Szia, Nadia! – Immigrant History through the Lens of Netflix’s “Russian Doll”
Spoilers ahead for the first and second season of “Russian Doll” limited TV series
Our neighborhoods have long been seen as a refuge and melting pot for immigrants of all nations and origins. Eastern and Southern Europeans and Chinese immigrants created communities within the heart of the Lower East Side, while Italians and African Americans from New York and other parts of the country have long lineages within the South Village and Greenwich Village. So, it comes as no surprise that when Netflix decided to produce a story about the child of Jewish-Hungarian immigrants on a quest to explore her heritage, the producers decided to film it within the East Village and Alphabet City. Russian Doll, a Netflix two-season dark-comedy series, follows the misadventures of an East Village woman, Nadia Vulvokov (played by Natasha Lyonne), as she encounters supernatural time-travel that forces her to reconnect with her family’s heritage as Holocaust survivors and Jewish-Hungarian immigrants.
In the first season, Nadia becomes trapped in a mysterious time-loop where she repeatedly attends her 36th birthday party and dies at the end of each night, only to awaken the next morning unharmed as if nothing had happened. The show, like most time-traveling stories, acts as a fable (albeit, a sadistic one) encouraging viewers to live in the present. But in the show’s second season, the present day isn’t the only focus. Nadia boards the 6 train at Astor Place to go uptown to visit an elderly family friend in Lenox Hill Hospital; however, like most subway rides, she finds herself transported to a place she never suspected: The East Village of 1982. While encountering junkies, nuclear war protestors, and, awkwardly, her own mother, Nadia seizes the opportunity to investigate how her family fortune (a stash of 150 Krugerrand gold medallions worth roughly $152,780.86) has been stolen from her, prompting her to attempt to rectify the past. Although she never recovers her family’s Krugerrands, Nadia learns in the second season that we can’t change our histories, but we can learn lessons from our ancestors’ actions that give us future closure and understanding.
As each season’s mysteries unfold, the show comments upon its setting within the East and Greenwich Village as dramatic foils for Nadia, reconnecting her with the cultural and religious values that form the foundation of her character. Explore the filming locations below to learn more about their appearance in Russian Doll, and their connection to our neighborhoods’ own unique stories:
St. Nicolas of Myra Carpatho-Russian Church
Location: 295 East 8th Street (East Village, 8th Street and Avenue B)
Although the interior is a set, the apartment where Nadia’s ill-fated 35th birthday party takes place is located within St. Nicholas of Myra Church. The church was built in 1883 as the Memorial Chapel of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery and designed in the Gothic Revival style by W. H. Ryssell and James Renwick Jr. (who also designed Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral). The chapel was a gift of Rutherfurd Stuyvesant, a descendant of the Dutch governor Peter stuyvesant. St. Nicholas was started by Carpatho-Russians, people from the Carpathian Mountain region of Eastern Europe (encompassing what is today Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia). The first organized meeting of a Carpatho-Russian Church in New York City occurred in September, 1925, in the nearby SS Peter and Paul Orthodox Church on East 7th Street. Just three weeks later, the congregation moved into the 10th Street building. This church became the ethnic center for all Carpatho-Russian people in the area and provided school, and social and cultural activities such as choirs, dance groups and language courses.
Although the show’s exterior shots are filmed outside of St. Nicholas, the storyline refers to the apartment building being converted to a Yeshiva for Jewish schoolchildren and follows a similar story to a building located across Tompkins Square Park at 295 East 8th Street, the East Side Hebrew Institute (ESHI). The ESHI building was constructed in 1910 and operated as a Jewish day school from 1928 to 1974. It was widely known as one of the major educational institutions of the Jewish East Side. After enrollment declined in the 1970s, the day school moved to the Upper East Side (to 168 East 68th Street, where it’s currently known as the Park East Day School). The building has since been converted into private condos and offices, lending credibility to Russian Doll’s cultural context.
Location: 108 Avenue B
When Nadia travels back to the East Village of 1982, she finds herself drawn to 7B Horseshoe Bar (aka Vaszacs). The bar represents the typical East Village establishment and has served many fictional characters from those of Sex and the City to Crocodile Dundee. The bar is most well-known for being the setting where Italian mobster Frank Pantangilli took “meetings” in The Godfather Part II. It seems the show was paying homage to that cinematic history, and we encourage you to explore it for yourself!
Astor Place & the Astor Place Subway Station
The Netflix show shoots multiple scenes in and around Astor Place, recreating some of the historic landscape using CGI. Although the plaza has changed appearance several times through the decades, the show frequently features Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo Sculpture (lovingly referred to by locals as “The Cube.”) The sculpture debuted in 1967 at the physical intersection of Greenwich Village, The East Village and NoHo as part of Mayor John Lindsay’s city temporary exhibition, Sculpture in Environment. Although critically panned at its debut, the Cube has become one of our neighborhood’s most recognizable and beloved works of public art, and it created a community huddling place for hippies and Cooper Union Students to share ideals (In Russian Doll, you can see this represented in Nadia encounter with students protesting Nuclear War when she time-travels back to the 1980s).
The show also films scenes using the exterior of the Astor Place Subway Station (due to MTA film and television rules, the interior scenes were taken in the abandoned Eastbound platform within the Bowery station). The real-life station is well known for its decorative architectural features. The northbound platform entrance is a 1980s imitation of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company’s original and incredibly ornate entrance kiosks used in the early 1900s and commissioned by Heins and LaFarge. The kiosks were built in the Art Nouveau style with cast iron and glass appointments and were inspired by those used in the Budapest Metro (which, coincidentally, is where Nadia’s family emigrated from in Eastern Europe).
Tifereth Israel Town & Village Synagogue
Location: 334 East 14th Street (Between 1st and 2nd avenue)
When Nadia repeatedly finds herself stuck in a time loop, she questions the Jewish Religion’s views on death and the afterlife. Seeking answers, she pays a visit to the Rabbi at Tifereth Israel Town and Village Synagogue. Built as a German Baptist Church in 1866 and converted to a Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church in 1926, 334 East 14th Street (1st/2nd Avenues) has served as the Tifereth Israel Town and Village Synagogue since 1962. Designed in a distinctive German Romanesque style displaying the roots of the original congregants, over time onion domes were added and crosses removed to reflect the building’s new occupants. After a campaign by Village Preservation, preservationists, and local leaders, it was designated a New York City Landmark in October 2014.
Tompkins Square Park
While most locations appear only briefly during the show, Tompkins Square Park appears in every episode, usually as an intermediary location where Nadia contemplates her situation. Although it seems ill-fated for anyone to be running about the Park at night, to New York Times editor Aisha Harris and TV Critic Jason Zinoman, this dramatic choice was no mistake. Zinoman views the show as “an against the grain meditation on the cultural guilt” between community residents, law enforcement, and the East Village’s counterculture heritage. As evidence, the two writers cite the 1988 Tompkins Square Riot, in which violent protests broke out after the NYPD established a curfew that evicted 150 homeless individuals from the park. The character Horse, a homeless man who provides Nadia with sage advice and is often seen standing next to a posted curfew sign, is emblematic of this riot and its aftermath. Zinoman explains that the riots were a stand for the bohemian character of the East Village as a neighborhood.
Read more about Harris and Zinoman’s analysis here in their excellent article “The Key to ‘Russian Doll’ Might Be Tompkins Square Park.”