Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Dmitrii Sorokin, at left, gives a speech as people gather for a rally in support of Ukraine on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk in Brooklyn on March 6, 2022. Hundreds of people assembled in this Russian American neighborhood to show support for Ukraine as the Russian invasion continues.Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Navigate to Community section

The War Back Home

In Brooklyn’s Little Odessa, residents keep a close eye on what’s happening in Ukraine

by
Suzy Weiss
March 21, 2022
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Dmitrii Sorokin, at left, gives a speech as people gather for a rally in support of Ukraine on the Brighton Beach Boardwalk in Brooklyn on March 6, 2022. Hundreds of people assembled in this Russian American neighborhood to show support for Ukraine as the Russian invasion continues.Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The boardwalk along Brighton Beach at the end of the B and Q subway lines is peaceful in the morning. There are the sounds of seagulls, snippets of conversations in Russian and Spanish, and the clinking of smooth plastic as old ladies divvy up Rummikub tiles from the corner table at the Garden of Joy Social Adult Day Care.

“Little Odessa” takes up a little more than half a square mile between Shore Parkway and the Atlantic Ocean in southern Brooklyn, but it claims citizens from 50 countries among its older-than-average 37,000 residents, many from post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine—hence its nickname. Geographically, Little Odessa is worlds away from the air raid sirens, bomb shelters, and ruin that plague Ukraine right now. But Brighton’s émigrés—many of whom still have families and friends back in Ukraine—are nonetheless angry and terrified by what they see in the news as the Russian invasion plays out in their hometowns.

The neighborhood’s main drag, awash in ethnic grocery stores, restaurants, and bakeries—plus a Walgreens, a Chase, and a Popeyes—is Brighton Beach Avenue, which intersects Brighton 1st Street (not to be confused with Brighton 1st Path, Lane, Place, or Road) then Brighton 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and so on. Maybe it’s a function of English being most people’s second language here, or a holdover from Soviet pragmatism, but the to-the-point street names mirror the to-the-point signs and store names around town, which mirror the to-the-pointness of the people.

One family-friendly hair salon’s name appears to be Men’s, Women’s, Children’s; a coffee shop at 231 Brighton Avenue is called Kaffeine 231. “No food stamps for hot food,” announces a large sign in a grocery store, which rebranded last week from Taste of Russia to International Food. Bobby Rakhman, 51, the owner, who emigrated from Odessa (then part of the USSR) in 1972, told me, “We felt that the name Taste of Russia, wasn’t appropriate for the time being.”

Khrystyna Vasylyshyn, 27, who works on the avenue at her mom’s clothing boutique, Exclusive Women’s Wear, has outfitted the mannequins in the store window according to the Ukrainian flag, with bright yellow and blue hats, bags, skirts, and blouses. She said that some people are turned off by the display, but it’s important for her to represent her country. “I don’t care if I lose business,” she said. When I asked her what she thinks will come next for her country, she replied: “Um, we’re going to kill as many Russians as we can, and then we’re going to win?”

Vasylyshyn moved here from Ivano-Frankivsk 10 years ago (she won a green card, she wanted to study biology) and her family still has a house in Ukraine, which they loaned to friends from Kharkiv when the war started. I asked her about the boycotts of Russian products (from vodka to mustard) and people like the conductor Valery Gergiev and the dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet. “It’s not something that I worry about,” she said. “My people are dying. Every day kids are dying, how can I worry about ballet dancers?”

Vitaliy Isak, 49, who owns a liquor store a few doors down, is all for the boycotts. “I won’t order more vodka from them. No more Beluga, no more Russian Standard,” he told me while simultaneously applying for a credit card on his cellphone.

Some are even boycotting their own tongues. “I speak Russian and Ukrainian, but now, my heart tells me not to speak Russian,” said Dennis Pertsyuk, 44, who lives in nearby Bensonhurst. He says that “the world turned upside down” when the war broke out. He hasn’t kept close contact with his brother, a painter who lives in the Ukrainian city of Poltava, for years but now he checks in every morning since his brother’s been conscripted to the war. Sometimes, he goes to Facebook’s Messenger app to stare at the green dot that indicates that his brother is online, just to put himself at ease. “He tells me to stop worrying,” he said, “but I can’t help it.”

Many in Little Odessa find themselves conducting diplomatic relations with loved ones who don’t want to leave their homes in Ukraine, or can’t. Isak’s mother and brother are in Zakarpattia in the western part of the country, but as bombs get closer, he worries about what will happen since his brother is barred from leaving, and his mother is too old to travel alone.

“My male friends can’t leave, and their mothers and wives don’t want to leave without them,” said Vasylyshyn, who has encouraged friends to get out.

“I’m scared for my mother; she just won’t leave,” said Nadiia Shavaryn, 21, who’s tied her long brunette braid with a blue and yellow ribbon, another nod to the Ukrainian flag. “She has a big house, a car, a chicken and a dog over there.”

Shavaryn and her twin sister came to America three years ago, following their father, who arrived 14 years ago. Now, she mans the bins outside of Vintage Gourmet Specialty Food. “One dollar,” “three dollars,” she called out to customers holding up containers of feta cheese, boxed cake mixes, pasta, soda, and instant coffee as she told me about her family back in Ternopil.

Sergey, 37, who wouldn’t give me his last name, told me about his mother in Kharkiv. “She’s very old. It’s difficult to make an agreement with her. She has an old mentality. She wants to stay where she lives.” He added, “She’s afraid.”

Sergey and his friend Leonid Lifshits, 60, were sitting outside Güllüoglu, a Turkish cafe, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. They invited me to sit. Lifshits came to America 20 years ago from Kyiv—his second coming, since he had moved back home after his stint in America and then, fed up with the corruption, moved to America again. His daughter recently evacuated to Poland, leaving her own army-aged son behind in Donetsk. We paused our conversation when the trains passed by on the tracks overhead. Sergey showed me a Telegram group he’s in called #STOPRussia, where he’s getting most of his news and updates.

“A lot of people I know watch Russian television,” Lifshits said, puffing on a Parliament Aqua Blue. “It’s total propaganda. It breaks your brain.” He recently spoke to a friend in Moscow who defended Putin, claiming that he was only targeting the Nazis in Ukraine. “It’s like, ‘Are you crazy? You think there’s 40 million Nazis there?’”

Lifshits said it’s already World War III, and it’s time everyone caught up to that fact.

A man named Dima, 61, who also didn’t want to give his last name and sells tchotchkes outside Oceanview Jewish Center on Brighton 4th—books, silverware, jewelry, fake-looking Russian war medals, ashtrays, knockoff French jewelry, some small kitchen gadgets—disagrees. He thinks America should send aid, but tread lightly. “Russia will use the bomb, no question,” he said. “Putin is absolutely crazy.”

“Putin should drop dead,” commented one of Dima’s customers who overheard our conversation. Her companion said: “Ukraine will never be Russia. It’s a different country, a different people, a different mentality.”

That was the sentiment of most of the people I talked to, though they’d alternately bring up the MiG-29 fighter jets that Poland would lend to the Ukrainians, if only the U.S. would approve the transfer, and the Keystone XL Pipeline. “I blame Biden for this war, because since he blocked the oil from Canada, it made Putin stronger,” said Lifshits, going on to talk about the no-fly zone, and how Ukraine needs Israel’s Iron Dome technology to intercept missiles.

I grabbed lunch—khachapuri, a bread and cheese dish originally from Georgia, a country Putin occupied in 2008—at Euroasia Cafe, on Brighton 6th. There, three dudes (Kangol hats, beaded bracelets, bomber jackets) took an intermission from shots of brown liquor to smoke cigarettes, leaving their vapes behind on the table. Older women with parenthetical-shaped eyebrows penciled on their foreheads and velour tracksuits ate kebabs and salad while Muz-TV, a Russian music video channel, played on a few TVs mounted on the walls.

My meal at Cafe Euroasia was $3.50, cheaper than the iced coffee I buy most mornings 25 minutes away in Park Slope. No one looked twice at the coats and wallets left behind by the men in the restaurant. Little Odessa is a place where grandsons carefully escort their grandmothers across the street, and where you still go to the grocery store to examine the meats and produce yourself instead of ordering it online. The CD, DVD, and record store is packed, and not with hipsters. For the most part, if someone spoke English, they were happy to talk with me, about Putin, and the right to Ukrainian sovereignty, and how the Ukrainian people won’t ever be Russians because they’ve known freedom, and because, they say, the truth is on their side.

The immigrants here have managed to recreate the specificity of their cultures without giving into the tribal ugliness that drove them out in the first place. Soups at Cafe Euroasia include lagman and shurba from Uzbekistan, kharcho from Georgia, okroshka and borscht from Russia, and chicken soup from bubbes in memoriam.

Before I hopped back on the train, I checked in with the avenue’s only war profiteer, Firouza Ruzehaji, 46, who’s been sewing the flags that adorn the windows of many of the stores along the avenue, from her tiny stall, Brighton Fabrics and Variety on Brighton 3rd. “I’m not such a tailor, but it’s an easy flag, all you have to do is connect two colors,” said Ruzehaji. For a week after the war started she stayed up all night sewing flags, which she sells for $2 to $25, depending on the size. She said she’s lost track of how many she’s sold, though she has seen them on the news at demonstrations in Washington, Chicago, and Times Square. “I can tell they’re mine because of the stitching.”

Ruzehaji came to America in September 1991, a month after independence was declared in Uzbekistan, and has been working in this stall ever since, selling buttons, loofahs, scarves, nightgowns, and bolts of fabric. She used to live on Brighton 1st, then moved to New Jersey—the schools were better for her three kids, it was cleaner there, and she lived in a big house with her in-laws—but now she’s back in this neighborhood, living on Ocean Avenue. “I love Brighton Beach,” she said. “I came here to get married when I was 16. I didn’t know what America was then. I didn’t know what a dollar was and if I did, I wouldn’t know how to spend it.”

“I’ve had a few Ukrainian refugees already coming into the store asking for employment,” said Rakhman, the grocer. International Food was the name of his parents’ original store that they opened 30 years ago, when Ruzehaji arrived on the scene. “There were two girls in here the other day, ages 17 and 7, plus their mother. I think their father had to stay back and fight,” he said. “I took their number, and I’m going to try and find them work. I gave them food and some money, too.”

Rakhman, plus most of his employees, his customers, and his neighbors, all fled at some point, from somewhere, from different enemies, and as a result of different forces, to come to this new, reconstituted Odessa in Brooklyn. In that sense, Rakhman never really left Odessa at all. “My motherland is America now,” he said. “And even if you came here yesterday, it can be yours, too.”

Suzy Weiss is a reporter for Common Sense.