A festival of Russian friendship

Alik Schlastlivenko, with a representative from Azerbaijan and Tatarstan, stands at a booth in last year’s friendship festival.

Alik Schastlivenko wants to tell Canadians about his country. He wants to hear about Canada too and about other countries, about the food, music, dancing, and culture that make all people who they are.

When we open our eyes and ears and try to be a little bit flexible,” says Schastlivenko, “we can understand each other. But to understand we need to know about the culture.”

Schastlivenko, a board member of the Multicultural Russian Speaking Association of BC, hopes to foster this understanding at the annual Friendship without Borders Festival, held this year on August 25 at the Serbian Centre in Burnaby. All ethnicities are welcome.

Braids and borscht

Schastlivenko and his organization are already building bridges between nations. At the Festival, there will be representatives from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Tatarstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Estonia, who come to share their culture with each other and with Canadians.

“We try to invite as many people as we can,” Schastlivenko says. “We show what we know, what we can do, what we eat, how we dance, how we spend time together, and how we cherish our friends. It’s a mosaic.”

Having different parts of the mosaic present is important, says Schastlivenko. There can be misunderstandings, even within the former Soviet Union countries that may appear the same from the outside. As one example, people’s appearances can illustrate culture. “You can see traditional Russian costumes [at the festival], which you can’t see on the street in Vancouver, such as serafan dresses and kokoshnik. Kokoshnik is a Russian tiara. Sometimes people use coral [for the tiara], not ocean, but river coral.”

But there are dissimilarities between the former Soviet nations. “If the girl has two braids,” he explains, “it means that this girl is not married. If the girl has only one braid, it sends a signal to the community that she is married. Last year we had a representative from Uzbekistan. They have many, many braids,” he laughs.

Food, too, shows some cultural distinctions. The Festival, catered by New Westminster’s Russian Spoon Bakery, provides food from all parts of the former Soviet Union.

“We have piroshky, special dough that we fill up with meat or with cheese, vegetable or potato mash. The kitchen is very similar to the Slavic kitchen. People in Poland have borscht. The name is the same, but the flavour, the consistency, is totally different. If you take Russian borscht, it will be different from Ukrainian borscht.”

Having a better understanding of customs is helpful for Canadians, says Schastlivenko. “In the former Soviet Union, we put the wedding ring on the right [hand], but in Canada, it is on the left. If you didn’t know the cultural difference, you’d think oh, this is probably a divorced woman. It’s these small differences which you never hear [about]. You can learn during this festival.”

A good country

Schastlivenko, who was born in Odessa, Ukraine, came to Canada eighteen years ago as a 30-year-old married father of two. “My children now have better English than me!” he laughs. “But I can speak four languages, and they can speak only two. You have an advantage when you move [from] country to country.”

Schastlivenko is happy he chose Canada as a place to live. His children’s first Halloween was an example of a time where he was made to feel welcome when he didn’t know how to participate in the local custom. One of his children’s teachers came to his house and invited them to join in celebrating on the main street.

“Today,” he adds, “it’s important to talk with people, to show them our culture, to show them different sides from what they see on TV, what they are reading. We are people who are living here, who are supporting Canada. We are happy and proud to be here.”

For more information, please visit www.rusvan.org.