Changing Face of Brighton Beach

Central Asians Join Russian Jews in Brooklyn Neighborhood

New Faces: Once known as a predominantly Jewish enclave, Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach is now home to a large number of Central Asians. The newcomers fit in well because they also speak Russian, a vestige of their shared Soviet past.
anna kordunsky
New Faces: Once known as a predominantly Jewish enclave, Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach is now home to a large number of Central Asians. The newcomers fit in well because they also speak Russian, a vestige of their shared Soviet past.

By Michael Larson, Bingling Liao, Ariel Stulberg and Anna Kordunsky

Published September 17, 2012.
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Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood last March hosted a celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Held at the National, a sprawling, glitzy entertainment palace off Brighton Beach Avenue, the celebration attracted an enthusiastic crowd of immigrants from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Under stage lights flashing red and green, lavishly costumed performers danced and sang to tunes from the Central Asian steppes.

Covering the event was a video crew from Uz TV and radio Uzbegim, two new media outlets targeting local Central Asian audiences. The director of both, wearing a black-and-gold-striped vest at the party, was Ilkhom Kenjabaev 42, the Uz TV director who moved to the United States 12 years ago from Uzbekistan.

The crowd represents the changing face of Brighton Beach. Once known primarily as a Russian-Jewish enclave, the neighborhood over the past two decades has taken on a more diverse mien as a new wave of Russian-speaking immigrants has chosen to call the area home. These newcomers are drawn by the gravitational pull of the common Russian language, which is itself a legacy of the Soviet education system.

“In school, we were educated in two languages,” Kenjabaev said, referring to Uzbek and Russian. “Our second language was Russian. What I like most about Brighton Beach is that everybody speaks it.”

Many of the newest arrivals, like Kenjabaev, are from the “stans,” the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. Motivated to emigrate by the lack of economic opportunity and the civil clashes that erupted in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, they found in Brighton Beach a community that, though different from what they left behind, still offered some sense of linguistic and cultural familiarity.

“In Soviet times, as you know, there was no separation among the peoples,” Kenjabaev said. “They were all Soviet citizens: the Ukrainians, the Belarusians, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks. Russian language was their connection. The reason they come here, to Brighton Beach, is that Russian still ties them together.”

It is their knowledge of Russian that allows these newcomers to quickly acquire a support network and to find work, even for those who speak no English. For Kenjabaev, the unifying pull of Russian is what keeps him financially afloat through his work as a wedding photographer, which is the main source of income for both himself and his fledgling TV station. Most of his clients are from the former Soviet republics. So are his suppliers, advertisers and film crew.

Yet while the Central Asians who are arriving today find a Russian-speaking community already in place, it was not always this way.


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