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.


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.

Klara Berkovich, a violin teacher in Leningrad, came to the United States with her family in 1979. After teaching at Peabody Conservatory of Music and the Baltimore schools, she retired, but still gives violin lessons to children.

Her husband, Adam, worked six years to reclaim his engineering profession, and retired as a principal systems engineer for the Maryland Transit Administration.

Their children, who were in their 20s when they came to the United States, succeeded as well. Efim is an engineer in New York; Leonid plays second violin in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

"We were not afraid to start over," Mrs. Berkovich says, adding: "Everything that happened we are very grateful for."

Immigration is often toughest on the elderly, who have trouble picking up a new language and finding friends. But the young, too, can be perplexed by the unfamiliar surroundings -- and torn by conflicting cultural demands.

Although the students frequently are high achievers, especially in science and math, they often are so truant that schools have sent social workers to their homes to explain the importance of attendance.

"The parents are very protective," says Susan Spinnatto, coordinator for the county's English-to-Speakers-of-Other-Languages (ESOL) classes, which last year enrolled 153 children from the former Soviet Union. "When the kids get a sniffle, they keep them at home."

Many of these students test the boundaries of their new land, asserting themselves with teachers and classmates, she adds. "They say, 'This is a democracy, can't we do what we now want?' "

At home, they often are translators for the family -- a role that makes them resistant to discipline and control.

Eventually, many parents and grandparents start to worry about the changes in their children, says Igor Gorsky, who came to Baltimore from Ukraine in 1979. "When you slow down and look in retrospect, you say, 'What about my Russian roots?' "

Gorsky was 18 when his family left Kiev. Now, he is married and has a 10-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son.

The desire to cling to the old culture often intensifies with time, Gorsky says. He and other immigrants who came in the late 1970s were fleeing a totalitarian regime and coming to an America that was suspicious and sometimes hostile to Russians. They spent several years in America downplaying their past before starting to reclaim their culture.

For later arrivals -- including some who retain Russian citizenship and travel back and forth between the countries -- the desire to hold on to their heritage and impart it to their children is even stronger, he says.

Gorsky, whose family owns Baltimore's Astoria Restaurant, is surprised at the culture's hold. He sees young men and women who grew up in America reading Russian newspapers. Some speak Russian with American accents, but they are drawn to the Astoria's distinctive food and music. Often they seek out Russian mates, even if they carry on their courtships speaking English.

Every weekend his family's restaurant on Park Avenue attracts hundreds from the local Russian-speaking community who come to party with their friends.

Astorio, the house band, strikes up a pulsating Russian pop song and the crowd pours onto the dance floor, leaving their tables stacked with salted fish, beef tongue, pickles and beet salad. They will dance and drink, talk and smoke until 4 a.m.

"They come here not to eat, not to dance, but to socialize," Gorsky says.

He has not been back to Kiev, but hopes some day to take his children.

"I love it here," he says over the blare of the restaurant's band. "It's where I grew up But I'm still going to be of Russian descent."

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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