Russian Community

A ‘Taste of Russia’ Honors Cultural Traditions

By Judith Kahn

The Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the Richmond District landmark with its distinctive golden onion domes, was the site of the annual Taste of Russia Festival on Oct. 20. The festival has been held every year since 2006.

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Members of the Slavitza Folk group from Sacramento stand in front of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Front row: Alisa Wesson, Asya Brister and Svetlana Borovskikh. Back row: Alexey Borovskikh. Photo by Tyler Hansen.

The cathedral at 6210 Geary Blvd. is the largest of six such cathedrals outside Russia. This year’s festival,  attended by approximately 300 people, opened at 11 a.m. and continued until 6 p.m. Music dominated the program as the Russian community celebrated its heritage. Young students and adults in colorful costumes performed lively Russian folk dances and honorary artists and celebrated performers sang traditional songs, making for a joyous day.

The event is sponsored in part by the Congress of Russian Americans, a non-governmental organization in the United States representing Russian-Americans and Russians. Its purpose includes preserving Russian culture in the United States and protecting the rights of Russian Americans. 

Traditional Russian food on offer included pelmeni (small, meat-filled dumplings), piroshki (baked and fried bread stuffed with meat or mushrooms), borscht (soup made from beetroot), and stroganoff (sautéed beef served in a sour cream sauce). In the courtyard, a barbeque served up shish kabob, sausages and tri-tip. Guests finished off their feast with a variety of desserts, such as napoleon and vatrushka (Russian cheesecake). Wines, vodka and Russian Baltika beer were available on the beverage list. 

All of the folk dances were lively, each telling a different story. The first performance was the Boyar dance with a traditional Russian ceremonial welcome of “bread and salt.” Boyars were members of the aristocracy in tsarist Russia, next in rank to a prince. Katherine Sabelnik-Snider of the Russian Folk Ensemble, presented the dance. Her musical accompaniment was by Vladimir Riazantsev, an “honored artist” of Russia. The Russian Federation bestows this title on artists for outstanding achievements in the field of theater, music, circus, vaudeville and film. Riazantsev, a skilled player of the bayan (a Russian accordion-like instrument) also accompanied his dance group in the light dance number Lyrica. Slavitza, an a cappella Slavic quartet, sang several pieces, some in Russian and Belorussian, allowing time for the dancers to change from their elaborate boyar costumes.

Yevgenyi Shilin, another honored artist of Kazakhstan, played two of his own Russian  compositions, followed by his arrangement of the favorite “Spanish Eyes.”

The Sivka-Burka Children’s Cossack Ensemble performed with artistic director Janna Wilson. In colorful Cossack costumes, children of many ages sang a variety of Cossack songs, again with the accompaniment of Vladimir Riazantsev on the bayan. Kalinka, a group of senior members of the Sacramento Russian community, danced a traditional horovod circle dance to the song “Beriozka” (a Russian birch tree). Just before the grand finale, young students in dramatic costumes performed the Russian Center dances, directed by Aleksei Prokoshin. 

World-acclaimed Russian singer, Nikolai Massenkoff, and his Russian Folk Festival Orchestra provided a smash ending for the grand finale, concluding with the audience joining in to sing “Moscow Nights” and “Those Were the Days.” Orchestra instruments included the traditional three-string balalaika, accordion, bayan and grand piano. 

Massenkoff performed over the years in many venues, including Carnegie Hall, the Seoul Olympics and other concerts in Moscow and throughout the United States. Raised in St. John’s Orphanage in Shanghai, he came to the U.S. with St. Tichon’s Orphanage. Massenkoff was an altar boy for St. John’s and even now, as he travels for many concerts, still directs church choirs in the Bay Area.

As the festival drew to a close, the audience looked forward to next year’s festival and the opportunity to once again enjoy the cultural delights of the music, dancing and flavors of Russia.

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