COVER

THE PASSIONS OF BRIGHTON BEACH

HILARY MACKENZIE September 2 1991
COVER

THE PASSIONS OF BRIGHTON BEACH

HILARY MACKENZIE September 2 1991

THE PASSIONS OF BRIGHTON BEACH

COVER

From the sunny boardwalk cafés that stretch along the Brooklyn beachfront community to the bustling clubs that thrive in the shadows of the elevated subway tracks over Brighton Beach Avenue, the air was electric. Soviet immigrants, most of them Jews who now form the largest Russian community outside the Soviet Union and Israel, crowded around TV sets and pressed transistor radios to their ears last Wednesday to catch the latest news. At the White Acacia Supermarket, customer Felix Kats, 45, grinned broadly when he heard that the uprising against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had crumbled. “It’s wonderful,” said Kats. “History can't be turned back now—the coup failed because there's a new generation that can smell freedom.”

Of the nearly 200,000 Soviets who have immigrated to the United States since the mid1970s, about 25,000 have moved to New York’s Brighton Beach. They call the neighborhood Little Odessa, after the Ukrainian port city. Restaurants serve Georgian specialties from sturgeon shish kebab to coriander-laced beans, and delicatessens sell marinated tongue and tins of Baltic sprat. Under the rumbling din of the trains, where vendors do a brisk business in Russian-language newspapers, most of the conversations flowed in Russian—and concerned events back home.

Even after Gorbachev returned to Moscow, some Soviet-Americans expressed fears about the future. Inside the garish, mirrored Primorski Restaurant, owner Buba Khotoveli stroked the diamond-encrusted leopard head that hangs from a gold chain around his neck. “I have a very bad feeling about what’s going on,” said the 52-year-old Khotoveli. “I understand one thing: no food, no nothing.”

But Pauline Giber, a 59-year-old home atten-

dant for the elderly, appeared more optimistic. “People are hungry,” she said, rubbing suntan lotion on her fleshy arms as she sat on the boardwalk, “but they value their freedom.” And in the Black Sea Bookstore, where the shelves sag under the weight of anti-Communist literature, the eyes of former labor-camp prisoner Peter Medins welled with emotion when he learned that the Russian people had stared down the plotters’ menacing tanks. “On Monday, it was very bad,” said Medins, a gaunt 62year-old truck driver from Latvia. “It was the Stalinist regime back again—the concentration camps, the killings, the lying.” Added Medins: “But in these days, there really is a new revolution—not in blood, but in the minds of the people.” To the immigrants in Brighton Beach, last week’s historic developments were indeed a welcome relief.

HILARY MACKENZIE in Brighton Beach