Brighton Beach, New York. Photograph by Robert Coles
From London Review of Books:
Out on the dance floor the guests were in high spirits, dancing the twist to Michael Jackson songs performed with a Russian accent by a local singer. The men had taken their jackets off and their shirts were tight. ‘You know what Russians mean when they say they oppose the state?’ Bella asked. ‘It means they can screw it over.’ As a bookkeeper she saw first hand Little Russia’s illicit side. In a favourite scam, doctors throw parties for pensioners: there’s tea and cake, maybe some dancing. The pensioners are asked to sign papers confirming their presence: they do so willingly, not noticing the declarations of expensive medical treatment the papers also contain – which the doctors then claim off Medicare. A quarter of the population are ‘seniors’ here, more than twice the Brooklyn average. ‘Unless there’s another wave of immigrants from Russia,’ Eddie said, ‘there won’t be any Brighton in ten years’ time. It’s propped up by pensioners. My children won’t even speak to me in Russian.’
For all its pride and success there is something very fragile about Little Russia. Other immigrant communities, the Italians for example, pass on their traditions through religion, notions of family, an imperative to marry inside the community. But the Soviet Union was so successful in eradicating the core traditions of Russian culture that there’s very little to pass on to the next generation apart from culinary sentimentality. Many Russian immigrants have turned to Judaism, some even to Russian Orthodoxy, but these are identities they have adopted since arriving in America. There’s no stigma attached to marrying out: if anything, it’s encouraged, so long as the spouse-to-be is a white Caucasian. ‘I don’t want my kids to grow up here,’ Bella said. ‘I want them to be normal Americans.’ She saw it as a failure that she hadn’t left.
Walk down Brighton Beach Avenue and you’ll see that between the glossy stores selling Russian speciality foods there are now cheap but buzzing Turkish hairdressers, Indian groceries, Chinese nail parlours. These are the newest immigrants, the ones just off the boat. Russians have stopped coming in big numbers – there’s just a steady stream known as the ‘J-1s’. J-1s are non-immigrant visas issued to students. Many try to extend their visas into more permanent ones, and the term ‘J-1’ has become a synonym for pretty Russian girls allegedly desperate to stay in America. ‘You must come to such-and-such a party,’ Little Russia Romeos tell me, ‘it’ll be full of J-1s.’ The J-1s live in crowded apartments, sleep on mattresses and are regularly ripped off by landlords. A few lucky ones get to help Bella sell flowers: she gives them free board at her house and they babysit the kids in return. One of them, Oksana, a psychology student in Lvov, was at Cosmos carrying bouquets in a basket like Eliza Doolittle. She was born in 1992, and is bemused by Little Russia. ‘It’s so Soviet. Or what I imagine the Soviet Union was like. Lvov is so much more European and modern.’
No J-1s I have met want to have much to do with Little Russia. Xenia, from Vladivostok, with stints as a dancing girl in Tokyo and Singapore, had no qualms telling me she was on a mission to find a rich Russian boyfriend. But she wouldn’t dream of choosing one in South Brooklyn. She hangs out in Manhattan, where oligarchs straight from Moscow are increasingly congregating now that London is a little bit ‘done’. Mikhail Prokhorov, recently ousted as the second richest man in Russia, has bought the New Jersey Nets. A Russian fertiliser magnate has bought the most expensive apartment on the Upper West Side – that’s $88 million – for his daughter. Café Pushkin, the glamorous Moscow restaurant, is opening a branch near Central Park. For their part the inhabitants of Little Russia are struck with some sort of cognitive dissonance when they see the newly arrived Russian rich. Most of the immigrants who came in the early 1990s came to escape poverty. And they’ve done well, but it’s a success measured in hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. And suddenly it turns out that if you’d stayed in Russia you could have made billions.