Speaking Russian in Vancouver

Inna Mikailov shows a book of fairy tales by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin | Photo by Colleen Addison

With its Cyrillic alphabet, the Russian language is one of the most complicated to learn. But, as Inna Mikailov and Stan Kriventsov explain, many Vancouverites speak Russian − and they’re not all from Russia. June 6th, Russian Language Day, marks the beginning of a summer of events designed to unite Russian language speakers in Vancouver.

Russian Language Day is a holiday that honours Russian cultural diversity, an aim that echoes through the Russian language community of Vancouver.

“All of us speak and like the Russian language,” says Mikailov, who sits on the board of directors of the Multicultural Russian Speaking Association of British Columbia.

But, she clarifies, there are representatives from multiple nations.

“We are all different,” she says. “Most are from the Soviet Union: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan. The Baltic countries, too. The language that helps us connect is the Russian language.”

Kriventsov, a Russian who left in 1997, is an organizer of two meetups, the Russian Speaking Conversation & Adventure and the Russian Language meetup. According to him, Russian Language Day itself is not much known in Vancouver, as many Russian speakers emigrated before UNESCO established this day in 2010.

“During communism, there were some communist holidays,” he comments. “The current policy is to make Russians more patriotic. Because they like to support patriotism in Russia, they celebrate all these Russian holidays.”

But, he says, the aim of Russian Language Day, to connect people together with language, is alive and well in Vancouver.

“In Russia,” he explains, “there are Russians and there are Ukrainians. But here, we all speak Russian.”

Chess and children

Stan Kriventsov runs two meetups for Russian language speakers. | Photo by courtesy of Stan Kriventsov

The Russian language community is an active one, according to Mikailov and Kriventsov. Mikailov’s organization will host its annual festival in late summer, featuring traditional food including perogies and borscht, and entertainment such as Russian songs and folk dances.

“We want to have all the festivals. But we can afford only one,” laughs Mikailov.

Mikailov is the owner of Russian World, a store selling Russian souvenirs, food, and books; and she is also a member of the Russian Community Centre in Kitsilano.

“There is a Balalaika orchestra, and music and dancing. A very nice dance, called Yabloko. This means ‘apple’ in Russian. And there are classes for the children on Saturdays, in the Russian language. The children also write essays on [Alexander] Pushkin,” she adds, speaking of the famous Russian poet, whose birthday, June 6th, is also commemorated by Russian Language Day.

Chess is also popular in the Russian language community, which holds chess lessons and competitions.

“The chess community in Vancouver is largely Russian,” says Kriventsov. “Chess was really popularized in communist times because the communists felt that it showed the intellectual superiority of Russia and communism. Chess was government-supported. If you were a chess player, you didn’t have to work.”

Kriventsov’s meetups have other activities for Russian speakers.

“We have hikes and camping trips, for people who speak Russian,” says Kriventsov. “There are conversational circles for learners, [and] cultural events, too, theatre, and Russian movies. There are also dancing parties, play[ing] modern music, but in Russian.”

A childhood in another country

Both Kriventsov and Mikailov grew up in Russia, and their stories epitomize the changing history of that country. Mikailov grew up under communism, in a time when Russia and associated countries were one.

“I come from the Soviet Union,” she says. “Right now, [where I lived] is Ukraine. I was born in Siberia and also lived in Ukraine. In my childhood, it was all one country.”

Kriventsov left Russia after the fall of communism.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he explains, “there was a lot of money, a lot of people starting their own businesses, but there wasn’t a strong enough government system to protect them. There was crime. I was happy to come to Vancouver.”