Russians keep culture alive

Immigrants: Hundreds of Russians new to the area yearn for the old ways and hope they won't be lost on their Americanized kids.

January 23, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Teacher Anna Yasinova holds up a black and white sketch of an ear of corn and asks her students if they know the Russian words for the picture. Their hands shoot up. "Cucuruza!" one yells out.

She holds up another picture, an elephant. "Slon!" the children shout.

Then comes a picture of a wide-eyed deer. First grader Sergey Ruzenkov raises his hand eagerly and cries out, "Bambi!"

Yasinova suppresses a chuckle. Here in Room 19 of Baltimore County's Millbrook Elementary School, cultures often collide. Pupils carry their Russian homework in backpacks adorned with Tamagotchi key chains. They practice writing their Russian letters while seated beneath posters of the English alphabet.

Many of the 19 pupils who attend these twice-weekly, after-school classes are children of Russian-speaking immigrants who came to Baltimore for a better life, yet cling to their old culture and struggle to pass it along to the next generation.

More than 8,000 Russian-speaking immigrants settled in Maryland from 1991 to 1996 -- the state's largest immigrant group during those years -- and they have brought a distinctive flavor to northwest Baltimore and Baltimore County.

The Babushka Deli and other Russian markets sprout along Reisterstown Road, selling kefir and kielbasa, and renting Russian videos. Three Russian-language newspapers are published in the area. And Comcast Cablevision offers a Russian-language station that features news broadcasts and game shows from Moscow.

But many immigrants worry that their children are forgetting their culture -- that they know Walt Disney but not Leo Tolstoy, that they can converse in English over the Internet but are unable to write a letter in Russian to their grandparents.

Larissa Sergeeva, who came to the United States a year ago with her 14-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, has already seen her daughter struggle for the right Russian words when they speak.

"Almost everyone wants Russian language classes for our kids," said Sergeeva, who lives in Pikesville. "I want her to be able to read Russian literature. It is part of her culture."

That culture binds Sergeeva and other recent immigrants with those who made the journey to America in the late 1970s when Moscow -- courting world opinion on the eve of the Olympics -- lifted the Iron Curtain a bit.

Most have been Jews seeking asylum from discrimination in the former Soviet republics or joining relatives already here. Others have pursued prosperity, as economic conditions back home deteriorated. They came from cities and villages. Some are working-class; others are professionals.

When they first arrive, the worry is not of losing their old culture, but of fitting into a new one.

Within a few weeks of settling in America, they must begin to learn English, find a job and buy a car -- while grappling with new concepts such as insurance and rent. They must cope with unfamiliar mandates, including schools that require student attendance and doctors' offices that demand advance appointments.

Helping to ease the transition is a small society of services that has sprung up in Baltimore. In addition to Jewish aid agencies, there are Russian-speaking lawyers, accountants and real estate agents -- even travel agents.

But they cannot eliminate all the surprises and disappointments the immigrants find.

Valeriy Zelentsov, a 38-year-old Muscovite, came to Baltimore two years ago after a distant relative promised him work. The job never materialized, but Zelentsov stayed, learning English by watching his favorite movies, including "Groundhog Day" and "Jerry McGuire," on videotape.

He says Baltimore fit neither the cinematic image of a big American city or a Wild West town. Zelentsov was surprised to encounter suburban sprawl. "You can't go shopping without a car."

Anna Medvedeva, a photographer who came to Baltimore from Kiev six years ago, couldn't wait to try her first Big Mac. Now, fast food isn't so appealing, and she prefers Russian restaurants for big occasions.

She and Zelentsov publish the monthly newspaper Baltimorsky Boulevard from a spare bedroom in his Pikesville apartment. "Maybe next year we will be able to get a normal office," says Medvedeva, 27, who was a journalist in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. "That is my dream, but that's too early for us."

The pages of Boulevard make clear the conflicting demands of the immigrants' old and new cultures. Readers get news about Hollywood stars as well as Russian pop idols such as Alla Pugachova, stories about local disputes among immigrants and political assassinations in Russia.

The search for familiar faces, attitudes, foods and language prompts the immigrants to gather at Russian restaurants and shop at Russian delis, Medvedeva says.

For the Jewish immigrants, there can be additional conflicts as they grope for a new identity.

Some immigrants -- through luck, talent or perseverance -- settle comfortably into American life.

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