By Maria Caspani and Jonathan Allen
NEWYORK – In just one day, Inga Sokolnikova filled two rooms in her beauty salon in New York City’s Brighton Beach with donated diapers, clothes and medical supplies for her native country of Ukraine.
Donations poured in not only from Ukrainian and Ukrainian American residents of this diverse waterfront neighborhood in south Brooklyn, but also from Russians as well as Georgians, Uzbeks and Azerbaijanis.
“All the people from our part of the world, they all gather things, bring them here, without much thinking. They are spending their own money and they bring things here,” said Sokolnikova, 48, fighting back tears as she recounted how Russian bombings in Kyiv forced her brother into a bunker for days.
The war in Ukraine has shaken Brighton Beach, a neighborhood filled with Cyrillic signage where residents from Russia and a slew of former Soviet Union countries have been living side by side for decades following waves of immigration beginning in the 1970s, earning it the nickname Little Odessa.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine less than two weeks ago has stirred complicated emotions, but many Ukrainians here said the community has come together to support them.
“There is no tension,” said Yelena Makhnin, the executive director of the Brighton Beach Improvement District. “If you’re human you should be Ukrainian today.”
Makhnin, 60, said she did not sleep for days as friends ensnared in the conflict flooded her phone with calls and texts. She leaned on her Russian husband of 14 years for support.
“He knows, he understands. He’s not talking a lot about it to me,” she said. “But he comes, he sits next to me, he holds my hand all the time.”
Irina Roizin, a 63-year-old Ukrainian American, worried about unfounded prejudice spreading against Russians, and she wondered whether she should rebrand the ballet school she founded in Brighton Beach almost 30 years ago.
The Brighton Ballet Theater describes itself as a “school of Russian American Ballet,” something Roizin hoped people would understand referred only to the teaching techniques advanced by celebrated Russian ballerina Agrippina Vaganova.
“We cannot take Russian composers like Tchaikovsky out of our lives,” she said, making a point of distinguishing the Russian people from their government. “I don’t want this war to make people angry at Russia the way COVID made a lot of people angry about China.”
Ukrainian flags hang from many businesses, and donation drives in support of Ukrainians have sprung up across the neighborhood and beyond. The Russian American Officers Association, which represents Russian-speaking officers in the New York Police Department, has set up donation boxes in station houses across the city, seeking first-aid kits, gauze, ibuprofen tablets and tourniquets to send to eastern Europe.
In a room at the back of Brighton Beach’s Guardian Angel Roman Catholic Church, women sorted through cardboard boxes and plastic bags filled with donations: ramen noodles, dried pasta, toothpaste, tampons, multicolored jumbles of clothing and at least one gas mask.
They planned to ship it to contacts in Poland who would help distribute it across the border in Ukraine. The effort was organized by parents and staff at a nearby Saturday school for Ukrainian children and parishioners at the church, where homilies can be heard in Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish and English.
Sergiy Emanuel, the church’s multilingual priest, summoned up pictures on his phone sent by a friend in Zhytomyr, the Ukrainian city of his childhood, that showed a bombed-out school building. He said he had received calls of support and donations from people he knew to be of Russian origin from their accent.
“People are shy to say they’re from Russia,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh, we’re from here.’ They must be afraid to say they are from Russia. Why? Because of one crazy man?”
The women sorting the donations thought their efforts seemed modest. But it felt better than doing nothing and was a distraction from the limbo of worrying about family and friends in Ukraine. Several described the panic they felt when they tried calling a loved one and there was no answer.
“The worst is when here it’s day and there it’s night,” said Iuliia Dereka, a 33-year-old teacher at the Saturday school. “We just pray for them to wake up and give us a call.”