New York’s Russian-speaking communities are mobilizing for Ukraine

A speaker carries a sign during a protest in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of New York in March. (© John Lamparski/Getty Images)

A speaker carries a sign during a protest in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of New York in March. (© John Lamparski/Getty Images)

Walk the streets of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Queens and other New York neighborhoods and you’ll likely see signs in Russian and English, as well as lots of support for Ukraine.

New York is home to 600,000 Russian-speaking immigrants, the most of any US city. And many here – as well as others in communities across America – are appalled what they see happening in Ukraine.

Alexander Korzun, who organized a rally at the end of March in Brighton Beach, told the Brooklyn Paper“As Russians, we want to say that we are strongly against this war, we condemn Putin’s aggression and those who support this war. And we are with Ukraine.

He noted that his community was using “an opportunity to speak freely here in New York” to say what many in Russia are too afraid to say for fear of being arrested: that war is wrong and must end.

Mannequins in a shop window are dressed in the colors of the Ukrainian flag March 11 in Brighton Beach, also known as ‘Little Odesa’ because of its close-knit Russian and Eastern European communities. (© Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

Many residents of Brighton Beach and other neighborhoods left the Soviet Union beginning in the 1970s and came to the New York area fleeing religious and political persecution and seeking new economic opportunities.

Longtime resident Leonid Pevzner said The Washington Post that he came to Brighton Beach 30 years ago. “I didn’t like the direction Russia was going economically, and I need to find an opportunity to work.” Now Pevzner runs Brighton Care Pharmacy, just blocks from the beach, supporting his family and, like many other residents, keeping in touch with family and friends in Russia.

Over the decades, thousands of people settled in Brighton Beach, where they would find solace in the diverse community, sharing culture and traditions from all parts of the former Soviet Union. With a large percentage of the immigrant population coming from the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, the district has been given the nickname “Little Odessa”, after the Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea.

A woman walks past Ukrainian and Georgian flags outside a store on March 11 in Brighton Beach, New York. (© Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

As the neighborhood grew, it began to feel like home. Russian and Ukrainian restaurants, Georgian bakeries, Orthodox churches and international markets offering homemade dishes and imported goods have sprung up on street corners.

Many also came to the New York area knowing they would find community and stability among others who spoke Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek and Georgian, as well as other languages ​​of the former Soviet republics.

During the Soviet era, Russian was the primary language among the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, enforced by Moscow, while many spoke one of the USSR’s more than 120 native languages ​​at home. Even today, less than a quarter of Brighton Beach residents were born in the United States, and thousands continue to migrate here from Russia and surrounding countries each year.

A person takes part in a demonstration against the war in Ukraine on February 26 in Times Square in New York City. (© Brittainy Newman/AP Images)

Lisa Aronova, who came to the United States from Uzbekistan about 30 years ago, saw the impact of Russian state media on people in Russia. “They lie, lie. Everything they say it’s all a lie. The normal, regular people who live there [in Russia]they don’t get all this information that we have,” she told National Public Radio in April while in Queens, a borough of New York.

Queens Borough President Donovan Richards visited Ukraine in 2021 and stayed in touch with people he met there. “To the Ukrainian-American community here in Queens, we stand in strong solidarity with you against this invasion. If you need a space to gather or grieve, our doors at Queens Borough Hall are open. To the Russian-American families who call Queens home, we know this is not your war — it’s Putin and Putin alone. You also have our full support and love.

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