Putin's Ukraine Push Causes Big Fight in Little Odessa

In the Magazine
Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto/Corbis

“I have no nationality,” says Anna Fayngersh, sitting on her usual bench on the Brighton Beach boardwalk. “I’m from Odessa. Yiddish at home, Ukrainian in the street, Russian in school and French to read in. But the man wearing a German uniform who beat me when I was 8...he used to deliver eggs to the neighborhood. He spoke Ukrainian, just like I did.”

It’s hard to argue with a woman who survived an SS concentration camp in which she never heard anyone speaking German, as it was entirely staffed by her former neighbors. She told me her tale on the sunny day in Brooklyn, New York, but still shivered when she recalled the camp guards from 1944. Her countrymen. Only they went to church and her family attended a synagogue. The Second World War, or Great Patriotic War as it is known in the Russophone world, is never far from any discussion of the current situation in Crimea. According to the last census, there are over 150,000 Ukrainians in New York City. They came in waves, and the big one, the one that turned Brighton Beach into a vibrant community of restaurants, theaters, brothels and street peddlers is called the Third. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, over half a million immigrants from the Soviet Union came to America. This Third Wave, which settled primarily in Brooklyn, was mostly Jewish and called their capital in America Little Odessa—after their port town in the Ukraine.

Another center of Ukrainian life is in New York City, an older settlement on Second Avenue in Manhattan. Wasyl, president of the Ukrainian Sports Club, refuses to tell me his last name because of the “long reach” of Russian security services. He also has nothing nice to say about the Brooklyn “Ukrainians,” also his quotes. He shows me the bar of their community center, which is also a meeting place for Ukrainian nationalists, pointing proudly to the empty slots where the Russian vodka used to stand. “You won’t see a drop of that here anymore. And don’t ask for any if you want to stay. Nothing from Putin’s dictatorship is welcome in here.”

Wasyl’s family emigrated in 1956. Most of the elderly people at the club came around that time as well, just after Stalin died. Had they gone east as opposed to west, they would have almost certainly ended up in the Gulag for the crime of “collaboration.” Instead they have built themselves a community on Second Avenue. It is centered on St. George’s, a large church with a school attached. The Ukrainian festival is held there every year, with dancers in peasant outfits and bountiful stuffed cabbage. Their diaspora, called the Second Wave, may have been smaller than Brighton Beach’s Third, but no less wealthy. Their ‘Little Ukraine’ also has everything an immigrant from Kiev or Lviv might need unless it’s a synagogue.

6.20_PG0425_LittleOdessa_02a Serge Attal/Sygma/Corbis

Lyuba, president of the Soyuz Ukrainok, a women’s auxiliary to the Ukrainian Sports Club, explains how funds to support the movement back home are collected. “Five hundred each,” she said, emphasizing the amount by counting out each $100 bill with a slap on the bar, where she was enjoying a drink. During the last couple of months, the Ukrainian Sports Club collected money from their members and from those of other fraternal Ukrainian organizations. A church courier was entrusted with the cash. He flew to Kiev with the money undeclared, in a vestment bag.

I wonder what it was spent on: “Rifles?”

“Blankets,” says Lyuba, as she studies my nose. Even though we are speaking English, she noticed that I had written her name in my notebook in Cyrillic characters, and might be wondering if I am a Jewish agitator from pro-Putin Brighton Beach. The narrative on Second Avenue is simple; the inhabitants of Little Odessa don’t care about Putin’s takeover of Crimea because they are not real Ukrainians. They are Jews.

Fayngersh was surprised when I conveyed the sentiments of the Ukrainian Sports Club to her. She says she is not pro-Putin and despises every tyrant, having survived both Hitler and Stalin. But neither is she pro-Ukrainian. “It was easier when we were all Soviet citizens and officially atheists,” she says. "Everybody still knew who was who, but it didn’t matter the way it does today. I wouldn’t send a penny to those Banderovists.”

Stepan Bandera—I brought his name up very carefully on Second Avenue. I didn’t have to bring it up at all in Brighton Beach, since every person I speak to mentions him about two questions into our Crimean discussions. In 1941, he proclaimed an independent Ukrainian Republic from Lviv, in the western half of the Ukraine. Unfortunately, he did it eight days after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. His organization thought the Nazis would be a powerful ally against the Russian oppressors, and even fought alongside the Wehrmacht, but Bandera wound up in a German concentration camp, while continuing to plot an end to the Soviet Union. And living out his life in Germany after the war didn’t work out well: the KGB assassinated him in 1959. He remains both the patriarch and the skeleton in the closet of Ukrainian nationalism.

Putin’s media claims the new government in Kiev is an heir to Bandera, equating it with neo-Nazism. The Ukrainians on Second Avenue don’t believe this, and neither does the head Rabbi of the Ukraine, who supports the movement in Kiev. But the old fellows in their Sports Club venerate Bandera, while the Jews of Brighton Beach despise him for allying with the Nazis.

“The Russians say we are Banderovists. Seventy-five years have passed. Even Germany gets a break, but we still have to hear about it. Wanting a country of our own that is part of Europe and not a Russian vassal state is somehow an expression of our Nazism. Isn’t it a little unlikely?” Wasyl says, suggesting I drink the Ukrainian beer Obolon—which is excellent—after I cautiously brought up Putin’s smear. “Has anyone fired a shot? Has anyone blown themselves up? We were promised the security of our borders. If we had kept the nukes, this would have never happened.”

He has a point about the weapons. In 1994, Ukraine was the world’s third largest nuclear state because of materiel left over after the breakup of the USSR. The U.K. and the U.S. made an agreement with the Ukrainian president that guaranteed Ukraine’s borders if it divested itself of the aging arsenal. The oldsters on Second Avenue are very well aware of this and feel betrayed.

However, in Brighton Beach, they are relieved that Ukraine no longer has atomic weaponry. I got a haircut in a little shop under the elevated tracks because the barber was so vehement in his opinions and I could no longer hide the mess on my head with my hat (only $12, by the way). “Nuclear Ukrainians? What a nightmare!” he says, “They would have blown Israel off the map as soon as they could. God bless George Bush for taking such things out of their hands.”

I remind him that Bill Clinton signed the papers, but he has a straight razor to my ear at that moment, so I don’t stress the point. “The Second Wave, they call us ‘sausage immigrants,’ as if they are the big political machers. They think we are ignorant shopkeepers, and that the world knows nothing. But today we have the Internanet [sic]. Everyone knows about Khruschev’s gift. You know, right?”

I nod, but he continues, gesticulating with a pair of deadly scissors, “He gave Crimea to the Ukraine as a wedding present to his wife. And now they want to make a big stink about correcting this little error of history.”

My haircut was growing less balanced as Khruschev’s specter rose. As ridiculous as it sounds, my barber’s history is solid. In 1954, with Stalin dead only a year, Khruschev made the expansive and essentially meaningless gift of the Crimean peninsula to the Ukrainian SSR. It was to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Ukraine joining the Russian Empire. “But Russia was born in Kiev anyway!” he says. “All of them bickering are one people.”

Back on the boardwalk, where the seniors get their sun, I had been prepared for the barber’s history lesson by Fayngersh. For many of her 78 years, she taught history and was prepared to give a young-ish listener a lesson right there on her bench. “Kievan Rus’, before the Tartars, that is where the Church comes from, and the Cyrillic alphabet, and everything else,” she tells me. “It was in Kiev that Vladimir the Great was baptized and Russia joined the world. In 988, over a thousand years ago! Rus’ began as a nation and as a people in the Ukraine. Of course, we Jews were already there, but that’s neither here nor there. They want to fight, they want to pour out Russian vodka, protest on the Maidan, when they all have the same grandfathers. Having seen war, I would suggest a second opinion.”

I ask Wasyl, as an influential member of his community (his family has a pew at St. George’s) if he would encourage the younger members of the Ukrainian Sports Club to join the Ukrainian army. “That is exactly what Putin wants,” he says. “Provocation. Hitler did it the same way with that radio station. The world was supposed to believe that Polish partisans attacked a German [radio] station, so that the blitzkrieg could get rolling. You think we want that in Kiev?”

In Brighton Beach there are no signs or demonstrations or anything overtly political relating to Crimea at all. But at the intersection of Second Avenue and Ninth Street there is an elaborate monument built to the struggle, composed of posters, drawings, flags, flowers and candles all stuck to a brick wall. I ask Wasyl and Lyuba who built it.

“Ah, you saw the shrine?” Wasyl finally smiles at me, despite my suspiciously long nose. “It just popped up at night. Maybe I know a few people with the talent to do it, but I wouldn’t want to be accused of vandalism. But you see, someone keeps those candles lit! And the flowers fresh! The world has not forgotten the Ukraine and that a nation is being trampled.”

It is an impressive shrine. Apparently it turned up at the same time as the protests in Kiev started, before the annexation. Once there were martyrs, the monument was plastered with their photographs and messages of support. When I visited, there was a couple there, looking adorably young and in love. They held a Ukrainian flag, blue to match their eyes, yellow to flicker with the candles they lit. Only they were Russians, not Ukrainians—students visiting New York from St. Petersburg. The Ukraine is a big cause among the young, educated and countercultural there.

“Putin brings nothing but shame to our country,” says the young man, who prefers not to be named, for the same reasons as Wasyl. I mention the old fellows of the Sports Club, and how they threw out their Russian vodka. “Then they are no longer Ukrainians,” he says. “They are rich Americans, playing at having a cause.”

Spending my days with these angry and suspicious people, I felt like I was witnessing balkanization within balkanization.

But in the spirit of the profound confusion that makes this subject so volatile, I should end with why Anna Fayngersh went to the camps in 1944 instead of 1941. She survived as a little Jewish girl for three years under Nazi occupation, sheltered by a neighbor. “She was a simple woman,” Fayngersh recalls. “Her own children died in a fire. Their hut burned down; they were peasants. So when my mother saw which way the wind was blowing with us Jews, she gave me to her for safekeeping. And this Ukrainian peasant, who did not eat a piece of bread without a prayer to her Savior, hid me for three years until I was dragged off the street. She would have been shot on sight if the SS had known. Even once I was taken in, she brought food to the children’s camp and slid it under the fence. Her fatback and bread kept a lot of Jewish children alive that winter.

“They’re worried about the Crimea? No, that’s just land. This was life.”

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