Twice a month, an accountant, a filmmaker, a computer programmer, a student and a driving instructor put aside their usual work and gather in a Pikesville-area apartment to spend the weekend reading, typing, editing and debating.
Ashtrays overflow. Plates of food are devoured. And then, another issue of the fledgling Russian-language newspaper Kaskad (Cascade in English) is ready for print.
Paul Pickman, who started the biweekly paper in July, says the five volunteer staff members produce the paper to keep alive their heritage and as an intellectual challenge.
"We do this to defend our culture," says Mr. Pickman, 37, an emigrant from Minsk, Belarus. "We do this to defend our mental condition."
Kaskad, with articles on immigration law, health tips, astrology and personality profiles, is the newest source of information for the area's growing Russian-speaking community.
In the 1990 census, more than 30,000 residents in Baltimore and Baltimore County claimed Russian ancestry. Although the pace of immigration has slowed, the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which helps settle emigrants from the former Soviet Union, says at least 400 Russian-speaking people come to the area each year.
The Baltimore area has several grocery stores that stock Russian favorites such as dried salt fish and hearty rye breads. It also has a Russian restaurant, a Russian-language radio program and a Russian-language magazine.
Now comes Kaskad.
"It's a good newspaper," says Katya Yagunuska, who immigrated three years ago and works at the International Food Market on Reisterstown Road. "When I read, I see the news. I see interesting information."
Mr. Pickman said the five volunteers produce the tabloid as much for themselves and their children as for the readers.
"Immigration is not fun," says Mr. Pickman, a documentary filmmaker who has had a number of jobs, including jewelry sales, while trying to market his latest film.
He says many emigrants from the former Soviet Union were respected professionals there but in the United States found little demand for their skills. Pianists became beauticians; engineers became cabbies.
Kaskad gives the immigrants a chance to work at something they enjoy.
Mr. Pickman's wife, Nelly Livshits, who is an accountant, is the newspaper's artist. A friend, Dimitri Shalman, a driving instructor, is deputy editor.
When Mr. Pickman came to Baltimore five years ago, he was an editor of the Russian-language weekly Forum, now defunct. He learned from that newspaper's mistakes.
Rather than producing an international newspaper dependent on subscriptions, he is offering a free, local paper supported solely by ads.
Ms. Livshits recalls how her husband broached the idea with her this year. "He said, 'I want to make a present for you,' " she says, adding with a laugh, "We started it for fun."
A friend who recently emigrated from Ukraine helped them set up a computer system and provided software with the Cyrillic alphabet. Mr. Pickman and his family scraped together $15,000 to cover the initial publication costs.
The first issue, July 19, had eight pages. Most of the 6,000 copies placed in restaurants and groceries were snatched up within days.
"I think it's great any time you can provide more information to people," says Gail Kramer, a deputy at Jewish Family Services.
In Kaskad's latest issue, the lead story details efforts of local immigrants fighting what they perceive is a growing anti-immigration attitude. Inside, a long essay explains the U.S. system of wages, taxes and Social Security. The issue also includes a page of poetry and a short story, reprints of interviews with Ross Perot and a Russian millionaire, advice from a numerologist and a recipe for preparing herring and garlic.
With its emphasis on advice and features, Kaskad resembles an old-style Soviet newspaper. Some readers seem to expect the same kind of service they received from editors back home. In the former Soviet Union, a reader with a complaint about plumbing or a pension could count on the newspaper to help.
Mr. Pickman has received similar pleas. "People are asking me why they didn't get their pension check," he says.
He hopes that Kaskad will make enough money someday to allow him to pay the writers and himself. But for now, the newspaper is an antidote for homesicknesses and, he says, a gift to youngsters forgetting their heritage as they grow up in the United States.
For example, Mr. Pickman's son, David, 13, no longer can read Russian, although he speaks it. The Pikesville Middle School student, who spends his time reading Batman comic books and drawing He-Man action figures, doesn't seem bothered that he cannot read the newspaper produced in his home. "I can have someone translate it to me," he says.
The lanky youth has a keener interest in the business aspects of journalism, and helps sell ads. "I have two clients of my own," he says.
Mr. Pickman shakes his head in bewilderment. "He already thinks like an American."