mom and family make it, they meet her uncle in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where the whole family lives, works, and learns English together in a tiny apartment. Eventually — possibly decades later— everyone finds stability + security.

As for Natalie, as a first-generation American, she stays in touch with her Jewish heritage. Thanks to the Russian-speaking Jewish communities, she is raised in a place where everyone speaks Russian. Therefore keeping the knowledge of the language alive.

Natalie’s parents aren’t raised practicing religion. Once her family settles here, some members of the family start going to synagogue. As a teen, Natalie attends a “Russian American Jewish Experience” program that encourages young soviet Jews to practice the religion they almost lose. Thus, bringing Jewish traditions back into the home.

Writer’s note: Learning all this for me is like finding missing pieces of a puzzle — pieces that have been under the couch for 20 years. The adults that I grew up around probably have similar stories. I now look at Brighton Beach through a different lens.

There are many more stories to share—ones involving the mafia in Russia or the war in Armenia. The 90s are a chaotic time for all ex-USSR countries. The Jewish experience carries a lot of weight. The antisemitism of the USSR has shaped the world, including our little ol’ neighborhood, Brighton Beach.

I write research-based stories; about art, design, food, travel, environmental issues, human rights, & human experience.

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