Brighton Beach in Brooklyn is New York City’s most prominently Russian neighborhood. Restaurants along Brighton Beach Avenue are more likely to have menus written in Cyrillic, the script used in Russian, than in English. Taste of Russia and several other Russian grocers overlook Saint Petersburg Bookstore.
According to the United States Census Bureau, barely 40 percent of Brighton Beach’s population is English proficient, while over 80 percent speak a language other than English at home.
The neighborhood can feel closed off and uninterested in language assimilation. Yet just past the cafes serving borscht and Russian pastries, in a small library auditorium, nine local residents – most of them over 60 – spend Thursday afternoons around an off-white folding table in earnest, sometimes passionate, discussions of the Pope, Russian propaganda and the Republican presidential debate – all in English.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” said Elizabeth Lipman, the group’s moderator, in a conversation after a recent Republican debate. “I started watching and fell asleep.”
“Would you have fallen asleep during Democrat debate?” asked Mira Paley, one of the group’s participants.
“Probably,” said Lipman to laughter. “Yes.”
While there are many free English classes in this immigrant-rich city – the Brooklyn Public Library offered over a dozen in August – the Thursday sessions at the library’s Brighton Beach branch operate on a significantly more advanced level than most, according to those who participate.
“I take a lot of classes during fifteen years,” said Lucy Stukalina, who’s been coming to the group for three years. “And this is a top class with Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth Lipman has been the volunteer leader of the group for the past seven years. Lipman has taught English as a second language at Brooklyn College and Kingsborough Community College. She speaks no Russian and describes herself as “your basic, classic liberal,” teaching a group of immigrants in Brighton Beach that “is very conservative.” But she’s found a formula that works, stretching her students’ skills beyond simple language lessons while also exposing them to “different points of view they may not otherwise be aware of. I have to admit I like that, too.”
Each week, Lipman brings in edited copies of New York Times articles to read, based on what she believes will spark a conversation.
One week in September, the group read a Times story headlined “Why Russians Hate Americans. Again.” As they read about details of Russia’s destruction of hundreds of tons of food, smuggled in from the European Union, several in the conversation group expressed surprise or outrage.
“Some food they never have on the table,” said Mira Paley, a regular at the library group. “And they destroy this food.” She also criticized Russia’s attempts to set itself apart in the world with a reliance on its “special way.”
“Special way. Special way,” said Paley. “What is special way? No one knows.”
One section of the article compared Russian attitudes to that of a “rejected lover who keeps sending angry texts long after the breakup.” That drew some robust laughter and an observation that “it is not an exaggeration.”
Before Pope Francis’s September visit to New York City, the group discussed ticket scalping for papal events. The following week Lipman brought in a pair of articles that elaborated on the issue. The conversation shifted from the morality of reselling tickets to the financial cost the city would bear for the trip. Several participants disagreed with the notion of a separation of church and state.
“I think this is wrong,” said Victor Matsukatov, another group regular. “Spiritual life is political. I see it as no different.”
Lipman asks Matsukatov and the others in the conversation group to read the articles aloud. Their thick accents reveal their Russian heritage, but most read with proficiency, occasionally being corrected on pronunciation. Some grammatical errors do consistently pop up, such as ‘I not know,’ but Lipman does not dwell on them.
“Everybody knows what they mean,” she said. “I feel that’s what is important, that they be able to express themselves. That’s why I will correct pronunciations sometimes, because sometimes a pronunciation is so off I feel someone would have trouble understanding what they said. But ‘I not know?’ Fine.”
While most of the group’s participants have lived in Brighton Beach for decades, Yulia Ostromogilshaya just arrived last January. She learned some English in school when she was young and often spoke English with American friends living in Moscow. But when she moved to Brooklyn, said Ostromogilshaya, she struggled to find Russians interested in speaking English.
“I spoke [English] with my American friends in Moscow more than I speak here,” she said. The Russians she’s met in Brighton Beach have “lived here maybe 30 years and they don’t speak English. Only Russian. And it’s not good.”
Nearly half of Brighton Beach and Coney Island’s foreign-born residents come from Russia or Ukraine, according to a 2011 report from the Office of the State Comptroller. The concentration of Russian speakers makes it possible for residents to get by while only speaking Russian, and many do.
“It is possible to survive here without English,” confirmed Paley. “But in my opinion it is not live full life. I think everybody wants to live full life.”