Postcard from Brighton Beach

Sochi 2014 memorabilia bears on sale for 50 percent off at Saint Petersburg Global Trade House during the Winter Olympics. Brighton Beach is home to a large immigrant population from Russia and Ukraine. (Stav Ziv/NY City Lens)

Sochi 2014 memorabilia bears on sale for 50 percent off at Saint Petersburg Global Trade House during the Winter Olympics. Brighton Beach is home to a large immigrant population from Russia and Ukraine. (Stav Ziv/NY City Lens)

New York City’s enclave of immigrants from Russia and the former Soviet Union sits on the edge of Brooklyn, more than 5,000 miles away from Sochi.  But as the Winter Olympics got underway, Brighton Beach showed hardly a sign of collective excitement.

The day after the Opening Ceremony, the main stretch in Brighton Beach just off the B and Q trains bustled with weekend activity. Women in long fur coats crowded the sidewalks, carefully navigating the remnants of slush and ice from snowstorms past. Pushing grocery carts proved difficult.

Nearly a quarter of the neighborhood’s population came to Brooklyn from Russia or Ukraine, according to the 2008-2010 American Community Survey. According to a 2011 report from the New York State Comptroller’s office, 46.4 percent of immigrants in Brighton Beach and the adjacent Coney Island come from these two countries.

A few blocks away, the boardwalk—a popular summer destination for New Yorkers and tourists alike—remained covered in a thick sheet of icy snow, a treacherous expanse only few were willing to brave.

A couple summers ago, Brighton’s Big Screen, a giant screen set up to show movies and sports, broadcast live footage from the London Games right on the boardwalk.  But the 2014 Winter Olympics were almost nowhere to be found along Brighton’s main strip. The streets of the neighborhood buzzed with people running their weekend errands, more concerned with produce and groceries than the skating and skiing in Sochi.

“People who work here in the Russian district work many hours” and don’t have too much extra time to watch the games, said Inna Todoriko from the Ukraine, who works as a manager at the iconic Brighton Bazaar. The large Russian supermarket sits on the corner where Brighton Beach Avenue meets Brighton 11th Street, and sells everything from prepared foods and baked goods to snacks and dairy products, Todoriko said, however, that she had browsed the web after work to keep up with news from Sochi, but added that she didn’t foresee watching too many of the events.

“The Super Bowl is bigger,” Todoriko’s boss interjected. Having emigrated from Odessa in the 1970s, he said, this is his country now, and he has no desire to go back.

Oleh Kachur, a Ukrainian immigrant turned U.S. citizen, wouldn’t move back either. He has been watching the Olympics before and after he goes to work at Mosvideofilm, a video and bookstore on the corner of Brighton Beach Avenue and Brighton 7th.  “I think most people are excited,” he said, because though they might prefer living in America, they are nostalgic for Russia.

But there hasn’t been much in the way of social viewing, according to Kachur. For soccer, which is much more popular than the winter Olympic sports, he said, people gather and even head into Manhattan to watch together.

The only visible sign of the Olympics cropped up at Saint Petersburg Global Trade House. Stuffed animals wearing tiny Sochi 2014 t-shirts filled wicker baskets both at the front and further into the store, marked on sale for 50 percent off.

They had sold about 100 of them, estimated Slava Kandinskiy, an employee at the store, primarily adults buying gifts for children. Only a day after the start of the Olympics, they were already on sale because the store still had a lot left in stock, he said.

“It’s the spirit of the Olympic games,” said Kandinskiy, who emigrated from Moscow two years ago and planned to watch the snowboarding and biathlon events.

Markets, restaurants, bakeries, and salons line Brighton Beach Avenue. Some elderly ladies and gentlemen sat on chairs outside the stores, chatting in their native languages. Cafes are few and far between.

The only sports bar on the stretch, Kebeer Draft Bar & Grill, is near the steps to the above ground B and Q trains. The bar and restaurant was quiet halfway between lunch and dinner on a weekend afternoon, but coverage from Sochi flickered on the screens that lined the wall. The few patrons in the bar barely noticed.

A week later, during dinnertime, some customers glanced up at the U.S.-Russia hockey game replaying on the televisions. But only fleetingly—they seemed quite intent on food, beer, and conversation.