In New York’s Urban Borscht Belt, Ukrainians Debate Russia and Revolution
They are killing us. Amid the hip restaurants and overpriced bars of New York City’s East Village, the sidewalks are indignant; signs tacked across the brick walls demand attention from the aging hipsters, NYU undergrads and occasional punker ghosts. Brutal intervention. New imperialism and war.
Just south of the holistic petcare store on 2nd avenue, it’s obvious something shattering has happened. Is it legal? Rest in Peace. It’s here that New Yorkers have stumbled into Little Ukraine—a fading immigrant enclave surrounded by the commodified cool of kitsch boutiques. Putin’s actions in Crimea are reminiscent of Hitler’s actions in the Sudetenland in 1938. A haphazard memorial of roses, votive candles, and black-and-white pictures of the dead portray a community united around a single demand: Russian soldiers out of Ukraine.
Step into some of the nearby cafes and you’ll find that the spoken conversations match the messages on the signs. Sandwiched between the theater playing “Stomp” and a smoke shop is Stage Restaurant, a sixteen-stool, lunch-counter style Ukrainian diner. Today, the place is quiet, the muffled sounds of pedestrians outside mixing with the smells of butter-fried varenyky and caramelized onions that hang thick in the air.
Behind the counter wearing a backwards cap over his graying hair is Andriy Kvasnytsya, Stage’s long-time cook and resident quipster. “You can consider it like a war now, it’s a war,” he says over the clatter of forks, knives and plates. “So far I haven't met anybody pro-Putin.”
Wiping down a glass case displaying rice puddings and cheesecakes, he says dismissively, “I think the problem in Russia is they are brainwashed now…. Outside big cities, in the country, they only have TV,” which is “all controlled by the government.” Not that he holds it against his Russian customers. In the permissive crucible of the diaspora, the 49-year-old prefers wit to ill will. “I told one of them, I said ‘listen, you be careful speaking Russian in Brighton Beach because Putin might come over there and ‘protect’ you and ‘liberate’ you.”
A community that once sent care packages of western clothing, food and toys home to their families in Ukraine are now sending money to fund protests, medical assistance, legal fees and informational campaigns in the heart of the uprising, Kiev. An announcement tacked to the door of the Ukrainian National Home restaurant (“Euromaidan in Ukraine needs support!”) offers easy ways for potential contributors to donate via PayPal, wire transfer or direct deposit.
“Several of us helped set up a fundraiser to help people on the square… working as volunteers on our days off,” says Maria Lutsan, one of Stage’s servers. The Lviv native worries about rumors she hears from those abroad, a crucial source of information for the Ukrainian diaspora. “My friend in Odessa tells me that Russians have started showing up, organizing pro-Russian meetings. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it scares me.”
Throughout the day, regulars stop by to pick up the latest news and gossip along with orders of “the usual.” There is soft-spoken Vasil, originally from the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, who insists that everything in that city “is calm, people are working. There are no conflicts.” It’s the rest of the country that worries Vasil as he leans heavily against the counter. “Putin wants Ukraine. He has already taken Crimea,” he says in Ukrainian, grabbing his styrofoam takeout cup of fuschia-colored borscht. “I’m worried that he’ll go next to the Czech Republic, to Poland.”
Craig Bohdanowycz’s family is from the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil. “I look at it through the prism of what America does in other countries, and now Russia is doing something like that, and now we’re against it. I’m not for it, but it’s a little hypocritical of us,” he says, sitting at the closest stool to the door as he waits for his takeout order. “We do whatever we want for national security, we bomb whoever we want—I don’t agree when either one of us do it,” he clarifies, but “a superpower is a superpower.” Bohdanowycz’s family is “anti-Putin, anti-Soviet Union, anti-Russian maybe.” As he makes for the door, he adds, “I haven’t talked to anyone who’s pro-annexation.”
However, step outside the closed circuit of Little Ukraine and the unanimity fractures. Some Ukrainians actually do support Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And not everyone supports the revolution, hates Putin and cares to see a united Ukraine. Head nine stops south from Manhattan on a B train—over the Manhattan Bridge, through Brooklyn—and the shouting signs give way to shouted debates in Russian, Ukrainian, and heated mash-ups of the two.
Just east of Coney Island on the Riegelmann Boardwalk is Brighton Beach, nicknamed Little Odessa after the famous Ukrainian seaport. A large number of Ukrainians have immigrated here over the years, and most of the area’s businesses advertise their wares in both English and Russian. A week prior, the atmosphere buzzed with the topic of Ukraine. Today, however, the cold breeze has swept most of the neighborhood’s residents indoors, leaving just a scattering of men in flat caps and old women in babushka scarves.
Dima, a paunchy sixty-something from Odessa, is sitting on one of the wooden benches that line the boardwalk. Speaking in Russian with a slow prudence, he describes the subdued atmosphere in Brighton Beach. “We’re fed up. Everyone is just tired. Tired of worrying about Ukraine, tired of worrying about Putin.” He also seems a bit tired of a certain journalist, whose limited ability to traverse Russian grammatical cases is clearly keeping him from his well-thumbed collection of Chekhov stories. “I think Putin was right to take Crimea, but Eastern and Southern Ukraine is another question. That’s all that concerns you,” he says briskly. “Goodbye.”
Just down the boardwalk is Oksana, a Kievan dressed in a black, fur-trimmed coat—a winter outfit popular with the boardwalk’s women. She leans into the wind while feeding the seagulls scraps of stale bread. “I would tell Putin that he’s no better than George Bush,” she says in the macaronic mix of Russian and Ukrainan known as surzhyk—a Ukrainian word that once referred to bread made from two different flours. “If there is a war in Ukraine, it’s Putin’s fault.” As she throws out the last crumbs to the birds, she says matter-of-factly, “Some of my family doesn’t agree, some say we should have just given Putin that land. Who cares what they think, we’re so far from Ukraine anyways.”
Just off the boardwalk, several Ukrainians could be found ducking into the Russian restaurant and bar Vostochny Pir (“Eastern Feast”) to escape the cold and watch Spanish soccer. Over a large glass of translucent pilsner, an older man who gives his name as Alex speaks in bursts during pauses in the game’s action, his eyes never leaving the television and the impressive skills of Lionel Messi. “You have to understand, Crimea will never be part of Ukraine,” he says, in the patronizing tone of a father explaining basic arithmetic to his child. “It’s because of Khrushchev that it’s part of Ukraine, but it’s a Russian territory.” The Lviv native’s explanation continues as the whole bar yells “penalty!” at the TV. “The reason that everyone wants Crimea is because of the strategic area it is. Putin is smart to have taken it.” Although Lviv is considered the heart of Ukrainian nationalism, Alex’s allegiances lean toward Russia. “As for Putin, to me he’s a great man.”
In the back of the restaurant, Serge Kozack is sitting with two friends, monopolizing a large wooden table clearly intended for at least seven patrons. After exchanging pleasantries in Russian, Kozack, who moved to the United States from Kiev in 1988, offers a lifeline of sorts: “we could just do this in English, you know.” Conversation begins to flow, interrupted only by the arrival of potatoes and vidbivna, cuts of chicken breast pounded until thin, then breaded and fried.
“I think it’s fair,” he says of the annexation of Crimea. “It’s mostly a Russian population. It was never Ukrainian territory in the first place.” He takes a few bites. “If there’s danger to Russian citizens, they should protect them.”
When asked what he would say to Putin if he were present the bar, Kozack’s answer is immediate: “I’d say ‘great job. Keep it up.’” His friend joins in: “I’d say ‘let’s do a shot!’”
“Ya,” Kozack repeats, “we’d do a shot.”
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