`I feel myself at home here'

The region's thousands of Russian immigrants are thriving.

August 23, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Slava Drakh moved to New York from Moscow but four years ago ended up in Baltimore, where he operates an eclectic restaurant that turns into a techno-thumping disco on weekends, a favorite of the area's thriving Russian community.

"Everybody knows about Baltimore," said Drakh, 35, who operates the Art Gallery Cafe in Pikesville, which serves Russian, Italian and French cuisine as varied as borscht, veal marsala and duck salad.

Many of Baltimore's Russian immigrants began life in the United States as cabdrivers, manicurists and grocery owners selling the familiar tastes of home. As the region's community matured and prospered, the immigrants branched out and now own a variety of businesses including nightclubs, law firms and dental offices.

"They are quite successful, pragmatic and highly educated," said Steve Gold, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University who has written about Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union.

Russians have made Baltimore a destination for more than a century, but the recent influx of mostly Jewish immigrants such as Drakh from the former Soviet Union has transformed parts of Baltimore and Baltimore County. They began arriving as refugees in the early 1980s, turning places such as the Millbrook Park Apartments in Pikesville into little Moscows.

Drakh's restaurant, with its smoky interior and jumbo televisions showing Russian pop performances, is a hit with Russian immigrants in their 20s.

Drakh became a publisher last year, adding the monthly Russian Kaleidoscope to the area's Russian-oriented periodicals. For many Russian immigrants, Baltimore has offered opportunity in a more manageable setting than a bigger metropolitan area would have.

The Baltimore region has the 15th-largest Russian-speaking population in the country, behind such cities as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to an analysis from the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank focusing on demographic issues.

The 2000 U.S. Census found 10,477 Russians in the Baltimore region, 7.2 percent of the region's foreign-born population. But many in the Russian immigrant community say the census figures vastly undercount them. Other census figures show that in 2003, 19,430 Baltimore County residents said they had Russian ancestry.

Many of the immigrants arrived under the auspices of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which resettled 10,000 Soviet Jewish refugees, starting in the mid-1980s and continuing through the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and into the mid-1990s, said Matt Freedman, chief planning officer for the community agency.

The agency works with the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, which resettles Jewish refugees worldwide.

Word of mouth

Paul Pickman, 47, arrived in 1990. Like many who immigrated to Baltimore, he learned of the city's Russian community through word of mouth.

As a documentary filmmaker in Belarus, his works often depicted Soviet discrimination against Jews. When the government refused to allow theaters to show one of his films, he left for the United States.

"I made my movie for the people of Belarus, but if they can't see this movie, there's no point in me being in Belarus," he said. "I feel myself at home here. In the Soviet Union, I never felt that way. It was always, `You are Jewish; we don't appreciate you here.' ... In America everyone is different. Everyone is welcome."

In the United States, Pickman noticed that his artistic abilities didn't earn him much money, so, like many immigrants, he started over.

"I used to be a dishwasher, a detailer in a carwash; everybody in the Russian community has this kind of experience," he said. "It is very hard for us. Some of us come from very wealthy families, went to the university. They are used to working as engineers, physicians, musicians. It's hard to work from scratch."

A year after his arrival, he started a Russian-language newspaper, Forum, which went bankrupt six months later.

By 1995, with the Russian community growing and prospering, he saw a void he wanted to fill and a new wife who encouraged him to try again, offering to be a business partner in the endeavor.

Four years after the failure of Forum, he and his wife, Nelly, pooled their savings and started Kaskad, which means cascade. The free newspaper has succeeded and, typical of the Baltimore region's Russian-speaking immigrant community, it has diversified and matured.

The newspaper has a circulation of more than 20,000 and a readership of 80,000, Pickman said.

The community he is targeting is not as tight-knit as it could be, some say.

Gold said most Russian immigrant communities, with the exception of the elderly, tend to be individualistic, a characteristic that goes back to bad memories of the Communist government.

"In the Soviet Union, everything was pragmatic, controlled by the government and forced to be collectivized," he said. "So people became suspicious of being close to one another."

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