Minnesota's Russian community celebrates spirit of Sochi

MINNEAPOLIS - In Minnesota's melting pot, culture runs deeper than first glance, and our Scandinavian state is rich with Russian heritage.

In late January, children and adults gathered in colorful costumes for a tradition Russian folk dance festival geared for children. The hosting organization, known as Russian Soul, is dedicated to preserving this heritage, and on this day, crowds celebrated with song and smiles.

If you aren't familiar with the Russian speaking community, Svetlana Makeyeva will be the first to invite you to the table. Her family owns Arkady's market in Plymouth and and has fed the soul of the Russian speaking community in the west metro two decades.

"Finally, after 20 years, Russians are coming up here in Minneapolis as a culture and as a community," said Makeyeva, who moved to Minnesota from the Ukraine when she was a teenager.

The census shows more than 14,000 Minnesotans are Russian speakers. Gedaly Meerovich, who started the Slavic Community Center, believes thousands more have ties to the former Soviet Union, possibly 40,000 to 60,000 Minnesotans to his own estimate.

Meerovich came to Minnesota with a large wave of Jewish immigrants who escaped Russia's anti-Semitism in the 1970s and 1980s.

"We have been second class citizens and third class citizens. In my generation, feelings about Russia still stay," he said.

Meerovich didn't want his language to disappear. His pride lives in Naska Shkola, the state's first Russian charter school. All students at the school have Russian heritage. He opened the school in Minnetonka two years ago, along with Eugene Kharam, a Russian immigrant turned English teacher who escaped after Soviet Union collapse in the early 1990s.

"It's been a quiet dream of mine since I came to America I came in 7th grade," said Kharam, who wants his students to understand the culture he loves.

"It's not Cold War and marching and weapons showing power of Soviets. Russian soul so to speak is quite gentle," he said.

In St. Paul, at Moscow on the Hill restaurants, Eugene Liberman's family was part of the same wave of immigrants.

"My parents are both doctors my mom is a neurologist, dad is an orthodontist, we came here from Moscow in 1992," said Liberman.

To survive in Minnesota, they sought out a new specialty and opened Moscow on the Hill. In this restaurant, Eugene tells customers the spirit of Russia is more than food or drink.

"They think it's about sitting around drinking vodka all day long and it could not be further from the truth. It's a rich community full of ancient traditions," said Liberman.

Customs are carefully collected in Minneapolis, home to the only Museum of Russian Art in the U-S.

Showing the art of Russia which is still 1/6 of the globe, it's a huge country with a very rich culture we should be trying to be friends with I think," said curator Dr. Maria Zavialova.

The exhibits are designed to give Americans a greater understanding. Among other Minnesota landmarks with Russian ties, is St. Mary's Cathedral in Northeast Minneapolis in the late 1800s which the Russian government helped found. The church still flourishes today.

A Plymouth strip mall known as "Little Russia" is home to a dental office, grocery store, even a Russian newspaper, the North Star, and Mark Stipakov's real estate business.

"I am helping people start a new life in this country," said Stipakov, who owns the mall, and was the first Russian realtor in the Twin Cities.

His ties to Russia are still powerful, with quite a claim to fame. President Vladmir Putin was his grade school classmate.

"Back then he wasn't somebody you'd make an example out of him just a rough kid but he had a drive. I think sports made him who he is, he went into sports," said Stipakov.

As Putin aims to showcase Russia's revival in the Sochi Olympics, immigrants celebrate a culture never lost, whether in Moscow or Minnesota.

"I think we should try to remember we have Russia and Russians all around us. Russian immigrants are our neighbors, colleagues where we work. Businesses where we shop. We should remember that They aren't demonstrative as other ethnic groups are, but we shouldn't forget them because of that," said Peter Weisensel, Macalester College history professor who specializes in Russian studies.

Makeyevka believes what we all have in common allowed the rise of Russia in a Scandinavian state.

"It's just a long way up and we are finally here," she said.


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