Last Saturday, dinner in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, was a miserable milieu of soppy snowfall, sleet, and freezing rain, with ice falling from the elevated tracks above the main drag. In winter, the boardwalk in Brooklyn's largest post-Soviet neighborhood is a windy, bleary, no-fly zone. I've come to watch the Sochi Olympics in Russian company.
I duck into Kebeer, a German-style beer hall serving a global mish-mash of salty pub fare with heavy Russian, Ukrainian, and Uzbek influence, and watch the speed-skating trials on the TV screens overhead. Two guys in their early twenties sit at the end of the bar eating burgers. Their names are Anton and Valery, I'll learn in a few minutes.
In the meantime, my husband and I order tall mugs of Czech beer and a few Eastern dishes, nursing waning hopes that some action will walk through the door soon. It's a Nor'easter out there and the streets are quiet.
Lamb manty dumplings. All photos by Hannah Palmer Egan
I ask Anton and Valery if they've been watching the Olympics. "Yeah, we lost today," Anton answers, referring to the hockey match, where the US beat Russia in a shootout during double overtime. "It was a crazy game! But they didn't count one of [Russia's] goals." I ask what will happen if Russia wins. "Everybody will get drunk!" Anton says, nibbling on a piece of dark rye bread spread with garlic oil and herbs. And if they lose? "Same thing!"
Valery chimes in: "And Putin will burn their houses!"
Anton says he was born in Siberia but moved to Ukraine as a child, where he enjoyed a fairly privileged youth: he had a businessman father, went to college, and moved to Brooklyn a few years ago to make money in the US markets. Valery says he moved around, but lived in Sochi for a while.
We're still waiting on our food, so I ask Anton about the protests in Kiev. He says it's dangerous, that he thinks the protesters are overreacting, that the brutal crackdown is to be expected. "Everyone started throwing stones at the police. If someone was throwing stones in my face if I was a policeman, I'd probably be the first person to try and beat them."
The bartender brings a plate bearing four fat lamb dumplings, called manty. They're fatty, flat-bottomed purses of meat with lots of onion. Meanwhile, Anton's comparing Kiev to Occupy Wall Street. "Here in New York, they were not taking Molotov cocktails and getting the police involved. If you do that, the result will be the same here as anywhere."
I bite into a dumpling, tearing its tender skin and grinding the lamb filling, which is studded with chewy bits of gristle as it vaporizes a heady onion flavor all over my mouth. "The protesters," Anton is saying, "they're the same Ukrainians; they are [fighting their] brothers."
While gnashing dumplings between our teeth, Kiev is burning. "Some of them are just following orders. I don't know," Anton says, "I don't know." I swallow down the meat with a cool gulp of beer.
Anton says Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, the center of Europe. "Europe needs my country," he says. "Your country needs my country." Valery starts talking about nuclear bombs, how Ukraine has a lot of them. Maybe it's the beer talking, but these dudes are all over the place. No one's watching the speed-skaters.
Pelmeni dumplings in soup
"It's funny," Valery says, as the bartender delivers a steaming bowl of soup, floating with pelmeni. "We're eating hamburgers and you're eating Russian food." Pelmeni are another type of dumpling that are native to Siberia." They look a bit like tortellini and are common in Russia. These are stuffed with dark, tenderly braised veal and are lightly herbed. I slurp a spoonful of the clear, beefy broth and the blizzard outside fades for a moment.
Anton and Valery are laughing and debating about something in Russian, then turn to us. "You know, our country didn't buy permission to broadcast the Olympic games."
Why not? I ask. "Because they were very busy with something, I guess," Anton says.
Perhaps it's the looming civil war, I suggest, holding a plump pelmeni to my mouth, blowing on the spoon to cool the broth. I could do this all day, just keep the dumplings coming. Anton laughs and agrees yes, it's probably the looming civil war, and turns his attention to the skaters.
Minutes later, we dig into a plate heaped high with
("pilaf" in Russian). It's a lurid yellow rice that's fried with soft cubes of beef, peas, carrots, raisins, and onions. Anton describes a new Eastern Bloc. "Ukraine should be with Russia," he says. "All the countries: Belorussia, Romania…" We greedily devour the steaming mound, listening, drinking.
Anton and Valery are both Putin Youth, young people who support Putin's aspirations for a unified, powerful Russia. They want to bring the Balkan Slavs back under the great Northern umbrella, citing too many regional weaknesses for Europe to support gypsies in Romania, and poor people in Bulgaria. The young men believe these are problems better handled by Russia than the EU, even as both readily acknowledge corruption, greed, and tyranny from the government. "Look," Anton says, "In my country, you buy everything. Your diploma, your license…anything."
Valery says that the Sochi Olympics are a result of the fact that Putin has a vacation home there and wanted to turn the heretofore-seedy resort town into a world-class tourist mecca. "Putin lives in Moscow," Valery says, "But he really lives in Sochi. He's always there. When I lived there, there was always tons of security all the time because of him. He built it for himself. He wanted it to be better."
Like Anton, Valery accepts this as a fact of Russian life. He'd rather be unified (for and against, with plenty of mockery) around a strong leader, who will drive the country toward global dominance. "What do you think of Russia?" Valery asked earlier in the conversation, "What do they teach you in school here?"
When we say that we don't really think of Russia all that often or learn that much about it in school, they seem disappointed. They are for a strong, continental Russia, and whatever leader can deliver that, they're happy to support. Putin's grip on Russian society isn't an issue unless you fight it, and why would you? Look what happened to Pussy Riot. On this, they agree.
I cherry-pick the last bit of beef from the rice and dip it in the soup to moisten it. It all slides down nice and easy, especially with bitter Czech lager. "We all grew up the same," Anton says. "We are all the same!" he says, leaning into Valery for a chummy embrace. "There is no difference between me and him," he says.
"Yes," Valery says, leaning in and away at once, a wide smile creeping up across his face, "But I am Russian!" Follow Hannah Palmer Egan on Twitter.