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"Other" Russias

by Galina Zueva

Russians celebrating Russia (Down Under).
So, how can we preserve culture? How can we exhibit or illustrate culture in a foreign tongue, or on foreign soil, hoping that it will bear juicy fruits despite transplantation? How can culture, as it exists in all sorts of guises, remain true to its traditions? Are we able to control the ways culture are preserved in another country, or are they subjected to specific inversions popular in the host country regarding that culture?

This is a question not only imperative to the immigrant, but it also haunts language teachers, dance teachers, importers of souvenirs, cultural intermediaries, etc. This process shapes the identity of all those involved, while also verifying certain beliefs, or stereotypes that exist in the host country regarding this transplanted, alien culture. The conditions which motivate the development of culture vary from country to country, and like any other culture, the array of Russian communities and centres around the world tell a different story.

For the Russian community in Montreal, Canada, a 'zjeltiye ctranitsi' (yellow pages) exists for those that want to use only Russian speaking services or contact other Russian speakers. It is available in several grocery stores, and is a reminder of how culture requires some marketing in order to circulate and not lose its sense of identity in a culture that already requires one to be bilingual. It's a book that in weight alone attests to the fact that there are no well-defined cultural ghettos in Montreal: unlike other nations, assimilationist politics seem rare, and ones culture is of no importance. However, this also makes a culture more vulnerable to dwindling in stature, and threatens its identity with extinction, hence the need to encourage culture-based communication in all spheres of life. There is also a Russian cultural centre where your children can learn Russian and study Russian folk dances.

Meanwhile, in inner Melbourne, Australia, a Russian bakery opens to lines of babushka immigrants and inner-city hipsters waiting side by side for the freshly baked pirozchki. This area itself is called 'Balaclava' and boasts street names like 'Odessa', 'Crimea', and 'Sevastopol', in order to commemorate the Russian community from the Ukraine which settled in the area after the Russian Civil War. The Russian community in Melbourne has it's ghettos: located in three different parts of the city, reflecting the different waves of Russian immigration to Australia throughout the twentieth century. There is also what is called a "Russki Dom" (Russian House), however, unlike it's Montreal counterpart, it doesn't appear to be as popular. With culturally defined areas, clinic signs in Cyrillic, and certain outdoor markets in the city dominated by the Russian tongue, a cultural centre to preserve one's culture seems invalid, as one can interact quite freely within these areas.

Despite the lack of Russian immigrants, the Russian Cultural Centre in downtown Damascus bustles with activity. This three storied concrete homage to Soviet-style architecture boasts a Russian music school, Russian and ballroom dance classes, Russian classes, a Russian library, an Arabic library, English classes and courses ranging from massage to computers. The Russian teachers are all rather befuddled with work, perhaps even overloaded, as more and more Damascenes flock to attend more and more Russian classes.

Due to the economic prosperity and cultural grandeur associated with modern Russia, Russian has become more popular, as it represents hope for an education, business ventures, and an accessible visa abroad. Also, Syrian and Russian relations had been rather solid even during Soviet times, resulting in several bookshops in the area stocking a wide range of authors in Russian, with proprietors relishing the moment to exercise their tongue in Russian. The Cultural Centre also features a pod val cafe popular with Syrian students and artists, with a menu comprised of varying Russian salads and pies.

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