Moscow Nights: Getting Down With Baltimore’s Burgeoning Eastern Bloc

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 13, 2002

“No, no, it’s not possible,” says Mark, a music promoter from New York. A short middle-aged man with brown hair and mustache, he looks exhausted and harried as he explains in a Russian accent, his English slightly broken: “I’m sorry, but she’s very, very big pop star, you understand. It’s not possible. It has been a very tough tour. We just drove from Boston–nine hours straight here. Very tough.”

Mark is politely declining a request to interview Larisa Dolina–an unknown in the United States but a household name in the 15 countries that formerly made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As her Web site proudly proclaims, Dolina has been dubbed “Woman of the Year” in Russia, won the Russian equivalent of the Tony Award, performed with Ray Charles at the Kremlin, and sold 10 million albums. And on this Friday night in February, she’s performing at Randallstown High School.

Over the course of more than two hours in this suburban auditorium, Dolina and her troupe of 13 dancers, musicians, and backup singers perform 21 songs and change costumes time and again–from Rent-style baggy getups to disco-era spandex suits to traditional Hasidic attire. It’s an elaborate extravaganza, and by the end of the show the crowd of about 700 people is ecstatic, in a subdued, Russian sort of way; every man, woman, and child is standing up and singing along. The fans’ appreciation is expressed not only with ovations, but also with elaborate, expensive-looking flower arrangements, which scores of people carry to the stage and place before Dolina.

With the exception of one song–“I Will Survive,” made famous by American pop star Gloria Gaynor, who has recorded a version with Dolina–every number is performed in Russian. The announcements over the PA system before and after the show are in Russian, as are the conversations among the ticket holders as they mill about the school entrance, where Russian-speaking travel agents pass around handbills advertising tour packages–all printed in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

There’s a scene in the movie Diner in which Boogie, the Mickey Rourke character, and Fenwick, played by Kevin Bacon, are driving in the aristocratic horse country north of Baltimore. A woman on horseback is riding along, and Boogie flags her down, asks her name. “Jane Chisholm,” she says, before abruptly riding off, “as in the Chisholm Trail.” Boogie turns to Fenwick and asks, “What fuckin’ Chisholm Trail?”

“You ever get the feeling,” Fenwick replies, “there’s something going on we don’t know about?”

The Dolina concert is part of something most of us don’t know about–Baltimore’s parallel Russian universe, a place inhabited by tens of thousands of local residents who commune in their native tongue, dine and dance at their own banquet halls, read their own newspapers, and shop at their own businesses. For an outsider, entering this sizable enclave is like crossing an invisible border. Once inside, it’s easy to forget you’re still in Baltimore.

It seems like any other Tuesday afternoon along Reisterstown Road, just over the city line: Shops are open for business, people are waiting for buses, delivery trucks are unloading their merchandise. Suddenly, there’s a blast of Jewish music, bringing a festive air to the bustling corridor. It’s coming from speakers mounted on a large camper that pulls into the parking lot in front of the International Food Market, one of several Russian groceries in the area. A banner hanging from the side of the vehicle proclaims, CHABAD LUBAVITCH WISHES YOU A HAPPY PURIM! The door opens and a half-dozen boys, clad in Orthodox Jewish garb, emerge.

“Are you Jewish?” one of the youngsters asks me. When I say no, he starts to move on. I ask what’s going on, and he stops. “It’s Purim,” he says, “and we’re celebrating by giving out three-cornered pastries called hamantaschen to other Jews–particularly Russian Jews because they don’t do much of this.” By “this,” he means celebrating Jewish holidays such as Purim, which commemorates the failure of a plan, hatched long ago by a Persian named Haman, to kill Jews. Haman, the boy explains, is said to have worn a three-cornered hat–hence the shape of the namesake pastry. “That’s why we’re here, because of the Russians,” he says, before skipping off with his friends.

The outreach effort is in keeping with the Russian roots of Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox movement whose philosophy combines intellectualism and spirituality, and which was born 250 years ago in the Russian town of Lubavitch. But the visits also square with a longstanding Baltimore tradition–the intertwining of local Jewish culture and that of immigrant Russians, many of whom are Jews.

In 1880, according to Isaac Fein’s The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920, Baltimore was home to 10,000 Jews, most of whom had arrived before 1860 as immigrants from Germany. “And then,” Fein writes, “‘they’ came. ‘They’ were the East European Jews, who drew attention to themselves by being so uncouth, so untutored, so ragged, so outlandish in their manners and mannerisms in the eyes of the German Jews.” Between 1881 and 1898, new Jewish arrivals in Baltimore numbered more than 40,000–this, in a city whose total population at the time was about 450,000. As a whole, they were known as “Russian Jews,” although how many were actually Russian isn’t known.

Despite misgivings about the new arrivals’ unfamiliar customs, Baltimore’s established Jewish community stepped in to help them resettle. “The German Jews, with their gift for organization, threw themselves into the enormous undertaking, helping the immigrants in every way possible–by giving outright charity, by restoring health, by finding work,” Fein writes. “Many helped to diminish misery and make the newcomers self-supporting.”

Many of the Russians found work in the needle trades, which dominated downtown Baltimore, and which were dominated by Jewish owners and workers. A 1911 federal government report on immigrants found that 34 percent of males employed in the city’s clothing industry were Russian Jews. The garment workers were also among the first nationally to organize labor unions. The resulting strife, along with Russian-Jewish involvement in local anarchist and socialist groups and, eventually, the Russian Revolution itself, helped form an impression of the immigrants as predisposed to unsavory radical politics.

Many of the Russian Jews settled in Jonestown, just north of Little Italy. Henrietta Szold, a rabbi’s daughter of Austrian heritage, helped them to assimilate by starting an English-language night school on Gay Street, which instructed thousands of newcomers through the 1890s. Highlandtown, Canton, and Barre Circle were also home to many Russians.

The flood of Russians into Baltimore continued until World War I, when it practically ceased and never resumed to pre-war levels. But their settlement here had a lasting demographic and cultural impact. The 1930 U.S. Census counted 17,500 native Russians living in Baltimore–the largest foreign-born group in the city. The same census found more than 24,000 native Baltimoreans of Russian parentage. As Fein writes:

With great pride immigrant parents called these children of theirs gantze Yenkis (one hundred percent Americans). This new breed of Jews, most of them American-born, became socially, economically, and culturally an integral part of the general community, as much so as the German Jews. But like their American-born sons and daughters, the immigrants themselves underwent a change–at a slower pace. . . . They were no longer greenhorns. They felt themselves to be Baltimoreans rather than Vilner or Odesser. . . . No more could one speak of the immigrants as anarchists. They were becoming more and more a substantial group, active in all phases of the city’s life.

As assimilation continued through successive generations, and with immigration from what was now the Soviet Union at a virtual standstill, local ethnic Russians’ cultural connection to the land of their forebears weakened. They were absorbed into the larger Jewish community and, with it, migrated out of downtown enclaves and into Northwest Baltimore along Liberty Heights and Park Heights avenues and Reisterstown Road.

“400 Soviet Jews Settle Here Since ’73,” a 1977 Evening Sun headline proclaimed. It was, said Milton Goldman, then-head of the immigrant-aid group Jewish Family and Children’s Service, in the article “the largest resettlement of Russians we have had since the 1880s.” This trickle of immigration continued in fits and starts, depending on the vagaries of Soviet emigration policies, into the 1980s. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the floodgates opened. And once again, Baltimore’s Jewish community was ready to help the newly arriving immigrants.

Over the last 20 years, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has smoothed the way for 10,000 Russian-Jewish arrivals to the Baltimore area, says Ellen Rosen, who coordinates the society’s Russian-resettlement program. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she says, 1,200 to 1,500 Russian immigrants per year were given aid in securing housing, employment, and language instruction. Since the mid-1990s, the society’s caseload has diminished, partly because the organization instituted a policy of only taking on cases of immigrant families who already have relatives in the Baltimore area; after Sept. 11, with the federal government placing substantial bureaucratic obstacles in the way of refugee arrivals, it dropped nearly to zero. “Now they are starting to arrive again, but much more slowly,” Rosen says.

Today, the total number of Russian immigrants in the Baltimore area is hard to pin down. According to the 2000 Census, between 17,000 and 41,000 residents of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties report being of Russian ancestry, most of them in Baltimore County. Estimates by Russian immigrants interviewed for this article–among them a real-estate agent, a lawyer, a bookstore manager, and a newspaper executive–range even more widely, from 10,000 to 110,000 people in the Baltimore metropolitan area, many of them congregated in the Randallstown/Pikesville/ Owings Mills corridor.

Suffice it to say, as Rosen does, that “it’s a big community.” And its size and vitality are apparent in many ways. No less than five Russian-language periodicals–three newspapers and two magazine–are published locally. Numerous Russian-owned shops, stocked with Russian and Eastern European goods, dot the main corridors heading northwest out of the city. Two large restaurants–one in Bolton Hill, the other at the city line right off of Reisterstown Road–cater to Russian diners. At the Millbrook Apartments in Pikesville, hundreds of Russian immigrants living cheek-to-jowl create an Old World atmosphere here in the New.

A romp through Baltimore’s Russian haunts may be as close as one can come to international travel without leaving town. The tour provides a rich sampling of Russian culture and belies the stereotype of Russians as cold, somber, and suspicious. On the contrary, the people I encountered on this local journey were exceedingly warm, effusive, and open to an inquisitive stranger.

At Lev and Rose Volynskiy’s home in Owings Mills’ New Town neighborhood, visitors are asked to remove their shoes upon entering, as is customary in Russian households. Lev is the marketing director for the Pikesville-based Russian-language newspaper Kackad (Cascade), and he teaches Russian on the side. He speaks English well, if haltingly, and is prone to telling jokes and poking fun at himself. We chat around the kitchen table, which is covered with plates of sausage, cheese, crackers, and cookies.

Kackad is a 6-year-old biweekly that distributes 20,000 copies around the Baltimore-Washington area. It is filled with articles about events in Russia, the world, the United States, and the local Russian community. Lev also writes for Baltimorsky Boulevard, a 4-year-old monthly paper based in the Twin Ridge neighborhood off Old Pimlico Road, and another Russian-language monthly produced locally, Nash Golos (Our Voice). There are also two magazines: Vestnik (The Herald), a monthly based in Upper Park Heights, and Chayka (The Seagull), a semimonthly whose offices are in Owings Mills.

Rose works for Circle of Friends, a Pikesville-based adult-day-care provider that serves elderly Russians in three locations around Baltimore. Only two years old, the company now employs 80 people–yet another testimony to the stout market the Russian community represents.

A visit to Kackad‘s offices finds Lev Volynskiy in a cheerful, ebullient mood. After introducing the paper’s three other staffers, he spins tales about his arrival in the United States in 1995. His first job, he says, was as a clerk in a low-end department store, where he immediately encountered difficulties due to the language barrier. On his first day, a customer asked, “Do you have socks?” He thought the woman was asking to have sex with him and, astounded, answered no. Behind him was a table covered with socks for sale. “Why do you lie to me?” the customer angrily demanded. “You have socks on the table!” Volynskiy, utterly perplexed, thought she was demanding he service her on the table. The matter was finally resolved when the store manager intervened.

Next, Volynskiy ushers me to an auto-body shop behind the newspaper office, where his friend Alex Dudkin works as a painter. A surrealist artist whose work brings to mind Salvador Dali, Dudkin moved here from New York about five years ago. He lives nearby, in the Millbrook Apartments, and dotes on his car, which he has fitted with a roll bar and covered with racing decals and pro-American patriotic slogans. He too is given to laughter and jokes–particularly about the Russian proclivity for drinking, which he has sworn off due to its ill effect on his work ethic.

Volynskiy and Dudkin suggest a stop at Victor Kamkin Bookstore, around the block from Kackad at Reisterstown and Old Milford Mill roads. The store, opened last year, is an offshoot of the much larger Kamkin store in Rockville, which opened in 1952 but is in the process of closing. (The managers of the Baltimore outlet say it will remain open.) Although nearly all of the books are in Russian, three rows of a bookshelf at the back contain titles in English–travel guides, cookbooks, and some Russian literature. The prices are low: Cookbooks cost $4 or $5; a 600-page hardcover collection of 19th-century Russian Gothic tales is only $9.25.

Over in Owings Mills, in the 10500 block of Reisterstown Road, is a must-see stopover for anyone seeking Russian food or spirits, Euro Deli and Euro Liquors. The liquor-store proprietors, Nella and Nick Solovyovsky and Lisa and Michael Rudyak, came to the States in 1979 and at first worked menial jobs: cleaning houses, driving cabs, and the like, raising capital to start their own business.

“We always wanted to have a business where we could work as a family,” says Nella, who is Lisa’s sister. In 1990, they opened the International Food Market in Pikesville, followed by Euro Deli in 1995 and Euro Liquors in 1998. They have since sold all but the liquor store, finding the responsibilities of running three shops simultaneously to be too much.

In Reisterstown, near the intersection of Reisterstown Road and Franklin Boulevard, are the Babushka Deli and Everfresh Produce Market. Both feature traditional Russian goods–potato and cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, beef tongue, jars of mixed garlic and kelp, Russian chocolates by the pound–and Everfresh also has picture-perfect fruits and vegetables. An Everfresh truck visits Millbrook Apartments every Wednesday and Saturday morning, creating an ad hoc farmers market for the complex’s residents. Two other food markets–the Old World Deli near Liberty and Deer Park roads in Randallstown and Stolichny Deli in Northwest Baltimore–offer a similar variety of Russian foods.

The Old World was the first food store in Baltimore to offer Russian foods, Nella Solovyovsky says. As the local Russian community burgeoned in the 1980s, the Old World, then a German deli, expanded its stock to cater to the newcomers’ desire for tastes from home.

“We needed the Russian bread, the Russian salami, the Russian yogurt,” Solovyovsky says. The need was cultural as well as culinary. “It’s very important, the food,” she explains. “The way we socialize is with food, and Russian people are very generous–you can’t see the tablecloth between all the dishes on the table. It brings the family together.”

The story of years of hard, low-paying work en route to business success is common among immigrants from Russia and its former Soviet neighbors. It is told eloquently by Michael Gutin, a real-estate agent with O’Connor, Piper & Flynn’s Owings Mills office.

Gutin, a native Ukrainian, arrived in Baltimore with his wife and two young children in 1977. At the time, he says, they were one of about 10 immigrant families living in small apartments in Park Heights. He left the Soviet Union for the United States because he wanted to provide a better future for his children, he says. Today, his older son is a vice president for the financial firm Goldman Sachs in New York, and the younger attends Harvard on a full scholarship.

In Odessa, Gutin had designed ships; arriving in Baltimore, he worked as a $5-an-hour pipe fitter for Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., a now-defunct concern on the industrial waterfront. Work was sporadic due to the company’s precarious financial health, and before long he lost the job. To make ends meet, he worked numerous jobs–tending bar at Woodholme Country Club (after getting some mixology training), doing house-painting and wallpapering, pulling graveyard shifts installing body molding on cars, and getting his taxi license. (He still drives a cab on the side, when he has time.)

His success in real estate for the past 20 years–he says he’s put hundreds and hundreds of Russians into homes in the Baltimore area–and his seniority as an early arrival in the most recent wave of immigration have lent him standing in the Russian community. “I try to help everybody,” he says in accented, somewhat broken English. “Everybody know Michael. I give advice–then never follow this advice, but I give advice.” He, like many Russian immigrants, says he is “proud” to have taken low-paying jobs rather than resorting to welfare.

“I’m ready to work for $2, $3 an hour,” he says. “Maybe it’s not a job you can be proud of, but it pays. And my sons, they start work at 16. The whole family work together–and everything is family money. I know that a lot of Russians are like that. If you want to build your own life here, you can build your own life. This is a great country–if you want it, you can get it.”

The Russian-immigrant work ethic builds a healthy appetite–Russians enjoy their leisure time with gusto, Gutin says. They go to Russian restaurants–New York Palace in Bolton Hill and Europe off of Reisterstown Road hard on the city’s edge–and enjoy themselves for hours. “Food must be on the table–all night, until 4, 5, 6 in the morning,” he explains. “We eat,” he declares, with an adamance that suggests outsiders can’t really understand this phenomenon until they experience it.

Friday, March 1, was a big day in the Russian community. Baltimorsky Boulevard was celebrating its fourth anniversary with a big party at New York Palace. For $55 a head, partygoers would be treated to endless food and drink and entertainment by the Rose Sisters, two stylish Russian pop singers from New York. The restaurant, known in previous incarnations as Moscow Nights and Astoria, is the downtown place to be for local Russians, nearly all of whom live in the suburbs.

Starting around 8:30 p.m., a crowd that will eventually number several hundred people streams in. Seated at tables covered with dishes of food, bottles of vodka, and plenty of ashtrays, they settle in for the long haul. The Rose Sisters–all aglitter in red, white, and blue one-piece outfits for the first set, then more sultry in black corsets and bras later in the night–wow an appreciative crowd for hours. When they break into “God Bless America,” the entire audience rises to its feet and sings along. It’s nearly 3 a.m. when liquor-board inspectors arrive to shut the party down–and, true to Gutin’s words, plates of food still fill every available space on every table, and everyone is still eating and drinking.

The next night, at Europe, is more subdued, this being just another Saturday. But the routine is the same. From around 8:30 on, endless rounds of food–caviar, sturgeon filets in aspic with beet-colored horseradish on the side, salads of plums, eggs, mushrooms, and cucumbers–are brought out, and every table has its own bottle of vodka. The house band, a synthesizer-driven outfit churning out Russian pop songs and Ricky Martin covers, plays for hours before a dance floor that never empties. Grandmothers dance with their families, holding hands, twirling in big circles. At 2:30 in the morning, the place is still packed. The patrons are still eating.

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