Russian Texans Embrace Heritage, New Home
Classes led by the Russian Community School of Austin usually last from noon until 7 p.m. every Sunday, but this past Sunday’s session was shortened because of the school’s autumn festival at the Wells Branch Library. Parents from Russian and Russian-American families brought their kids — dressed in gowns and suits for the festival — and talked over coffee and home-made pirozhkis, or fried buns, as the classes progressed.
In one class, a few 5-year-old students learned the Russian words for animals. In a nearby hall, young girls rehearsed for their evening ballet performance at the festival.
“When I saw this ballet teacher, I thought, oh my god, I want my girls to dance like her,” said Elina Gines of Killeen, a Ukrainian native whose twin girls performed a dance from Swan Lake that evening. She drives about an hour each way on Sundays so her daughters can attend classes.
The school is just one way that Russian-speaking immigrants in Texas maintain ties to the culture of their homeland. That group includes not only Russians but also people from former Soviet republics. They also rely on publications, arts organizations and churches in the state that help them maintain their roots. But with a relatively small population in such a large state, the challenge of having a tight-knit community in Texas can be daunting. Despite such hurdles, Russian immigrants are striking a balance between their heritage and their new home.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2010-12, 78,500 Texans said that they were of Russian ancestry. By comparison, the number exceeds 455,000 in New York state. Those 78,500 Texans are also spread out across the state, with the majority of Russian immigrants living in Houston and Dallas.
Marina Potoplyak, who moved to the U.S. in 2001 from Saratov, Russia, and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Texas at Austin, said many Russian immigrants love their Texas home because of its warm weather and friendly people.
“Americans here are a completely different breed,” said Potoplyak, who has taught Russian language and Russian culture classes. “You can start a conversation with an unknown person in a shop. At first it irritated me, because I was always busy and in a hurry, but now it seems really nice, especially when I come with children — they don’t treat me as some source of discomfort.”
Potoplyak, who moved to Austin in 2002, said the Russian community has changed significantly in the last 10 years. “When I came here, there were a lot of people from earlier waves of immigration who fled Russia looking for better life. Now we have many young professionals who came here of their own free will and don’t have any negative feelings towards Russia or America.”
Many are coming for jobs in the oil, engineering and programming industries. Some go to work for NASA or local universities. Young, open-minded and with a good grasp of the English language, these immigrants strive to preserve their heritage here while also appreciating the American way of life.
The Russian Community School of Austin and two Russian schools in Dallas and Houston are examples of that dedication to heritage.
The Austin school was started by several Russian families 15 years ago, and its first teachers were the parents themselves. Today the school works with 80 students from more than 50 families. It is hoping to receive nonprofit status and eventually get its own building.
Arts and ballet classes are popular, but they are not the school’s top priority. “We are all thinking that Russian language is extremely important, and as soon kids start going to school, it fades,” said Maria Bondarenko, the head of the school, who emigrated from Moscow in 1995. “They learn here how to read, how to write."
Russian immigrants can connect with one another in this spread-out state through Our Texas, a Russian-language newspaper based in Houston. Founded in 2001, it covers political, economic and health issues on the state and national levels, and it includes ads for local businesses and cultural events.
“We decided that this is a paper not for immigrants but for people who consider themselves Texans,” said Sophia Grinblat, the paper’s editor and a native of Vinnitsa, Ukraine.
In 2003, the team behind Our Texas also started a cultural center of the same name in the Houston Museum District. In addition to featuring local artists, it hosts musical concerts and holiday bazaars.
Russian orthodox churches in the state are seeing an increase in attendance at their services. Father Aidan Keller, the head of the Holy Protection Russian Orthodox Church in Austin, said that while many Russians moved to Texas as members of the Orthodox church, others came to the faith only after living in the U.S. for a while out of a desire to rediscover their roots.
“This parish here started out with about just 10 to 15 people on Sunday at liturgy. Now often it’s 60 or more,” Keller said. It’s not only Russians who come the church, he added. Americans who have converted to the Orthodox faith constitute almost a third of Sunday congregations.
While the church’s regular services started in 2007, the parish traces its roots to 2001, when Father Lubomir Kupecz of Houston’s Saint Vladimir Russian Orthodox Church, the oldest and the biggest Russian church in Texas, started coming to Austin for holidays and special services. Of the five Russian Orthodox churches in Texas, four are run by American priests who converted to the Orthodox faith. Kupecz, who is of Slovak origin, said he is the only one with some Russian ancestry.
Although the Russian community represents just a little more than 0.3 percent of the Texas population, many Russian immigrants have made their mark as entrepreneurs, establishing several businesses across the state in the last 15 years — and they are starting to have some influence on the state they now call home.
Anatoly Goldshmid, owner of a Dallas-area banya, said that once Americans try this Russian way of detoxification through high temperature and humidity, they get addicted. “All my coupons, promotions are based on American customers,” who make up the majority of customers, added Goldshmid, who left Kiev 37 years ago.
With Russian pop music and Lenin portraits on the walls, the Russian House restaurant in Austin is specifically designed to lure an American clientele. Even the name on its sign — Na Zdorovye — was chosen as the easiest and most famous Russian phrase, despite the fact that it is a Polish toast, never used in that sense by Russians. Moscow-born Varda Salkey, co-owner of the restaurant, explained that many Russian businesses in Texas depend on American customers for their survival because Russians don’t really frequent them. In addition to the population being spread out across the state, some Russians find the places too pricey and others might be put off by the touristy atmosphere.
To Salkey’s disappointment, Russians in Texas are not as united as immigrants in New York, where she lived for a while. “It will take half of your life to build a real Russian community here,” she said.
However, Russian Texans might prefer to keep their freedom in choosing who and what they want to be aligned with. “People here are really diverse,” said Potoplyak, the native of Saratov. “The community is very spontaneous and self-generated. And there is tolerance to different ways of life, which I like.”
Lisa Surganova, an editor with Lenta.ru, an online news site in Russia, wrote this story for the Tribune as part of the International Center for Journalists' Russia-U.S. Young Media Professionals Exchange Program.