Nearly two and a half decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, granting its former satellites newfound independence, the connection with Mother Russia is still strong in Brooklyn.
“When people ask us where you from, I say we Russian,” said Boris Bangiyev, co-owner of the Nargis Cafe in Sheepshead Bay. Bangiyev is from Uzbekistan and came to America with his parents in 1992 at the age of 14.
Brighton Beach, already an enclave for mostly Russian Jews, became known as the “Russian capital of the United States” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with immigrants coming to Brighton not just from Russia, but all parts of the Union, such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Yet the country that once connected them is no longer.
“They can’t really say they’re Soviet, you know?” said Edward Tyerman, a visiting assistant professor at Barnard College’s Slavic languages department. “The Soviet Union doesn’t exist. But they still sort of belong to that world. Russian becomes this blanket term for that.”
“We were raised basically the same thing,” said Adik Khayumov, who co-owns the Nargis Café with Bangiyev. Khayumov left Azerbaijan in 1988 when he was 16 years old. “We were going to the Russian, Soviet Union schools. They were teaching us the same thing. We kind of understand each other better that way.”
There are two words in Russian that translate to “Russian”: russkii, as in a Russian ethnicity, and rossiiskii, meaning a Russian citizen. In the Soviet Union, Jews were considered their own ethnicity (not russkii) and were labeled as such in their internal passports.
Many of the Russians who settled in Brooklyn were Jewish and left to escape decades of anti-Semitic persecution. While far less common, immigrants also came from Central Asian Soviet countries that are predominantly Muslim, though they also feel a part of the Russian community.
“They are celebrating their holidays,” said Mina Azeri, the president of the Azerbaijani-American Women Association of New York. “They are coming to ours. We have a lot of holidays because of America holidays, Jewish holidays, Azerbaijani holidays. I love it. Every day is a holiday.”
Still, these communities manage to hold on to their self-identity within the greater Russian community in Brooklyn. Between Coney Island and Foster Avenue in Sheepshead Bay is an Uzbekistani enclave, while Azeri makes sure her 13-year-old daughter maintains her connection to Azerbaijan.
“We are keeping our traditions,” she said. “My daughter speaks very well English, but I don’t want her to forget my language too. They have to know our traditions. Everything.”
For some, the distinction between cultures is in the little details. People from Russia “make big kebabs,” said Bangiyev. “Like big chunks. We make little kebabs. But the method of cooking stays the same everywhere.”
Conflicts over the past decade have led some countries to move further away from Russian culture. Georgia, for example, altered its school curriculum so Russian was no longer mandatory but optional. Former Soviet Republics have been searching for their own national identity since the Soviet Union dissolved.
“Those lines become more clear in those places since 1991,” said Tyerman, the professor. “Since these countries have actually become independent, places like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, it becomes more imperative which one you are. Are you Kyrgyz or are you Russian?”
Immigrants who came to Brighton Beach before the breakup, however, never experienced the shift and the last memory many have of their country is an intact Soviet Union.
“It’s like Soviet people,” said Segii Rodionov, an art director from Ukraine living in Brooklyn with a tourism visa, about the inhabitants of Brighton Beach. “It’s like a different conservated people. It’s not modern Russian. It’s not modern Ukrainian. New York’s an amazing place where you can find conservated nationalists.”
Rodionov was born in the Soviet Union in 1989 but grew up in an independent Ukraine and considers himself Ukrainian, not Russian. But he added, “my parents and a lot of older people in Ukraine have a nostalgia for Soviet Union. I understand my parents. They have the best times in life when it was one country and something’s changed. They have nostalgia for young time, when they was 20.”
Still, many Ukrainians, especially the younger generation, reject the idea of having a Russian identity.
“No, No. I’m not Russian. I’m Ukrainian,” said 20-year-old Anton Bozho, a college student at Kyiv National Economic University on vacation with friends in the United States. “I understand Russian and can talk with them but I am not Russian.”
Each of the former Soviet Union countries has a different relationship with Russia. Ukraine is locked into a conflict with Russian-backed separatists while Azerbaijan balances opposing relations with Russia and the West. To many of the people that consider themselves part of Brooklyn’s Russian community though, these concerns can feel nearly half a world away — perhaps because they are.
“We feel more together than we ever were there,” said Bangiyev. “The community is much stronger being in America and New York than being over there.”