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Brighton Beach's Russian Accent

Daniela Gerson

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Victoria's music
(Courtesy Victoria Lisina)
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Russian emigres have been a Brighton Beach fixture ever since the Soviet Union opened its doors in the late 1980s. And every weekend, the Brooklyn neighborhood's restaurants and nightclubs are full of music that's hard to find anywhere else. Daniela Gerson paid a visit to the oceanfront community, and sat down with one long-time fixture, singer and composer Victoria Lisina.


Victoria Lisina sits alone at Primorski's Restaurant in Brighton Beach. As Saturday afternoon turns into evening, diners chat in Russian and feast on platters of meat dumplings and pickled veggies. This Brooklyn enclave is home to immigrants from across the former Soviet Union, and Victoria knows songs to please them all.

Victoria looks like the diva she is --- she wears stretch pants that cling to her rather voluptuous body, a red velour top, and a homemade fox-fur and Velcro headband. The 52-year-old singer closes her eyes and sings a sweet ode to Leningrad and childhood friends from the Communist Youth Group.

Victoria's songs are pure nostalgia. Her own memories of growing up in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, are more complicated. She was a successful musician conducting a popular classical and jazz orchestra that performed in movie theaters. But she could never feel completely secure -- Victoria is Jewish, and in the 1980s anti-Semitism in Ukraine was widespread. Her son was beaten up in school for being Jewish, and even members of her own orchestra refused to play for a group of visiting Israeli dignitaries.

"In Ukraine, in Soviet Union, in Russia -- all the time we have danger, from the beginning of the state. This is true. All the time we felt that we were not a citizen of that country," she says. "All the time strangers."

So when the Soviet empire began to crumble, Victoria and her family finally had the chance to leave. She dreamed of making music in the land of her favorite singer, Ella Fitzgerald. Victoria also planned to sell her compositions to Broadway musicians. But she quickly found that none of her accomplishments in Kharkiv were worth much on 42nd Street.

"And I realized that I have to be in different situation, to change the profession maybe to survive and I was crying half a year," she says. Victoria made her way to Brighton Beach and found she could survive by singing in the neighborhood restaurants and nightclubs.

"This is special country. Country inside the country, Brighton Beach is Russian country."

But it's Russia circa 1985. Djs in Moscow and Kiev spin the latest hip-hop and techno, but in Brighton Beach Soviet-era standards are still the rage. The nostalgic mix includes Russian pop, city anthems and love songs.

Along with Hebrew, Victoria's latest CD, "International Program," boasts her original arrangements in eight other languages. But after nearly two decades in America, Victoria is losing faith that her name will ever be known beyond these few blocks where Brooklyn meets the ocean.

"Our profession is not for this place. Music is some sort of soul subject... it's not material stuff. We can only imagine to hear and to feel -- this country for to sell and to buy."

And Victoria is tired of the late nights entertaining drunk Russian men who don't appreciate her compositions. She has decided she will sing the music she wants, or not at all. So now there's a new singer at Primorski's on Saturday evenings.

Before the disco ball begins to flash, Victoria wraps herself in her fur jacket and declares herself done for the day.

Comments

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  • By Dimitri Lisin

    06/01/2008

    Hi all. I am Dimitri Lisin, Victoria's son. I have originally built the website, but unfortunately I haven't finished it. If you wish to purchase a CD, please contact me directly at dima@cs.umass.edu .

    By Jess Neff

    From Monroe, MI, 05/31/2008

    I too loved the sound of Ms. Lisina's voice and want to purchase her CD. I waded through the Cyrillic with my meager Russian and found the CD for sale at this website:
    http://www.vitalisina.com/internationalCD/index.html

    By dianne foster

    05/31/2008

    i would like to buy victoria's cd. can you suggest where to purchase? i tried her website, but it does not appear to be working.

    thanks!

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