The disco lights are spinning. The crowd is on their feet and clapping to the pulsing beat of Celine Dion’s “I’m alive!” and grandma Polina Vockoboynik—with the help of her backup grandma dancers—is executing her ribbon dance routine with panache.
Her audience is a boisterous crowd of families: more than 300 children, grandchildren, and friends of 12 competing grandmas hailing from all stretches of the former Soviet empire. But there are three people Vockoboynik must impress the most—three grandpas squeezed behind one table strewn with voting ballots and an array of Russian appetizers known as zakuski, mulling her score.
It’s the 17th annual Your Highness Grandmother Pageant, and it feels as if all of Brighton Beach–the beating heart of New York’s Russian-speaking community — has put on their finest to show up, cheer on grandma, and let loose. The sea-side community nicknamed “Little Odessa” has been absorbing waves of immigrants from the former Soviet Union since the 1970’s and now is home to one of the largest Russian-speaking populations in the West. Among the vivacious grandmas on stage are a 92-year-old pianist, a Holocaust survivor who loves comedy, a former nurse, and a self-taught violinist. All have stories to tell.
What are the competition requirements?
“Be a grandmother,” says Raisa Chernina, a grandmother herself and Executive Director of the Be Proud Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to unite the region's Russian-speaking population and connect it with other communities. It organizes the contest each year at the National Restaurant in Brighton Beach to celebrate family, friendship, and heritage.
Contestant Lina Sapelnikova (center) and honorary contestant, 92-year-old Etya Mikhelson (at right), wait to be brought on stage by students from a local dance school.
The judges also have to pass a bar—they must be grandfathers. Chernina says sometimes the judges have to find a room away from the crowd. “Because, believe or not,” she laughs. “They are fighting over who to give the crown!”
What are the judges looking for in a grandma?
“Optimism, the pursuit of happiness, and—very important— support from family,” says judge and grandfather Alexander Sirotin-Lachman.
The engagement of a grandma’s family is so key that entourages sometimes arrive by chartered bus, with multiple generations waving homemade signs and cheering wildly during grandma’s act.
Family, says Sirotin-Lachman, is everything.
“They are supposed to see that babushka [the word for grandmother in Russian] is not an old lady in a bathrobe preparing the latkas or kotlets. Their babushki are colorful people—full of life!”
Each contestant spends months preparing, often in support of one another, for three tasks: a routine (this year it was to perform a song or dance of your youth), homework (such as preparing a traditional costume), and an unexpected challenge or test. One year, contestants had to correctly spell the names of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump; given their shaky English, it was a glorious mess, “everybody was laughing,” recalls Chernina. Some years, she says, have involved roller skating, a grandma who learned gymnastics for a routine, and even a few marriage proposals and betrothals.
As with any proper extravaganza, this year’s show included a few micro-rebellions. One grandma allegedly handed the judges some rather racy photos. Of all the grandmas reached by this reporter none ‘fessed up, but all addressed me as “Eve-itchka” in the classic Russian style of making any name sound sweeter. Organizer Chernina, however confirms the photos while laughing: “Of course! They want to bribe the judges since day first!” And honorary contestant Etya Mikhelson, who has three grandchildren, rolled right past her allotted two-minute time limit when playing a classic and beloved song about Odessa.
“The whole hall started singing! How could I stop playing?” demurs the 92-year-old in lilting Russian.
Anna Malkina-Shumayev, 81, took home one of this year’s crystal crowns and says half the fun is preparing for the contest. “It’s a big, very important part of our lives, those of us who are not so young.” Her nephew, an anaesthesiologist, played the supporting role of an artist in her routine based on a Soviet-era hit.
The exuberant 69-year-old Faina Konusova came to the U.S. after 30 years working at the Intourist hotel near the Kremlin in downtown Moscow. “It’s so much to prepare for the contest. It puts you in a positive frame of mind. You forget what hurts. No pain!” Ada Natemzon, 79, from Uzbekistan competed for the 14th time, and has been living in the U.S. for 26 years. “We love it because we have our own sort of ‘collective’ that prepares ahead of time.” She explains how one of the tasks was to perform a song or dance from their youth, so she and her husband Boris danced the tango.
Mara Goldstein, 82, escaped a Jewish ghetto with her mother and grandmother as a child, losing her grandmother to malaria as they fled the Nazis. Now a grandmother herself, she spends her days driving around town, working as a home attendant, and doing water gymnastics. The contest brings out the best in her friend group, she says: “My friends supported me, as they always do.” Her routine was a comic one. “Humor is my hobby,” says Goldstein. “Humor has helped me live to this age.”
Photographer Alexey Yurenev, who captured these photos and whose family also immigrated from Russia says “I would have loved to have seen my grandmother on stage with these women.” He was particularly struck by all the deep friendships in the room. After six hours of taking photos and watching the contest, he says, “My face hurt from smiling.”