Russian Christmas celebration aims to engage Vancouverites and obliterate some stereotypes
With so much attention focused on the upcoming Sochi Olympics, it’s worth reflecting on what Russian culture has given to the world.
You need look no further than the Cultch in East Vancouver, where Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya delivers a clever tale of a misanthrope who touches audience’s hearts.
Or consider all the theatre schools around the world, in which Constantin Stanislavski's “method acting” has become a staple of thespian education.
Oh, those Russian authors!
Let’s not forget the literature.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was one of the brightest literary lights of the 19th century, creating the memorable ruffian Raskalnivok of Crime and Punishment—not to mention The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, The Gambler, and other landmark novels that have stood the test of time.
Another Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, was not only the brilliant author of War and Peace, but also inspired Mohandas K. Gandhi to become one of the world’s greatest freedom fighters of the 20th century.
No small thanks to Tolstoy, Gandhi ended up using nonviolence as his weapon of choice to counter racism in South Africa and to overthrow British imperialists in India.
Dissident writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was another towering Russian voice, crafting detailed accounts of life in prison camps in bestsellers such as The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Then there’s Boris Pasternak, who had to wait 40 years before his work could be read by the world.
But when it finally appeared, it inspired the film Doctor Zhivago, which catapulted Omar Sharif into an international celebrity and inserted him into the hearts of millions.
The game of chess isn’t always seen as art, except by those who pay close attention to the movement of pieces on the board. It's worth noting that Russia utterly dominated this game until a legendary saw-off in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1972, when eccentric American Bobby Fischer defeated the then-world champion, Boris Spassky.
Vancouver prepares for Russian cultural celebration
There’s a lot to appreciate about Russia culture, which is one reason why Vancouver's Andrew Ahachinsky is so eager to discuss it during a recent interview with the Georgia Straight at the Forty Ninth Parallel coffee shop on West 4th Avenue.
“We have a lot of talent here,” Ahachinsky says. “We have amazing collectives here, groups of dancers, singers, and gymnasts. I think the city should know what we’re about.”
Ahachinsky, who’s with Russian Theatre Palme, is one of the organizers of the seventh annual Russian Christmas Fair and Concert in Vancouver. It takes place on Sunday (January 5) at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre (181 Roundhouse Mews) in Yaletown.
It will feature a jazz orchestra, dancing, and plenty of events for kids. The children’s program runs from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.; the general program takes place from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
“The whole idea is to introduce the traditions of Russian Christmas and Russian culture to everybody in the city,” Ahachinsky says.
According to the 2006 census, there were 114,105 people in B.C. claiming to have Russian descent. The most famous is Pamela Anderson, whose mother’s roots go back to Finland and Russia.
Ahachinsky, 33, says he's part of a broad community defined as Russianan—they’re not necessarily born in Russia, but are Russian-speaking and grew up with Russian culture.
He’s actually from the Ukrainian city of Lviv and moved to Vancouver with his parents in 1996. One of his grandfathers was born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, whereas the other was born in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.
He says that younger people like himself in this region are now ready to spread a positive message about Russia.
“You see more people showing up at the events,” Ahachinsky notes. “They are more proactive because they are at that age where they feel the need to express themselves and have that urge for Russian culture.”
Stereotypes rankle some Russian Canadians
Ahachinsky readily acknowledges the country’s problems, including the gap between rich oligarchs and the poor, not to mention the corruption. But he also points out that Russians are often extremely well-educated, thanks to an exceptional school system that has produced many of the world's leading scientists.
And he says that many Russian Canadians are tired of unfair stereotypes linking them to the Mafia.
“We are very cultural,” he adds. “We are very open, and we are a very friendly people.”
On the eve of the Sochi Olympics, there’s been a great deal of attention on political issues in Russia.
Recent news out of the country has focused on two terrorist bombings in Volgograd, a major transportation hub on the way to Sochi.
Meanwhile in Vancouver, the LGBT community has held demonstrations outside the Russian consulate to protest the country's antigay legislation.
Ahachinsky says he doesn’t have a lot to say about this latter topic, except to remind Vancouverites that Russia is a young nation that’s coming into its own after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“I see Russia as a country that’s changing and evolving,” he says. “You also have to understand that religion plays a big role in the country as well. There is a lot of people, I find, who take religion more seriously [there] than in the western world.”
Spiritualism arises out of formerly secular state
In the former Soviet Union, the Communist regime officially promoted atheism from 1928 to 1939. It was a reflection of Karl Marx's famous dictum that "religion is the opiate of the masses".
This position was softened during the Second World War, but the state's largely secular orientation remained in place for decades.
This helped discourage the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Chechnya and Central Asian republics.
The Straight asks Ahachinsky if the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 suddenly unleashed a wave of spirituality, which is being expressed through the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Exactly, exactly, exactly,” Ahachinsky replies. “That’s something that a lot of other countries don’t realize.”
He also points out that Russian Christmas is a primarily a religious celebration.
“It’s about the 12 apostles,” he says. “It’s about going to church. It’s about praying.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any fun. There’s also dancing and plenty of music.
For proof of that, he suggests, look no further than the seventh annual Russian Christmas Fair and Concert in Vancouver.