Brighton Beach, Brooklyn: “невидимый: A Home for Whom?”

By Daniel Bromberg • Brooklyn, NY, USA

Restaurant diners observe the Brighton Beach Pride Parade.

Hosting some of the largest pride parades and landmarks essential to LGBTQ+ history, New York City is often considered the center for LGBTQ+ culture. The cobblestones outlining the Stonewall Inn trace through the West Village and lead towards Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Past the LGBT flag infested Park Slope and Prospect Heights, however, lies South Brooklyn. Divided along Prospect Park, North and South Brooklyn exemplify the strict contrast between immigrant communities and the more affluent inhabitants of New York. I easily notice how buildings shrink and roads expand as I drive more South, but I cannot help feeling more at home as I approach the dilapidated center of New York City’s robust Russian community.

Brighton Beach boardwalk.

Visitors are often surprised when they realize how different Brighton Beach is from the communities just a few miles north. The above-ground subway provides a shadowy comfort for those seeking to enjoy the many shops Brighton has to offer. While Russian language proficiency may be needed to bargain for more elusive treats, the majority of the wares are open to most. Pre-war apartment buildings, now converted to store-fronts, line the cracked sidewalks and bustling roads. Russian Babushki (grandmothers) tighten their shawls and extend their hands, beckoning hungry souls to approach and browse their wide selection of Pirozhki (fried buns filled with meat, potatoes and cheese, to name a few). Snuggled between these eateries sit portals back to the Mother Country in the form of clothing stores and bookstores. Entering St-Petersburg bookstore transports its visitor into a Soviet-era wonderland, where as a child I would indulge in translated Harry Potter novels and Pushkin poetry books. After getting a pastry and browsing for books, I usually walk down to the boardwalk, where sand and ocean encroach onto the lively shorefront. The famous Volna and Tatiana restaurants sit adjacently on the waterfront, hosting lunches, banquets, and daily celebrations. Brighton Beach can properly be described as the epitomic center for Russian life in New York City — a community of constant feasting, drinking, and laughing.

Inside the St-Petersburg bookstore.
Brighton Beach storefronts.

But not all members of the Russian community share this view. While Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin legalized homosexual and transgender activity across the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Joseph Stalin’s later leadership re-imposed the criminalization of homosexuality with penalties of hard labor. Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s regimes effectively pushed a narrative conflating homosexuality with the decadent bourgeois ruling class. In 1984, secret police belonging to the USSR’s notorious KGB shut down efforts to organize the first official gay rights organization in the Soviet Union. Further, a 1989 poll reported that homosexuals were the most hated group in Russian society. Exposed to state propaganda, Soviet citizens largely internalized homophobic ideas, before bringing those mentalities to New York City, home to one of the largest LGBTQ+ populations in the world.

Pirozhok storefront in Brighton Beach.

Children of Soviet immigrants, exposed to the robust LGBTQ+ culture present in New York City have adopted ideals diametrically opposed to those of their families. Many identifying as LGBTQ+ have an especially difficult experience, sitting at the intersection between culture, family, and self-identity. No longer willing to sit back idly and quietly suffer oppression within their own community, LGBTQ+ identifying Soviet émigrés of a younger generation created Brighton Beach Pride. First taking place in 2017, Brighton Beach Pride aimed to break the silence in the Soviet immigrant community and bring the presence of LGBTQ+ individuals into the consciousness of its inhabitants.

Snegurachka and other figures from Russian folklore on the Brighton Beach boardwalk.

Bright Pride flags inundated the boardwalk and the space of its usual inhabitants, the elderly immigrants and beach-goers. Pride-goers trekked down the wooden planks, armed with signs in Cyrillic refuting hate and exclusion. No longer could exclusively Russian-speakers ignore the presence of LGBTQ+ individuals in their community. Proud LGBT Soviets, ready to come out of the shadows, marched. Some were dressed in their ordinary attire, while others downed gowns meant to resemble those of characters in Russian folklore. Men dressed as Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) attracted the gaze of the unsuspecting community. The 2017 Pride Parade interrupted the waterside view afforded to the patrons of Tatyana and Volna. Nonetheless, the aura of solidarity protected those in the space against the exclusionary shouts and glares made by homophobic community members. Together, by taking a stand against hatred and exclusion, Soviet LGBTQ+ identifying individuals reclaimed their culture, their space, and their birthright to both culture and sexuality, irrevocably changing the dynamic of the insular Brighton Beach community forever. Miles north, from Prospect Park to Hell’s Kitchen, LGBTQ+ individuals and allies stood in solidarity, uniting all of New York City under an aura of inclusion and acceptance — if only for a brief moment.

An organizer leads Pride-goers down the Brighton Beach boardwalk.

About the Writer: Daniel Bromberg is from Brooklyn, NY. He is a junior majoring in Industrial and Labor Relations with a minor in Russian. Daniel’s favorite city is New York City as he values the diversity of cultures, perspectives, and great foods inhabiting every neighborhood of the sprawling city. He can be reached at dsb283@cornell.edu.


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