In an Eden Prairie doctor’s office, a sign reads, “Russian Spoken Here.”
A random list for a community door-knocking campaign yields a sprinkling of names like Svetlana, Vera, Yury, Olga, and Leonid.
It turns out that the administrative office for the Russian Educational Center of Minnesota is (where else?) in Eden Prairie. Established in 2002, the center is a non-profit organization offers classes to anyone on Russian language, culture and traditions.
Maria Luzhansky, the center’s director, provides insight on the Russians who now call Minnesota home.
According to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota’s Russian population is about 12,500, with more than 2,300 public school students speaking Russian at home.
Luzhansky attributes Minnesota’s growing Russian population to the state’s good quality of life and excellent schools.
Russian professionals are drawn by high-tech industries, she said. Those who like winter sports are drawn to skiing opportunities. (Surprisingly, Luzhansky came from a hot Russian climate in Uzbekistan.) There are even Russian grocery stores in the area.
She does make some distinction between “Russian Russians” and Russian Jews. She implied that Russian Russians—Christian or secular Russians—have had a less fraught immigration to the U.S. than Russian Jews.
Luzhansky, a Russian Jew, came to the area 27 years ago as a refugee.
“America is the way to a better life,” she said. “This country gave me everything.”
Learning Russian language, culture
Luzhansky said the state’s Russian-Americans love America. At the same time, they treasure their Russian heritage.
The Russian Educational Center (with its teaching facility in Savage) is where Russian-American children—Christian, Muslim or Jewish—can study the Russian language and culture.
The center is popular among parents, and “young children like being with other children,” she said.
Children start attending when they are 5 years old. Parents pay $240 per trimester, with discounting if more than one child is enrolled. The center provides the school supplies.
Russian-Americans are not a closed community, Luzhansky stressed, with many marrying Americans from other ethnic backgrounds.
“Our kids have a lot of American friends,” she said.
In St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, and Minneapolis, Luzhansky said there are instances in which one can find elderly Russian-Americans who have limited fluency in English.
They are not typical of Russian-Americans in those three cities, she added. Many younger Russian-Americans readily speak English.
Russian-Americans at work
Many Russian-Americans have brought valuable skills to Minnesota.
That includes Kirill Bak-Stepanoff and his wife Svetlana Bak-Gavrilova, co-directors of the Minnesota Ballet Theatre and School (formerly known as the Academy of Russian Ballet) in Eden Prairie.
Both are trained in the art of ballet.
The school is not ethnically Russian but instead adheres to the classic Vaganova Academy method of teaching ballet. They are emphatic that they are the only school teaching this method.
While only a few of the school’s graduates go on to ballet careers, Bak-Stepanoff said the school prepares young people “to be disciplined, to be focused, to do hard work.”
He noted that a Minnesota Vikings coach once hired a ballet teacher to create more coordinated football players. He is proud that every year he and his wife stage complete performances of such classics as The Nutcracker Suite.
In a spirit of exploration and growth, Bak-Gavrilova and Bak-Stepanoff immigrated to the U.S.
Bak-Gavrilova said the school’s staged performances are used to raise scholarship money for several students. The couple’s children—now 21 and 16—both attended the Russian Educational Center. Both siblings speak Russian with a slight American accent.
Bak-Stepanoff said the couple settled here because he had friends in the Twin Cities, made when he lived here in the past. He and Bak-Gavrilova like what they do because “kids love to dance.”
The couple, who also live Eden Prairie, has property in Russia, periodically returning to visit family. They have dual citizenship, Russian and American.
Like Luzhansky, they said that America has been very welcoming.