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East Bay’s Little-Known Russian Community Celebrates Diversity By FRED DODSWORTH

Special to the Planet
Friday April 15, 2005

It’s easy to miss the East Bay’s immigrant Russian community. Typically they are poised, neatly dressed Caucasians with lilting accents that can be mistaken for anything from French to Eastern European to Israeli. 

Frequently Russian émigrés are very well educated, although, because of American licensing restrictions, rarely are they able to find work in their fields of expertise. Ironically, many of them fled to America, the modern “promised land,” because they were victims of American-style capitalism’s harsh realities—low employment rates, a destroyed social infrastructure and high prices. 

The Berkeley Russian School acts as both a social network and a learning center for these new Americans.  

“(It is) like a school and like a club,” said Yelena Gli kman, founder and director. “All newcomers can come to our school and get the support that they need. For example, a lot of Russian wives, who people just met and bring here, these women are absolutely lost here because they don’t understand anything.” 

Glikman said that many newly arrived Russians think that all Americans are rich and that since they have a car they must be millionaires. Then they find out that’s not true.  

“It’s terribly hard,” she said. “I know a few couples who are very good, but a lot of them, they can’t survive, unfortunately. These people come to us and we give them moral support. A lot of them have children, these women who come here because they cannot feed their children in Russia. It’s not because they look for a better life, it’s because they cannot buy food for their children. They need to go somewhere.”  

Glikman said the economic situation in Russia is bleak. Many educated people cannot find jobs. 

“I know the story of one professor; he died from hunger because he was too proud to go and ask for the money,” she said. “They don’t pay him enough for bread. To buy bread, you know? It’s a very hard life over there.”  

Yelena started the Berkeley Russian School few years after she and her husband, Alex, immigrated to the Unit ed States in 1989. Alex, who was a professional classical musician, originally taught music at the school and ran the school’s concert program until he died three years ago. 

The school holds classes in Berkeley, Walnut Creek and San Francisco. This weekend, Saturday, April 16th, from noon to 6 p.m. the organization will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a festival of Russian culture open to all. The inexpensive afternoon of events will offer homemade Russian food and drink and arts and crafts for sale. There also will be performances by adults and children in plays, puppetry, performance dancing by adults, and several piano concerts by award winning pianists associated with the school.  

Like all immigrants before them, Russians finding their way in m odern America face losing touch with the traditions, culture and language of their lost ‘motherland’.  

Sasha and Nadia Blank’s son, Daniel, 6, has attended the school for the last three years. The Blanks said they like the sense of community the school p rovides and have established new friendships with other Russian-speaking parents.  

“We want to preserve his Russian language and heritage,” said Sasha. “The other good thing is the school’s math program, it’s two years ahead of the public schools.”  

Recent Russian immigrants Mark and Lena Wohlfarth of Oakland enrolled their daughters, Tanya, 8, and Nadia, 6, in the Berkeley Russian School because they felt the local schools weren’t demanding enough from the children. The girls take classes in Russian language and literature, math, chess, arts and drama.  

“I like the selection of literature they’re learning, especially the poems,” said the girl’s mother Lena. “The teacher talks about different (Russian) authors and different styles of writing and the history of the words. The Russian language is very beautiful.”  

Wohlfarth said she plans to cook golubtsy (a cabbage-wrapped meat dish in tomato sauce), blini (filled pancakes) and pierogi (filled dumplings) for the celebration. While listing her planned contributions, she decided to provide Russian candy as well.  

“We have to have Russian candy,” Wohlfarth said excitedly.  

Beyond the celebration, Wohlfarth said she’s looking forward to meeting all the other parents and grandparents.  

Stacy and Robe rt Kertsman’s daughter Talia, 5, has been attending the after school program for the last nine months. Stacy, an American born Berkeley resident, doesn’t speak Russian, but her in-laws, who now live in San Francisco, are native Russian speakers.  

“My hus band’s Ukrainian and we want our daughter to know her Russian language and culture,” said Stacy. “The school offers both options at a high level.”  

“(It’s) because we want them to know their culture,” affirmed Glikman. “I think it’s important to know b oth cultures because it’s their roots. A lot of parents say: ‘We live here. We have everything. Why do they need to speak Russian?’ Because they need to speak to their grandparents who don’t speak English. And there’s us also, our English is not good enou gh to speak about everything so deep, and such important things.”  


More than 50 families from the East Bay’s Russian community will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Berkeley Russian School Saturday, from noon-6 p.m. Saturday, April 16, with homemade Russian food and drink, art, music, puppetry, drama and dance. 1821 Catalina Ave., at the corner of Colusa Avenue. There is a $5 entry fee and many items of Russian culture will be for sale. For more information, see www.berkeleyrussianschool.org. ›