“In Russia, you couldn’t be completely open about being an artist,” says Leningrad native Tate Osten, who can remember a time when the KGB burned down her friend’s father’s art studio (neither he, nor his paintings survived). “I settled here [in the United States] for freedom.”
An art consultant and classically trained ballerina, Osten immigrated to New York City in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and opened an art gallery in Midtown a few years later. She left behind her identity by changing her name and was separated from both of her children for two years while she finalized her visa.
“I was raised totally in a socialist system. We never experienced true freedom of enterprise,” Osten said. “If you want to become another person, as I learned as I pursued my citizenship, you can totally reinvent yourself.”
The New York City metropolitan area has long been the leading gateway for Russian immigrants legally admitted into the U.S., and Russian Americans have left (and continue to create) an indelible mark on the city’s cultural and culinary personality. Here are a few places to get a taste of Russia in NYC.
For those looking to experience the more clandestine facets of Russian culture, check out the underground speakeasy Pravda on Lexington between Prince and Houston. Named after the Soviet news source that closed down in 1991, this vodka and caviar bar serves chilled fusion cocktails like the Vladimir Martini made with fig vodka and Russian tea syrup as well as a citrusy Leninade. Other Russian watering holes include the debonair Russian Vodka Room uptown or supper clubs in Brooklyn like Rasputin, National, and Tatiana, where performers draw patrons into rollicking folklore performances.
The more refined Russian cultural counterpart to Brooklyn’s lively supper clubs can be found on the Upper West Side at the New York City Ballet, founded in 1948 by Russian choreographer/composer George Balanchine (born Giorgi Balanchivadze) and American writer Lincoln Kirstein.
Ballet became a professional discipline in the Russian Imperial Courts after a long history in France and Italy. Balanchine is credited for popularizing the Neoclassical ballet style and his works like Serenade can be seen at the New York City Ballet. Today, institutes like the Bolshoi Ballet Academy pass on the tradition to aspiring ballerinas.
Collections of Soviet Nonconformist Art — art produced in the former Soviet Union from 1953-1986 (until the more liberalized era of Perestroika and Glasnost under Gorbachev) outside of the rubric of Socialist Realism (“official” art sanctioned by the State) — are openly displayed at the Mimi Ferzt Gallery on Greene Street as well as occasionally at the Frants Gallery Space on Wooster Street.
During the late 18oos and early 1900s, more than half the Jewish population living in Russia fled to escape historic religious persecution and anti-Semitism. Those who came to New York City joined the largest Russian-speaking community in the U.S. (at the time) in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood nicknamed “Little Odessa” after the Ukrainian city on the Black Sea.
Here, locals amble along the boardwalk arm in arm, wearing fur coats and hats. In the area, a collection of synagogues forms a trapezoid along four streets: Coney Island Avenue, Neptune Avenue, Ocean Parkway, and Brighton Beach Avenue. Pop into delis like M & I International Foods along Brighton Beach Avenue to try epicurean delicacies like pelmeni, dumplings filled with ground meat and onions. You won’t want to miss sampling pirozhki (fried pastries stuffed with minced meat, cabbage, apples, and other savory and sweet fillings), either. Even though they are traditionally served with borscht — beet stew accompanied by a dollop of sour cream — they’re tailor-made for grabbing and eating on the go.