The 1970s Russian main street
April 23, 2006 6:37 PM   Subscribe

The 1970s Russian main street was filled with small, grimy stores stocked with ethnic food and kept by unfriendly laconic storekeepers. However, since then this "closed world, one full of sour looks, suspicion, and hopelessly outdated fashion" has disappeared. [more inside]
posted by gregb1007 (15 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The ethic fashions and foods have given way in Russia to more varied international/cosmopolitan offerings - suburban malls and fashion boutiques that stock clothes from Western Europe and sushi bars and pizzerias whose origin is also foreign rather than local. So where does should a person go to encounter the old non-cosmopolitan, ethnic-only shopping atmosphere of the 70s? To New York City's Brighton Beach, "a place frozen in time.. in the eastern part of Brooklyn's Coney Island peninsula. Settled by Soviet immigrants from the 70s, the Brighton Beach era neighborhood retained that era's culture in its shopping amenities. The NY article calls 'Brighton Beach is a cartoon of Russia,' said Mr. Merenzon. 'The stores are too Russian. You can't find them in Russia anymore. It hasn't changed since the 1970's. It's like a museum.'

According to Vitaly Vitaliev's travel report, the neighborhood has retained two features of the Soviet shopping experience: rudeness and long lines. Here's a description of the shopkeeper's Soviet era hostile attitude towards customers: "The whole scene struck me as utterly un-American, for in the USA, according to "The Americans. A Study in National Character" by Geoffrey Gorer, even "the smallest purchase should be accompanied by a smile, and the implied assurance that the vendor is delighted and privileged to serve you…" The people did not smile in the Gastronom, where the facial expressions fluctuated between the uncomplaining indifference of the customers and "the implied assurance" of the vendor that she had a personal vendetta against everyone in the queue ..."
posted by gregb1007 at 6:41 PM on April 23, 2006

A friend of mine from China was shocked at how "dirty" Chinatown in New York was.
posted by delmoi at 6:53 PM on April 23, 2006

delmoi, I actually wonder what people who have immigrated have China think of American Chinatowns. The Chinese food in America was brought up over in successive waves beginning with the 1880s, so I assume that what we call Chinese food is based on late 19th/early20th century Chinese dishes, many of which have probably changed or dare I say, even disappeared from Chinese cuisine.. (Of course, we have to keep in mind that much of the Chinese food was never in China from the first place, but was invented by Chinese immigrants to cater to American tastes.)
posted by gregb1007 at 6:57 PM on April 23, 2006

I've heard referance to Chinese food actualy changing very slowly over the years (in China), don't know how accurate that is, but if my source is correct traditional chinese food changes over the course of centuries, where (for example) a Mongolian variation on a particular dish that has been around for a few hundred years would still be considered "new". Take with a tablespoon of salt mind you
posted by edgeways at 8:43 PM on April 23, 2006

random wikipediating
posted by delmoi at 9:10 PM on April 23, 2006

Chinese food migrates in the other direction as well, starting with foreign tourists asking for what they expect, and progressing to locals picking up on it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:13 PM on April 23, 2006

Interesting. But the distinction should be made: the nytimes article has a good deal of young Russians unfavorably comparing to Brighton Beach to Moscow.

This seems vaguely ridiculous, as Brighton Beach is way the hell far away from the center of Manhattan and its money. A bit unfair to compare it to the streets of Moscow and not, y'know, a suburb of Kiev, or even a smaller town in the Russian federation. I haven't been to Russia since '89, but from what friends have told me, as always, living conditions in Moscow are not representative of the rest of the country.
posted by Football Bat at 9:14 PM on April 23, 2006

I was thinking the same thing Football.

While the Russian MBA student is in itself rather cliche, I doubt that they are very representative of most people in the "mother country."

Although the phenomenon of close knit, immigrant communities clinging to the past is very interesting and worthy of study, the article falls short.
posted by pwedza at 10:52 PM on April 23, 2006

'Give me poor serivce, will you? Do you have any idea who I am?'
posted by Space Coyote at 1:03 AM on April 24, 2006

the article falls short

Why—because it doesn't take the slant you'd take? It's a good article, accurately capturing one aspect of the neighborhood and a common reaction among people from Russia. I've spent a lot of time in Brighton Beach, and I love it, but my only experience in Russia was in fact in the '70s; I'd feel like a fish out of water there now, I imagine.

As for the "Moscow is the capital, BB is just a part of Brooklyn" thing, you don't seem to understand that until very recently, BB was the capital of Russian America, just as Astoria is of Greek America. It was the only part of New York most Russians knew anything about, it was where they headed for if they got a chance to visit New York, and of course they compare it to Moscow. If you have a beef with that, take it up with the Russians, not with the reporter, who is... reporting.
posted by languagehat at 4:51 AM on April 24, 2006

Friends of mine who moved to NYC from Russia have told me the same things about Brighton Beach: "What is up with this place? It's like a timewarp." They seem kind of embarrassed by the place.

And one link post to a Times article from October 2003? Why? This is an interesting topic, but as a post, it deserves better.
posted by Gamblor at 7:59 AM on April 24, 2006

Gamblor, in case you haven't noticed, there's also a link to Vitaly Vitaliev's travel report in the 3rd paragraph of the writeup.
posted by gregb1007 at 8:25 AM on April 24, 2006

I saw it, and read it, as well. It just didn't add much. The travel report mainly stated that you can get Russian goods in a Russian immigrant neighborhood, which isn't surprising, and that in Brighton Beach there's rude service and you have to check your bags in stores. That's true of lots of places in NYC, and not unique to that neighborhood.

What's missing is photographs of Little Odessa, photographs of the people, explanations of why the neighborhood and the styles haven't changed in 30 years, comparisons with modern Russia, etc. There are lots of immigrant neighborhoods in NYC. What makes this one unique and why?

As I said previously, I think this is a very interesting topic for a post. I'd just like to see more than a 2.5 yr old Times article about how times haven't changed. You do see the irony in that, don't you?
posted by Gamblor at 9:01 AM on April 24, 2006

Gamblor, the rude service though is noteworthy because it was a staple of the 1970s Soviet Shopping experience certainly validates the "time warp" point. I also sympathize with your wanting to read a more recent article on the topic, but unfortunately this is the most recent that I have found. It may be just possible that the New York Times and other local newspapers don't care to profile Brighton Beach every year. For that reason, the next "updated" snapshot of the neighborhood may not appear until a couple of years later, if not a whole decade later. If someone else would find something very recent, I'd love to read it.
posted by gregb1007 at 9:17 AM on April 24, 2006

Actually, there's a lot of money and power in Brighton Beach. Not as much as there used to be, but it's still there if you know where to look. Seeing it as a "little" Moscow is pretty normal.
posted by nixerman at 9:19 AM on April 24, 2006

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