Survey of the Use of Russian Language in the Brighton
Beach Area of Brooklyn
Yevgeniy Palatnik and Pat DeAngelis
As we begin our discussion of the Russian
community, it is important to take into account various assumptions that
need to be made during this analysis. In this discussion, the term
"Russian" will reflect its American interpretation, rather than the purely
ethnic one. By the American definition, the term "Russian" can be used to
categorize any people who migrated to the U.S. from the Russian-speaking
parts of the former Soviet Union. This definition discounts the ethnic
differences that exist between these immigrants and classifies them
according to their native language and country of origin. Nevertheless,
it should be noted that the majority of the people making up the "Russian"
community are mainly Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Such
distinction, while seemingly significant, must be accounted for because of
First, and foremost, the overwhelming
majority of these people (about 98 %) speak Russian as their native
language, due to the repressive policies of the Soviet government towards
Jewish culture and language. Second, immigration for the purpose of
permanent residence to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union is strictly
limited to people of Jewish nationality. Consequently, the people that
most Americans consider Russian, based on their outward appearance and
language usage, are really Russian Jews. It should also be noted that
"Russian" people live in different areas of New York and our study is a
cross-sample examination of this total community with the emphasis on the
Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. This area is home to around 15,000
Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union (http://www.census.gov), the largest
Russian-speaking community in the United States. In the sections below we
will look at various aspects of the Russian community focusing on its use
of the Russian language in social, religious, and economic spheres of
The primary language used in the Brighton
Beach area of Brooklyn is Russian. This is evident from the displays hung
outside the different businesses on Brighton Beach Avenue, the social and
commercial hub of the area. The various businesses with signs in Russian
include restaurants, nightclubs, book and record stores, grocery stores,
pharmacies and doctors' offices, shoe repair shops and furniture stores.
There is also a small Latino population in the area, most of them living
within a few blocks of Brighton Beach Avenue (http://www.BrightonBeach.com).
However, on the Avenue itself there are very few signs in Spanish
indicating that the Latino community is not very prominent in the area.
The Latino community only somewhat infiltrates Brighton Beach Avenue
through some sporadically occurring businesses such as grocery stores.
Grammar schools and high schools in the area
have significant populations of Russian-Americans to whom English is a
second language. Many of these students are first generation children of
Russian immigrants who use English to learn and study in school. However,
as Paul Zeylikman, a student at Lincoln explains, when given the
'opportunity the students will "code-switch" between Russian and English
for their daily and social activities both at home and at school.' We
spoke to Mr. Tuddy, principal of the Michael E. Berdy public school, and
he told us that there is an insignificant amount of children who require
classes taught in Russian in his school (http://www.nycenet.edu). He also
responded that his particular school did not offer courses in English as a
Second Language (ESL). Mr. Tuddy feels that both of these facts signify
that children of Russian immigrants are relatively quick, compared to
other nationalities, to adapt to the language of their adopted country.
He, personally, attributes such progress to the quality of elementary
level education in Russia, which he feels adequately prepares these
children for entrance into the American educational system, giving them
the opportunity to concentrate solely on learning English.
We also visited Abraham Lincoln High School
on Ocean Parkway and came up with different results. The Russian students
there are given the opportunity to take the New York State Regents
Language Examination in Russian. English as a Second Language (ESL)
classes are also offered for newly arrived Russian-speaking immigrants.
The large population of Russian students in this school requires that the
courses at least be offered, yet principal Martin Kopelowitz explained
that many Russian students are as fluent in English as they are in
Russian, therefore making many of these ESL courses unnecessary. As in
the grammar school, the students use English for their academic lives and
their native Russian tongue for most of their social lives. Lincoln High
School is an example of a social structure that is sensitive to the needs
of different ethnic groups. Although the student body is mainly
African-American (68% of the total), the school offers classes in Russian
(Paynes and Gonzalez).
Within the Brighton Beach area there exists
the 60th precinct of the NYPD and one of only two Brooklyn divisions of
the New York State Department for Motor Vehicles. The 60th precinct
currently has four officers of Russian background working there. The
precinct also employs two interpreters/secretaries who help the officers
to effectively communicate with the Russian-speaking community members.
During our visit we spoke with Officer Martinez, of the public relations
department, who has been part of the force since 1985. He explained that
when he first interacted with the Russian community they regarded him as
an enemy. They disliked law enforcement due to negative experiences back
in their homeland. Officer Martinez made clear to the community that the
force was in need of more Russian-American police officers. Today, he
attempts to target youngsters who would be interested in joining, through
lectures and school presentations in conjunction with the Brighton
Improvement District (BID), a local community group. The BID assists the
candidates in obtaining information about the job and provides them with
the necessary paperwork and test preparation questions.
The Brighton Improvement District (BID),
also represents the businesses and other local organizations in the area.
The group serves as an intermediary between the police and the Russian
community. It informs the community about such issues as a rise in crime
in the area through flyers and talks and holds lectures on such topics as
community safety and crime prevention. The precinct itself does not
publish any information in Russian but rather communicates via the BID.
The Department of Motor Vehicles office, being a state and not a local
institution, is not as sensitive to the needs of Russian speakers. While
the test needed to obtain a driving permit can be taken in Russian, the
office does not provide any applications or test preparation booklets in
Russian. The clerk we questioned made clear that all information and
publications were only available in English and Spanish.
The primary medical institution in the area
is Coney Island Hospital. The hospital has a large Russian-speaking
staff, ranging from doctors to secretaries and translators. Many
Russian-speaking medical students work in the hospital as residents due to
the high demand for a Russian-speaking medical specialists. The hospital
also provides volunteering experience to approximately 60 Russian-speaking
high school students for the same reason. The Brighton Beach area also
contains dozens of medical and dental offices where either the doctors,
nurses, or receptionists, and sometimes all of them, speak Russian. One
of these centers in located on West 8th Street right off Brighton Beach
Avenue. The receptionist's name was Vera Golub' and she told us that
almost all the medical and dental offices in Brighton Beach area have at
least one Russian-speaking doctor or dentist. Within the sixteen square
block area around Brighton Beach Avenue that we have examined, we have
counted eighteen such offices, including ones for pediatrics, podiatry,
dentistry, gynecology, urology, ear, nose and throat, and internal
Within the area examined we have found four
synagogues. All these offer services in Russian. Some services are also
conducted in English and Yiddish, a dialect of Eastern European Jews
(Ashkenazi). The rabbis conducting these services are either native
Russian Jews or members of the Hasidic branch of Judaism, who learned
Russian to help the immigrants recover the faith they lost due to
persecution in the Soviet Union. These synagogues also serve as community
centers. They hold English-language and religious classes as well as
classes that teach marketable skills such as typing and computer usage (http://www.brightonbeachave.com).
Stores and Restaurants
Stores and restaurants are numerous in the
Russian community. There are a few different types of stores that are
especially common. The first are Russian food stores that sell the
various kinds of baked goods, cold cuts, bread and canned goods that trace
the histories of their recipes to Russia. These stores are owned directly
by Russian immigrants and employ exclusively Russian speakers. Their
clientele come into the store without any doubt that Russian is the
language to be used. Irina Greenstein is a regular customer of these
types of stores and she told us how much they resemble home and how they
transcend a feeling of nostalgia when she enters them to buy her
The second are furniture stores, which serve
the many newly arrived immigrants. They also employ people from the
Russian community who can comfortably converse with other Russian
speakers. Just as numerous as the furniture bases are the pharmacies,
which can be seen on almost every corner in Brighton Beach.. These also
employ Russian speakers.
Restaurants are also common in the Brighton Beach area. It should be
noted here that the restaurants in the Russian community are totally
different from their counterparts outside of it. Russian restaurants
resemble nightclubs with laser light shows and live entertainment
featuring traditional Russian dances (http://www.brightonbeach.com).
People gather at these restaurants for special occasions and do not go
there just to eat, but also to dance. The menus of these restaurants
differ significantly, with some offering traditional Russian cuisine, with
others specializing in Jewish or Central Asian food. All these places
employ only Russian speakers to deal with the solely Russian speaking
clientele of their establishments.
Publications and the News Media
Book and record stores are also one of the
central facets of the Russian community. Their products include books,
CDs, and videotapes from Russia, with a few products featuring
Russian-American, but still Russian-speaking, artists and writers. The
many newsstands in the area sell both newspapers published in New York and
those published in Russia. The former include "New Russian Word",
"Courier" and "Russian Ads", "New Meridian". Their content varies from
political analysis of the former to the gossip and anecdotes of the
latter. The newspapers brought over from Russia act as ties that bind
Russian-speakers to their homeland and are one of the reasons why people
living away from the area return to it, making Brighton Beach the
cornerstone of the Russian community in America.
Organizations, Clubs and Activities
On our excursion through the Russian
community we visited an old age home, a gymnasium and a Russian Bania
(Bath House). The Abraham Residence II houses about 25 (12%) Russians and
Russian Jews. We spoke to Mary, the secretary of the home, who said that
many of the Russian residents do not speak English. To provide services
for them, the home employs eight Russian-speaking nurses. These nurses
undertake tasks such as conducting exercise sessions, organizing
excursions to Russian plays and celebrating birthday parties each month
and also preparing for and celebrating American, Russian and Jewish
holidays. We spoke to one of the Russian residents who was also bilingual
in English. Her name is Tatyana Pekhova and she told us that she
immigrated to Brooklyn nine years ago and enjoys living in the home
because there she has found a community where others speak her native
language and carry on cultural traditions from her home country. She also
explained to us that the nursing home provides the residents with Russian
satellite television and that the home's library carries Russian-language
books, magazines and newspapers, both those published in Russia and those
published in the U.S.. In addition to these services the nursing home
also provides English tutors for those who would like to assimilate closer
to the American, English-speaking, community.
We also visited a gymnasium named Nova Gym
where the owner named Terry told us about some of the members and their
backgrounds. He mentioned that about 35% of the members are Russian, but
that he has no need to publish any material or safety warnings in Russian
because everyone speaks English. However, when they train together they
speak their native Russian. Terry mentioned that the members feel "at
home" and there is a men's Russian gymnastics team that practices on
One of the most interesting places we
visited was the Russian Bania because such an establishment seems
juxtaposed to many Americans. This Bath House is named Za Zaborom,
meaning "Behind the Fence." Russian businesses tend to name their stores
by their location. (Another example is U Kolesa literally meaning "By the
Wheel." This particular establishment is a furniture store located next to
Coney Island's famous Wonder Wheel.) The Bania is a combination of a
café, steam room, pool, Jacuzzi, hot tub and physical therapy facility.
Outside there is a park with lawn chairs and a hut where members
congregate to simply chat and fraternize.
When we talked to the owner, Boris Shtutman,
he told us that every member is Russian and jokingly said that only
Russians could be members because only they can withstand the extreme heat
of the steam room (120 degrees Fahrenheit). He explained that men and
women alike go into this room, 'naked of course' and they have wooden
branches that they douse in hot water and give each other massages with.
It might seem strange to many Americans, but he says that this is a very
healthy way of living. We asked to speak to the clientele that were
presently conversing in the lawn but we were not allowed to. We learned
that attending this Bath House is considered a therapy.
It is our impression from our conversation
with the Russian-speaking members of the Brighton Beach community that a
significant portion of them is not very proficient in English. The people
interviewed who did say that they were fluent in English were often the
ones just visiting the area for nostalgic purposes. The situation is of
course different for students, who do have to interact with English
speakers in school. Overall, though, the area creates an environment where
the knowledge of English is not a vital skill due to an abundance of
stores, medical offices, jobs and other necessary services and
opportunities that simply require knowledge of Russian. It is therefore
uncommon to hear bilingual Russian speakers to be actually speaking
English, because they do not want to make themselves look superior to
their compatriots who are not quite as proficient in English. This sense
of "accommodation" is evident throughout the neighborhood. In any store
or office that one visits, if a salesperson or secretary recognizes one as
Russian-speaking, he/she will not even try speaking to that person in
English and will indeed get offended if the customer pretends that he/she
does not know Russian. Such an environment prevents the increase in
bilingualism within the Brighton Beach community as the newly arrived
immigrants lack the incentive to learn English. This environment also
allows us to compare the Russian-American community to a wheel, with
Brighton Beach being the center and the spokes representing those
immigrants that took the steps necessary to distance themselves from their
community without totally abandoning it. These are the people who are
most comfortable with both English and Russian. The spokes also represent
the ties that bind Russian-speaking immigrants to Brighton Beach and it is
still possible, as one walks along Brighton Beach Avenue, to see people
visiting the area from as far as New Jersey and Pennsylvania to get a
taste of "home."
Board of Education. District School Profiles. 6 October 2001. http://www.nycenet.edu.
Brighton Beach Avenue. 6 October 2001. http://www.brightonbeachave.com.
Brighton Beach. 6 October 2001. http://www.brightonbeach.com.
Paynes, Michael, Orlando Gonzalez. Directory of Public High
Schools. New York Board of Education: 1999-2000 ed.
Personal Interviews, Observations and Experience
United States. Bureau of the Census. 6 October 2001. http://www.census.gov.
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