Home away from Home

By: Nina Müller

Over the past decades, several thousands of Russians and Ukrainians immigrated to the United States. Especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a big wave of Soviet exiles settled in and around New York. Since then, they have formed a quiet and modest community. But over the past years the everlasting conflict between Russia and Ukraine has intensified. How does this affect the two communities in New York?

It only happens rarely that tourists get off the New York Subway at the Brighton Beach station. There is a point on the 40-minute line from central Manhattan in which the many chatty Americans leave one after another and you are left with a smaller, much more silent group of people. And when they talk, it’s not English anymore, but most likely Russian. The chances are big that those people will not leave the B train before it reaches its final destination: Brighton Beach.

Brighton Beach has been the long-time home for lots of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In the early 1990s they flew from Europe and settled in the south end of Brooklyn. Today, over 400.000 Russians and 350.000 Ukrainians live in the United States, around half of them within the area of New York, and Brighton Beach forms their cultural centre.

Once you get out of the Subway station, you have entered a different world: The colourful signs of the local stores, pharmacies and coffee shops form distinctions on each side of the main road. It runs straight underneath the subway tracks and does not seem to end. Every few minutes either the B train or the Q train blasts over the heads of the pedestrians with a hammering noise. And alongside it all, there is the huge beachside. There, it’s peaceful, wide and quiet.

The people in Brighton Beach are very different from typical New Yorkers. They dress differently, they walk slower, and talk less. Almost everything in Brighton Beach is written in Russian since this language was the dominant one in the Soviet Union. Most Ukrainians living in New York speak it fluently as well. It seems to be a serene togetherness here, between Russians and Ukrainians. Very different from the situation in Europe.

Overseas, the conflict between both countries is as present as ever since the crisis around Crimea. How does it affect the relationship between both communities in New York?

“I would not say that it’s tense”, Hanya Krill says. She works at the Ukrainian Museum in lower Manhattan. “But we are still very connected to our home countries, so it definitely affects us, too”. Hanya herself was born in the East Village, New York, but her parents are both Ukrainians by birth. They met and married in Austria and after the Second World War, they first settled down in England. After Hanya’s uncle sponsored the family, they moved to the US where he lived, and ended up in New York. “Sometimes we call ourselves ‘professional Ukrainians’ as a joke”, she says. We weren’t born there, but we learned everything about Ukrainian life in the States. Hanya remembers visiting Brighton Beach as a child. For her, it was exciting to see how people were selling all the typical Ukrainian treats which she normally only saw when she visited Ukraine with her family. “Sometimes you walk into a shop there and start speaking Russian with the owner. Then, after a few minutes you realize that both of you are actually Ukrainian. It’s quite funny.”

Although the largest part of the Ukrainians is Christian-Orthodox, most people in Brighton Beach are Jewish. Since especially Jews were persecuted in Europe, many of them found their way to this area in the s

The inside of the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Volodymyr. Until the 1950s, the building was a synagogue.

outh of Brooklyn.  But there are still a lot of Orthodox Russians and Ukrainians in New York. In Manhattan alone, there are over 15 Orthodox churches. Especially for these communities, the past week was special. Not only did they celebrate the Eastern Rite Christmas on Monday, January 7. This year, that was also the day on which the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split from the Russian Church after being tied together for more than four centuries. “That was a big step”, says Nestor Muzychka. He is the church manager of the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Volodymyr located in the East Side of Manhattan. For him, the split of the churches is a sign of Ukrainian independence after centuries of suppression. “It’s all we want”, he says. “Independence. I mean, it’s just natural.” Nestor was born in Ukraine, but he lives in New York since his family moved there in the early 2000s. His father is the priest of the cathedral. That’s how he grew into the community and became the manager later. Nestor says that the Russian and Ukrainian community respect each other, that there are many friendships between Russians and Ukrainians in New York. But both communities are very involved in the incidents in Europe, and that makes things difficult sometimes. “I have lost contact to some people over the years.” In 2014, when Russian military invaded Crimea and disarmed Ukrainians troops, the church community started crowd funding campaigns and tried to help out from overseas. In some ways, it unified the Ukrainians in New York even more.

Sometimes it happens that Russians find their way into the ceremonies in the Ukrainian cathedral. “We often advertise for our ceremonies in Russian because it’s a more universal language than Ukrainian. Our ceremonies are in Ukrainian, though.” Not that long ago, two Russians participated in a liturgy at the church. “They just sat there quietly and watched. Afterwards they ate with us. They were talking in Russian but they still accompanied us. It was very nice.” Nestor points out that his community is open to everyone and that he sees respect as a self-evident foundation in any situation: “Everyone is entitled to have his own opinion. We can still get along even though we might not agree.”

Warhol’s “Endangered Species” portfolio at the Ukrainian Museum.

Hanya also says that the communities get along overall, despite the troubled situation. As a manager at the Ukrainian museum, it’s important to her to communicate the Ukrainian culture to as many people as possible. Most members of the museum are Ukrainian, but only a small part of its visitors are. Currently, the museum has an exhibition of works from Andy Warhol who was originally born as Andrew Warhola in the Ruthenian ghetto of Pittburgh. Therefore he was part of a cultural group that came from an area that corresponds to today’s western Ukraine. Many people don’t know that. Most of the time, Andy Warhol is declared as American. Hanya looks at a picture of Warhol that he drew in 1954: Dancing girls with sun. The girls in the drawing are wearing dresses and hats that strongly resemble traditional Ukrainian clothes. “You see?”, Hanya says, “He knew who he was.”

The question of identity is an important one in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Nestor says that sometimes, Russians call Ukrainians their “little brothers”. Although comments like those are often said without a bad intention, he finds them discriminating. “We are not Russian. We are Ukrainian, it’s a different thing.”

Does the crisis in Europe affect the communities in New York? Yes, it does. Many Ukrainians and Russians are both deeply connected to their home countries. But since many of them also share a lot of history in New York, they have grown together there. The conflict in Europe leaves marks on the communities in the US, but it doesn’t tear them apart. And especially the Soviet exiles in Brighton Beach seem as calm as ever, living the lives they have lived for decades.

The beachside of Brighton Beach.