Summer brings about the requisite road trip. This week I fulfilled a required field trip to any one of us in the field of Russian studies: Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York City. After more than thirty years in this trade, it seems almost heretical to admit that I had yet to experience that small part of Russian culture. I have spent time in Russia. I went to graduate school in Seattle, which has a substantial Russian population. I even took advantage of the Russian Jewish community one Christmas day, when I ran to a Russian delicatessen in the other Brighton when I had to improvise one Christmas morning breakfast. Fresh baked bagels have never tasted so good!
This June morning took me to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York City. I went on a Sunday, because street parking is free in New York City on Sundays. I, however, miscalculated New Yorkers desire to hit the beach on a day that a typical Puerto Rican would consider too cold for the waves. There was a substantial number of bikini clad New Yorkers on the beach side of Brighton Beach to make me wonder whose standard for beach faring temperature was incorrect.
After a long search for parking, I finally got to the strip of mostly Russian shops in the Brighton Beach neighborhood. Two blocks that separated the beach from the strip seemed like a world away. Yes, Russian was the main language people spoke on the street. And, yes, there are a good number of decent Russian delicatessens.
What surprised me most was the type of Russian culture encountered in this neighborhood. This was not classical Russian culture that we come to love in our classrooms and readings. The bookstores carried more detective thrillers than Dostoevsky — the sales clerk at the one bookstore where I searched told me they did not carry any literary criticism in their stacks.
This pointed out the fact that culture does evolve. Music, language, fashion all evolve through time. A scholar tries to capture a static moment, just long enough to evaluate a particular historical situation. However, by the type the scholar finishes typing out their essay, their observations have almost certainly become dated to outdated.
So, here are some things I would say about this trip. Be adventurous — there are lots of small and large stores and eating establishments. There is not one single major American fast food outlet within sight when you get into this little bubble of Russian culture, so try something new. Worst case scenario, chase the lunch or dinner with several of the bulk chocolates available in most of the delicatessens in the neighborhood.