To celebrate the folk holiday Maslenitsa, a group of Russian students came together in late February for a potluck of pancake-like dish blini, spicy soft drink Tarkhun and other Russian pastries.
Elena Ivanova, Plan II and public health freshman, co-founded the Russian Student Association with a group of her Russian friends at the start of the spring 2017 semester to bring together students with a common interest in the culture.
Ivanova, whose parents are Russian, immigrated to the United States when she was eight and grew up in Cedar Park, Texas. In fall 2016, Ivanova and her friends began brainstorming a group that could help Russian students connect with each other and organized the association.
“When I was in high school, I was the only Russian in the entire high school,” Ivanova said. “A lot of my friends whom I founded this organization with had that community, and I never did. Coming here, I wanted to change that, and I didn’t want other people to be in that position where they felt like an outsider because their culture didn’t align with others.”
Ksenia Vlassova, biochemistry freshman and RSA co-president, said the club is focused largely on social gatherings for the first semester and meets biweekly. During off weeks, members are encouraged to get together informally for conversation hours to speak Russian together. Recently, they held a movie night and screened “Dukhless”, a 2012 Russian black comedy-drama about a wealthy businessman in Moscow.
“For our meetings we try to make it where you get to know the Russian community,” Vlassova said. “At one of our meetings we had Russian riddles and divided people up into teams, and the winner got to choose a movie for movie night. You get to know people better when you divide up into teams and get competitive.”
Mere months before he was born, computer science freshman Michail Shaposhnikov said his parents moved to the United States from St. Petersburg. Growing up, he would speak Russian at home with his family after coming home from school every day. Now, Shaposhnikov practices his Russian with the RSA during their the conversation hours.
“It’s just really nice to get to practice my language again and talk about all the things that are going on in Russia and about Russian culture,” Shaposhnikov said. “It was just really nice to talk with people who share that with you.”
Ivanova said keeping Russian students connected with one another is one of her favorite things about the club, but she also hopes to change attitudes towards the Russian community over time.
“With the current political climate between Russia and the United States, we’re kind of in this in-between position because we identify as Russians, but we’re also Americans,” Ivanova said. “Tensions are so high between the two countries. We can just engage in a dialogue with others to find a common dialogue and share perspectives.”
The club is already starting dialogue with younger Russian students. Through a liaison at the Russian School of Austin, members visit the school to volunteer with the elementary school students every Sunday. They help with arts and crafts, math, reading and even speak Russian with them.
“I really want to expand that and perhaps go to other elementary schools in the area and create a Russian teaching group,” Ivanova said. ”I want to focus on making a bigger impact on the community.”