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In New York’s ‘Little Odessa,’ solidarity but also fractures over war

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In Little Odessa's historic district, Russian restaurants line the promenade with signs in Cyrillic and many shopfronts display the yellow and blue colors of Ukraine./AFP
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Mar 20, 2022 - 01:43 PM

NEW YORK — When Russia attacked Ukraine, Bobby Rakhman changed the name of his grocery store in the “Little Odessa” neighborhood of New York from Taste of Russia to International Foods out of respect for his Ukrainian neighbors.

“We felt that the name Taste of Russia was inappropriate,” the Russian-American tells AFP, adding that the switch was done “in solidarity” with Ukraine.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered armed forces into Ukraine on February 24, tension and sorrow have gripped this neighborhood in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, a tight-knit community of Russians and eastern Europeans.

Unlike at other restaurants and businesses in nearby Manhattan, Rakhman tells AFP that no one has threatened or boycotted his store, whose employees include Ukrainians with family in their native country.

“We have a mix of clientele. We haven’t had any confrontation in the store, what goes outside the store I can’t say,” he says.

But even if there haven’t been clashes between Russians and Ukrainians in Little Odessa, “People are very angry and sad,” adds the 51-year-old.

“Everyone is talking about the war”, says Rakhman, whose parents opened his store in the 1970s after arriving as refugees from the Soviet Union.

This seaside neighborhood was named after the Ukrainian city of the same name, known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea” and which today is threatened by Russian forces.

It has a high Russian-speaking population and is made up largely of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe.

Many Holocaust survivors who fled to the United States settled in the area, with Russians and Russian-speakers following after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

According to US census figures, 45 percent of Brighton Beach residents speak a Slavic language at home.

In the streets of the historic district, where Russian restaurants line the promenade, signs in Cyrillic are seen and many shopfronts display the yellow and blue colors of Ukraine. Anti-war posters have also been stuck up.

But there are signs that the conflict is causing some fractures in the community.

“We lost a lot of friends from Russia here,” explains Liliya Myronyuk, a 56-year-old Ukrainian who has lived in Little Odessa for 18 years.

“I live like in war. Every day for me is war,” she confesses, referring to the “suffering” of relatives in Ukraine, before bursting into tears.

‘Propaganda’ 

For Myronyuk, many Russians support Putin, even if “the majority of people are in favor of peace.”

Before the US government cut off Russian media, channels like RT were the only sources of news for many older people who don’t speak English.

Myronyuk admits that if she watched a few days of Russian TV then she, a Ukrainian, would end up hating Ukraine.

“It’s very strong propaganda,” she tells AFP.

Victoria Neznansky, a 60-year-old psychotherapist who came from Odessa with her parents in 1989, explains that the “Brighton Beach community has been bombarded by Russian propaganda for a long time.”

Now, she thinks, some older residents “don’t know who to believe anymore.”

“They don’t know and don’t want to know the new Ukraine, independent and free, with many hopes and inspirations. (Some) view Ukraine as a foreign western country that betrayed Russia,” says Neznansky.

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