Russian New York: Snapshots of Lives
By Maria Kostaki
"The Russians are Coming! The Russians Are Here!" read a headline in The New York Times on September 7th, 1980, a reference to the wave of immigrants from the Soviet Union then settling on the shores of Brooklyn's Brighton Beach. Their arrival during the late 1970s and early 1980s revived a forgotten, rundown neighborhood on the shores of the Atlantic. Their arrival was the third and largest of the century-the first occurred after the Russian Revolution, and the second, after the Second World War. Those arriving as of the early 1970s were largely Jews, escaping religious persecution, under an agreement between Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter. Half of the 70,000 Russians that came to the United States, settled in New York City, establishing a Russian enclave in Brighton Beach.
Brighton Beach in the 80s and well into the 90s, looked like a scene out of a movie. Women walked around in furs and babushkas, men played chess on the boardwalk, vendors sold pickled tomatoes and caviar on the sidewalks, and newsstands were weighed down with an array of Russian papers. Most residents were on welfare entitled to them as religious refugees, most were granted citizenship, but a dense cloud of Soviet tradition hung over the new immigrant community. Most Russians rarely left the enclave, very few spoke English, and few showed a desire to assimilate. As a result, the sparse information that reached the outside world was either a stereotype or had to do with the infamous mob.
But as Brighton Beach reaches its quarter-century anniversary, much of the old world slowly extinguishes. After the fall of communism, Russians continued to leave the crumbling country, posing not only as Jews but also as economic refugees, adding a new flavor to the existing community. Today, 250,000 Russians live in New York City, over 40,000 of them in Brighton, Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay, and are slowly spilling into the environs. The stereotype lifestyle is slowly fading, though always lingering in the margins, but leaving room on center stage for a rising immigrant community whose presence is about to be felt in New York City after 25 years of relative silence.
One Russian that is making clamor in New York is Roman Vnoukov, an interior designer from Belarus who was part of the immigrant wave of the 1990s. A persistent intrusion into his life has provided a long and strong stare into a part of a community unknown to the outside world.
Roma Vnoukov paces and swirls around the unfinished ballroom of the Baku restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, hands out to the side, dark curls bouncing behind him.
"What don't you understand? What do you mean it is crooked?" he barks in Russian at the floor man laying oak parquet blocks. "Please, please, give me that to me, I'll show you." He snatches the meter out of the man's hand, and as if fencing with an invisible opponent, begins measuring the floor himself with deft grace and speed.
Vnoukov has planned, sketched, built, and decorated more than 2,000 interiors in New York City and New Jersey in the past 10 years. His clientele ranges from famous surgeons to middle class housewives. One of his clients refuses to hang a toilet paper holder without his opinion and another blindly trusts him to design his brand new penthouse as he pleases, while one of the biggest contractors in Brooklyn, has labeled him the best in his field. Vnoukov has plans to extend his business to Miami while contemplating recent offers to design a restaurant in Paris and two Moscow hotels.
Vnoukov spent three-and-a-half years at the university in Minsk, Belarus, training to be an actor. He never formally studied interior design.
"I just went to the library, opened books and learned how to do everything," he explains, finger reading the words on a make-believe book in his lap.
"What do you mean, you just went to the library and learned?" I asked. He stared at me puzzled and a little annoyed.
"I mean what I say. I went to the library, opened the books and figured out how everything worked," he explains slowly but rather loudly, stressing the last syllable of every word. "I wanted to learn about brick laying, I read about brick laying. I wanted to learn about plumbing, I read about plumbing. I wanted to learn about electrical systems, I read about electrical systems. And then I practiced whatever I read about. That's all."
Listening to Vnoukov tell his story, sounds like too much of a beach novel-a man has a hobby, explores it, moves to America and 'makes it.' It's too good to be true at first, but by the end of the encounter he has you comfortably smiling at the way he embodies the great secret of all success stories: passion.
"When I was in seventh grade, I had a dream," says Vnoukov, now 37. "I wanted to spit from the top of the Empire State Building. If I could do that, then all of my dreams would come true. At that time in the Soviet Union, going to space was a more realistic aspiration."
Even before he began to dream of a life in New York, Vnoukov spent his free time sketching designs of cars and religiously read the pages of an American automobile trade magazine. It was on the basis of these sketches that at the age of 17, he landed a job at a large construction company in Minsk.
Working for someone else left him frustrated and bored, so he decided to follow in his parents' footsteps and study acting. (Vnoukov's mother is a theater professor and father is a director.) A call to the draft for the war in Afghanistan interrupted his studies. After the service he went back to university quitting one semester shy of his degree. Meanwhile, he was already designing interiors in smaller towns around Minsk, a passion reborn through a design of a cabinet for a superior's office in the army.
At 22, he entered a competition for the reconstruction of an old area of Minsk and came in third, earning himself a place on the committee of architects that was to oversee the project. A few years and many interiors later, he was a rich man by Russian standards, but still clinging tight to that seventh grade dream.
Vnoukov is a strong believer in fate. In 1991 his sister married a Russian Jew and emigrated to the United States. A few months later she sent Vnoukov an invitation to visit so he could apply for the visa. He packed and went to exchange his rubles for dollars, the government announced a monetary reform, in an effort to crack down on illegal businesses. All bills of 50 rubles and higher were declared void. Since putting your hard-earned money into a Soviet bank was not an option, most people kept their savings at home. And those who had substantial funds under the mattress obviously did not keep their rubles in one-note denominations. Vnoukov arrived penniless at JFK.
The next morning his sister gave him five dollars and drove him to Manhattan. He climbed to the top of the Empire State and after a few minutes of dodging the suspicious watch of a security guard, leaned over the railing and spit.
"I just felt this sudden power coming into me, this feeling of total elevation, I was flying," he says raising his hands to the ceiling. "After that all my dreams began to come true."
Not immediately, however. Vnoukov spent the next week walking around Brooklyn, reciting the first English phrase that his brother-in-law taught him: "I look a job." First he washed cars for $3 an hour and in his free time explored Manhattan by bicycle.
"I would ride down Belt Parkway and people would look at me from their cars like I was crazy," he recalls, laughing at himself.
Then he landed a job as a night watchman at a construction site in Brooklyn, where he met a contractor named Misha. "We talked since I was always there and I told him about my career in Russia," Vnoukov recalls. "And one day I told him that I know how to make the perfect ceiling in this room. He gave me the day off and $50 to buy art supplies. I went home, worked all night and produced not only a sketch, but a model of the ceiling." The owner of the house saw things differently, Misha didn't give up hope. He took Vnoukov to a house were the architect had not been able to please the owners in the six months he had been working with them.
"I went home and in one night planned out the entire house. The owners loved it. I spoke no English and I just watched them nod and smile to Misha." Vnoukov had been in New York for one month at that point. He was 26.
Odd jobs followed. Vnoukov drew a mural on the wall of a nail salon, three months work for $100, and watched others work to familiarize himself with new materials and U.S. system of measurement. He also continued to work with Misha, who had a furniture factory in Queens, and asked Vnoukov to design some pieces. And slowly, actual clients began to surface.
Vnoukov is a workaholic. He spends his day driving from house to house--his two cell phones never leave his hand-and spends endless nights sketching at his home in Park Slope.
"People look at me like I'm crazy when I say that I can work in all styles. I can do traditional, modern, art nouveau, a mixture of all," he says showing me around a penthouse in Brighton Beach's Oceana complex. "And because I never went to college for interior design, I leave my own personal touch on every interior I do. Every project is different. But I would like to go back to school now and learn a detailed history of all the architectural movements, to understand where every little detail comes from," he says.
"I believe that it is all in the ceiling," he continues. "It's the only part of a room that is always naked. It's never covered by anything. The floor is covered by a carpet, by furniture. The walls are hidden by paintings, posters. But the ceiling, it's always bare."
Our time is interrupted by a phone call from Los Angeles. He runs off to catch a plane to assess a new job proposal from people who have never met him, never seen his work, but heard of him through a friend. I go to the Empire State Building to spit.
A Day Off
Lena and I sat cross-legged, huddled under a wool blanket on top of a picnic table.
"You tell me Masha, who would not want to come to America?" she said, nodding her head with a trace of sadness.
The egg yolk winter sun twinkled behind the trees that surround a small lake at the foot of Bear Mountain, and began to make its way towards the horizon.
We had been on the road since early morning. Everyone had arranged to take a day off from busy lives and there was to be no talk of work. It was the last pleasant day before winter kicked in, Lena's brother Roma had explained, and they were off to feel some soil under their feet. Moist, cold soil under my feet. That was all it took to convince me to come along, so long as I could be back in Manhattan to make my six-o'clock class.
I climbed into a car of laughter. Laughter that did not cease until fifteen-and-a-half hours later. Lena drove with a huge smile on her face, with Vladimir next to her, both babbling uncontrollably. I sat in the back seat inundated by schoolbooks, the New York Times, and my jacket to hail off the freezing air coming through the open windows as we sped towards the Triborough Bridge. Meanwhile Roma next to me, dexterously maneuvered first one ringing phone to his ear, then the other.
"Yes, yes, I am coming, 15 minutes," he yelled.
"Mash, you want some coffee?" Lena asked handing me her cup. I shook my head and kept my eyes on the Metro Section. Vladimir, a blonde, blue-eyed, lean 35-year old friend of Lena's, looked out the window at the overcast sky in his dark shades. Soon the three of them began to argue about which route to take, which CD to play, compete for the best joke, until we finally arrived in the driveway of our first destination. A villa in New Jersey, straight out of a 1970s movie. The interior, however, was being turned into a state-of-the-art residence. Roma took us on a tour of the house and then disappeared into a room with one of the members of the working crew to instruct on positioning of wall fabric. Apparently, Roma's concept of a day off differs from mainstream understanding.
Lena and Vladimir were roaming around by the pool.
"Hey Vladimir," Lena yelled from behind one of the bars.
"Do you think they left any liquor back here?" Finding nothing, she made her way to the next bar. When there was nothing left to explore and the cold became uncomfortable, I followed them back to the car to wait for Roma. They popped open two Budweisers and began to make plans of what they were going to steal from the open garage.
We finally left with no stolen goods. The road cut through a rainbow of pink, yellow, red, and green trees. Russian pop songs were blasting on the stereo and Lena and Vladimir faced eachother and sang the words louder than the speakers could play them, dancing in their seats. Roma continued to recite his infinite repertoire of jokes, and the singers paused their song to laugh boisterously at each punchline. The rear tires of the Toyota Camry made a frightening noise, bouncing the back of the car. Somewhere on a bridge the battery light flashed red.
"Oh, it's nothing, the belt probably snapped," Roma said as if we just simply needed to fill up the gas tank, and not that something major had just gone wrong with the old car in the middle of nowhere.
"Sistra, is there a wine and vodka store on the way?" he asked his sister. (Russians refer to liquor stores as literally, places that sell wine and vodka.) I began to worry a little. It was only one in the afternoon, I had to be back in Manhattan in five hours and I had already witnessed what may have turned into a mini-robbery, watched the driver of the vehicle drink a beer, ignored the battery warning and now there was talk of liquor stores.
We drove down a windy road into the town of Cold Springs a few minutes later. Our first stop was at the wine and vodka store. Then all four of us used the bathroom in a gas station where we also bought plastic glasses, plates and forks for our picnic, and ended up parking underneath a "Car Repair" sign. While the mechanic buried himself in the Camry's engine, my three Russians opened the boot, whipped out the bread, salami, and parsley, began making sandwiches, and ordered me to pour the vodka.
I laughed. Great joke. We had already attracted a group of passer-bys who curiously stretched their necks to see what we were doing, and now they wanted to wash the salami down with vodka while the elderly man filled his gas tank next to us. Funny. They chewed and stared at me, waiting, understanding but not acknowledging my hesitation. Then it hit me. Either I pour the vodka discreetly or they are bound to put the glasses in a row on the car's roof and distribute it in that manner, for all residents of Cold Springs to see. I pulled out three glasses, felt their glares burning into my back, took another out of the pack, and surrounding them with plastic bags in the boot dripped the clear white liquid into the styrofoam.
"To us!" Lena announced as the rims of our glasses met. The moment the vodka touched my lips, and slid down my throat, I felt it run down my esophagus, and burn the lining of my stomach. The mechanic suddenly appeared next to us asking something that I do not recall, because not only did he see the red Smirnoff bottle, but so did the man that was filling up his tank. I walked across the street and lit a cigarette.
Roma, who had now tightly tied a black leather scarf around his head, red star in the center, followed me, wondering what was wrong.
"I needed a cigarette," I explained.
"Oh. Is my star straight?" he asked adjusting the headgear. I nodded and he began answering his cell phones. By the time I stumped the butt out on the pavement, Lena and Vladimir were frantically waving at us from across the street. I walked back to the car and sunk into the seat. My stomach lining was still burning, and my head felt a little lighter than it usually does on a Tuesday afternoon.
As we drove off, the music played louder, and Roma switched off his phones and joined into the singing.
Finally arriving at the picnic area, we carried the blankets, coal, meat, pickles, tomatoes, bread, vodka, cranberry, and coke down a small steep path and into an opening with four picnic tables and a barbecue. Below us, behind two immense rocks, was a lake.
"What do you think?" Lena asked me. "This is my favorite place in New York, I come here all the time to get away." A soft, chilly wind rustled the red and yellow leaves. I took off my shoes and sunk my feet into the cold soil.
Behind me, Roma was involved in recording the event, digital camera in one hand, video camera in the other.
Lena began sliding the meat onto skewers, Vladimir wandered around.
"Masha, come take a picture of me," Roma said, posing in front of the barbecue.
I was assigned the drink pouring chore again which suited me just fine since I could control the amount of alcohol that was going into my glass, heavily diluting it with cranberry juice while nobody noticed.
As we drank, Lena pulled a piece of pork off the skewer and began to chew. Roma spotted the offense and tried snatching the meat out of her mouth. The two began a game of chase, Lena running with the meat in between her teeth until Roma caught her by the arm, grabbed her head and snatched it out of her mouth with his teeth.
Then Vladimir and Roma suddenly disappeared into the forest. I sat shivering on top a picnic table. Lena came toward me with another piece of half-cooked meat. After trying to force me to take a bite or lick it for a good five minutes, she gave up on my vegetarian soul, and finally took the liberty to share a bit of hers.
She first got married at 17 in Minsk in the Belarus, gave birth to her first son, and studied nursing. The first marriage lasted as long as most of first love episodes of our lives do, remarried and had two more children. Her husband spent a lot of time away from home, working in other cities. While he was away she went to a bar with a friend and met Misha. Misha was on his way to America, as a Jewish refugee, and he had already signed on another woman and her child for a price, to go with him. A few days later Lena got news of her husband's murder. "They shot him. Just like that. I borrowed money from Misha for the funeral and then he said, 'Come with me to America.' But he had already taken the money from the other woman. The next week we went to Moscow, got married, fixed my papers, and here I am," she said taking a sip of my drink, having finished hers. "Mashka, are you drinking straight juice?" she asked frowning with disapproval and went to fetch the bottle.
"So you tell me Masha, who would not want to come to America?"
As she refilled our glasses Vladimir and Roma came hopping gaily down the path, grabbed the bottle away from us and finished it off. The sun had set a long time ago, the coals under the meat had stopped sending heat our way, and it was freezing. We gathered our belongings and began our drive to Manhattan to make it in time for my class.
Two hours later we were not in Manhattan. Lena and Vladimir, after taking a little nap in the back seat, had come back to life and began looking for the vermouth bottle. Roma brought the car to a halt at a red light. When it flashed green and we were moving down the dark road, Lena began laughing hysterically. The boot of the car was open and Vladimir was jumping up and down, waving his arms in the middle of the road a few hundred feet back. The vermouth bottle had disappeared so we stopped at a gas station to get some beer. The man behind the counter laughed shamelessly at my "how far are we from Manhattan?" query.
"About three hours," he said. "This is Kent, Connecticut. But you're about an hour away from Boston if you're interested. And we don't sell beer."
By the time we reached the Triborough Bridge it was midnight and snowflakes gently showered the windshield. I was shivering and chain smoking, stressing about the class I had missed. Lena and Vladimir complained about the dryness of their throats and sang to the CD that was on automatic replay. Roma had not spoken a word in three hours.
As we pulled up in front of my house, everyone decided to come over for a pit stop before heading off to the far corners of Brooklyn. My head was heavy as I manically began to check my email while the others sipped on beers and watched me.
An hour later, as I held open my front door and they waved goodbye, Vladimir took my face in his hands and said, "Masha, let me ask you something. Here are two scenarios. Scenario one: today you went to class. Scenario two: today you went on a picnic with us. Which one of the two are you going to remember and smile at on your deathbed?"
Marina was out of control. She called non-stop.
"Romachka sweetheart, please come help me," she pleaded into the telephone. "Sweetheart, I need you to help me decide where to hang everything in the bathrooms. The man is coming tomorrow and I have no idea! But first come help me choose the lamps."
In her mid-50s, Marina owns a small store, "Marina's Clothing" on Brighton Beach Avenue. Her husband passed away a few years back, leaving her with a satisfactory bank account and a house in Manhattan Beach. A house that she is now selling and moving to the new coolest place to be: Brighton Beach's Oceana condominium and club. Romachka, or Roma as he is named out of the diminutive, has been hired to design the new apartment.
Oceana is a complex of 15 luxury apartment buildings, now upping cache as well as real estate values along the Brighton beachfront. The eight seven-story buildings now complete are 90 percent occupied stands on the grounds of the old Brighton Beach Baths and condos. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the Brighton Baths were a daytrip summer retreat for Manhattanites desperate to escape the city's noise and heat with a day by the shore, but since the Club's demise about five years ago, cranes and bulldozers have been working round the clock. Today, an average two-bedroom sells for $400,000 and a penthouse for $1 million. And an average 60 percent of the inhabitants bear Russian names.
Marina's boyfriend, Gena, stands smoking outside the lamp store and blankly smiles as we walk past him. Marina flips through the catalogues inside. A plump, short woman, she is dressed in black velvet jogging pants, a black loose top, and black pointy sneakers with the Chanel logo on the toes. She clings to a matching Chanel bag.
Roma pulls up in front of a lamp store in Brooklyn.
"Oh, Romachka, sweetheart, there you are. Come help me out here," she says. Gena strolls into the store and stands over Marina's shoulder as she leafs through the pages.
"Oh, that looks like a nice one," he mumbles. She throws a glare over her shoulder and he backs off.
Marina's apartment is a two-floor, two-bedroom. The first floor, at Marina's request, has been designed with a Versace theme. The molding around the living room ceiling bears the Greek key design as does the thick gold border on the bathroom sink. Versace's face stares from the gold wall lamps in the living room from beneath the candle-shaped bulb.
Gena walks into the apartment hidden behind four large blue boxes. All of them carry the Versace stamp.
"Gena, open them and bring them here," Marina yells from the bathroom as Gena begins to unfold the bathroom accessories. First come the two gold soap dishes bearing Versace's face.
"Romachka, where do you think these should go?" Marina asks in the bathroom. "Here, stick this in the spot so the workmen will know where to drill tomorrow," she says giving Roma a roll of blue tape.
After they mark the spot for the soap dishes, Gena opens the next box. Inside is a gold toilet brush, Versace's face on the cover. Marina stands it next to the toilet bowl and takes two steps back. She then moves it a few inches to the right, looks at Roma, nods, and orders him to stick a piece of blue tape on the wall.
Next come the gold towel bars, then the toilet paper holder, both gold but without Versace's countenance. Marina sits on the toilet seat and pretends that she is reaching for the paper.
"Do you think here is good?" she asks.
"I don't know Marina," Roma answers, "what if someone taller were to sit down?"
Gena and I are summoned into the tiny bathroom for our input. Door closed, the four of us squeeze past eachother and take turns sitting on the toilet seat to decide which would be the best spot to hang the toilet paper holder.
An hour and two more bathrooms later we shut the apartment door behind us, leaving the Versace shrine spotted with blue tape polkadots.
"You see, these people have money, but they just don't have class," Roma says explains. "Remember the Mila's house? Well, it's the same thing."
"I was wondering who could be knocking on my door like that," said smiling Mila, wagging her stout forefinger at Roma, reaching the height of his chest. "Come, come see what they have done to me," she waved us into her tenth-floor apartment in Rego Park.
The place smelled of new furniture and varnish. Clean rain-washed air wafted in through the open window. Sheets of cardboard covered the sparkling wooden floors, taped down carefully to avoid any damage. The walls were of a rough light yellow texture. Little spotlights lined the kitchen ceiling in two neat rows of five. An over-sized dining room table stood in the middle of the room, at which an elderly lady sat playing with her fingers, rocking back and forth, letting out deep sighs every few seconds. The distress was rooted in the size of the dining table. Ordered from Italy, (less expensive than buying European furniture in America), the store had sent the wrong table. To exchange it would leave Mila without an essential piece of furniture for at least two months.
"How can we send it back?" Mila's mother said. "They will come here, pack it, take it back to Italy. Then ship the other one. Oh, oh, what is she going to do?"
Mila had an idea. She removed the tablecloth exposing a calligraphic design at the table's center.
"Look, here, we can cut the center out and put it back together," she said.
"Oh, no, no, Milachka, that will take away all the beauty," the mother replied. Roma had gotten on his knees and was checking out the technical possibilities of the idea.
When that got boring attention was turned to a huge classical buffet that stood against the window on the other side of the room. At its center stood a vase. It was in shape of a bouquet of roses, its stems fluorescent green, and its blossoms fluorescent pink.
"Romachka," said Mila, walking over to the cupboard, proudly brushing the air with her hand a foot away from the vase like a television salesgirl. "What do you think of this glorious piece of art?"
"Milachka, it's horrible," he replied without a second thought.
Mila's jaw dropped and she stood speechless for a moment.
"But Romachka, it cost $4,000!"
Roma led her to the bathroom where the real problem lay.
I remained in the living room with Mila's mother, staring at the huge, thin, state-of-the-art TV screen where an interview with a 100-year-old Jewish Russian lady was being aired.
"How old did they say she is?" the grandmother asked me.
"One hundred." She sighed.
"So, I don't know what Milachka will do about this table," she said stroking it. "She's been crying all night, I've been crying."
I looked past her into the bedroom, thick pink and white vertical stripes lined the walls behind the immense wooden bed. Somewhere beyond I could hear the water running. Relieved that the shower was working after all, and initiated by the sound of running water, I made my way into the hallway, catching my image in the huge gold wall mirror, as I went to use the guest bathroom. I switched on the light and had to close my eyes. Bright, sparkling yellow gold was everywhere. The taps, the cabinet knobs, the doorknob, even a thin sheet of gold metal that covered the toilet paper were plated with 18-karat gold.
A few minutes later, Roma convinced Mila that there was no reason to have cold water in the shower and left despite her pleas to stay for cake and tea.