An Essayby Lynne Sharon Schwartz
I met a Russian at a party, a large jovial man with a broad face, wearing a gray suit that looked heavily padded. Or maybe the man himself was padded. He had attractively messy fair hair and in one beefy hand he held a drink. Not vodka, one of the amber ones. He was saying that nowadays Moscow and St. Petersburg were much more desirable places to live than New York, but since he had been here for twenty years and needed to attend to his thriving medical practice, what could he do. New York is ruined, he said. Too many people. All kinds of people. In the winter he went to Florida, some beach or other, to hang out with fellow Russians in the same predicament, too successful to return.
I suggested that if he wanted to see Russians near a beach he had only to go to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.
He said, Oh no, those are not really Russians.
No? I said. Hmm.
They appeared to be Russian. They spoke Russian. They had colonized the neighborhood: all the signs were in Russian, the streets were lined with Russian restaurants and stores selling Russian food. When I walked along the boardwalk and saw the stocky people swaddled in their heavy coats against the wind coming off the ocean, the women with their hair dyed yellow or orange like my mother’s, sitting on benches gossiping, the men striding along with their bellies leading, gesticulating with the hand that held their big glowing cigars like my father’s, I was seeing my old aunts and uncles, my father’s brothers and sisters. Except my aunts and uncles had arrived decades earlier and so had learned to look and sound and dress like Americans. But they probably looked like that once. Now most of them were dead.
The Russian shook his head. When I speak Russian to those people, he said, they don’t really understand. They speak a different Russian. They’re not really Russians.