Dublin's Russian revolution


ESTIMATES VARY on how many Russians live in Ireland, but it’s definitely enough to sustain the vibrant Dublin City Festival of Russian Culture, which takes place in the capital this week.

For many Irish people, the Russian and Russian-speaking community here are under the radar, apart from the street-level indicators of grocery shops selling Russian food.

But the third annual festival of Russian culture, supported by Dublin City Council and taking place across the capital until Sunday, aims to introduce Irish people to aspects of Russian culture, as well as bringing together some of the thousands of Russians and Russian speakers living in Ireland to celebrate their culture, art, music and food.

The festival coincides with Pancake Week, or Maslenitsa, celebrated throughout Russia, Ukraine and Belarus on the seventh week before Easter, culminating in pancake day on the Sunday of that week.

The festival is also mindful of the business connections between Ireland and Russia, with business leaders meeting to discuss ways of strengthening economic ties between both countries.

Vladimir Popov is a member of the Irish Russia Business Association and chairman of the Russian festival committee. “This is my second festival and, in general, I think it’s good. It’s good for Ireland, and it’s also good for Russian people and Russian-speaking people from the ex-USSR.”

Popov is a Russian-speaker originally from the Ukraine who moved here in 2000 when he was offered a job in a multinational company. He had never really considered moving to Ireland before the job offer, but then went on to study an MBA at Smurfit Business School.

“I think from a cultural point of view it is difficult in a sense,” Popov says about his initial interactions here with his Irish counterparts. “Even if you speak English, because quite a lot of stuff is communicated to you through non-verbal cues which some [Russian] people don’t get.”

He says that specific Irish interests could also make interaction difficult. “People, on a personal level, like to talk about things they’re interested in, so they might be having a pint of Guinness and talking about Gaelic football. Foreigners have no clue what Gaelic football is.”

As a result, Popov feels the festival helps create new levels of understanding and connections. “Festivals like this one are helpful in understanding what that foreign culture is, what interests people have, and what useful experiences they can bring to Ireland and to Irish business.”

Meanwhile, Popov’s nine-year-old son, who attends an international school, is also integrating. “Everyone goes through ups and downs, but in essence I’d say that Ireland is a great place to raise kids. That’s what I like about it most,” he says. “He [Popov’s son] speaks with a Dublin accent and half of his friends are Irish, so it’s great for him.”

Vera Smyth, originally from the Ural Mountains region in Russia, was living in Moscow before she moved to Ireland in 2000 to study a post-graduate diploma at Dublin Business School. She now works for the Dublin Fire Brigade. “I would say it’s quite a diverse community,” she says of Russians living in Ireland.

“There are people who come to work, or people who would be married to Irish people and they would come through their marriage, but there’s loads of different reasons why Russians come to Ireland.”

Smyth met her Irish husband after they started talking at an exhibition in the Hugh Lane Gallery. “There are loads of similarities between Russian people and Irish people,” Smyth explains.

“People are very open. You might think that Russian people aren’t open, but I think that’s only a first impression. If you get friendly with Russian people, they’ll do anything for you, and I think that’s similar also for Irish people. And if you tell a Russian joke, Irish people tend to understand.”

Smyth says that while initially Russians mightn’t have tended to interact with Irish social life, they have become “more outgoing . . . but traditionally it’s still mainly about visiting in each other’s houses more than meeting somewhere out. “I notice that Russian people are probably still a novelty here, but they love the pubs and the atmosphere because it’s different. Irish people tend to talk to you as well when you’re out, just pass by and say something, and start conversations.”

“We’re all part of one community, that’s the way I see it,” says Anna Rooney who moved from Russia to Ireland in January 2000 and currently sits on Clones town council in Co Monaghan.

“People who are settled have the same issues any Irish people have. They’re struggling to pay their mortgages, and they have kids at school, so it’s not very easy to pack up and move.

“It’s more or less the same as Irish people – they want to give the best education to their children. Parents have to make some sacrifices and choices. And to find a job or change a job is as difficult as it is for any Irish person.”

Everything, from business breakfasts to acting workshops, is covered during the Dublin City Festival of Russian Culture. For those who want to learn about Russian cuisine, a Russian cooking class at the Cooks Academy on South William Street will take place on Thursday. Sunday is packed with events, with family-oriented activities forming the core of activities. Last year, more than 7,000 people attended the Sunday events.

Around Cows Lane and Essex Street in Temple Bar, the Russian food and craft market will take place. In Smock Alley, children can partake in craft workshops including doll painting.

In the afternoon on Cow’s Lane, there will be a performance by a children’s choir and later a street music workshop, while in the Gutter Bookshop, there will be Russian folktale and fairytale readings for children in both Russian and English, and Wood Quay is hosting a musical and a games session.

Lectures also form part of the line-up, with a discussion in Trinity College’s arts block on Wednesday on the political, economic, social and commercial aspects of contemporary Russia, and a lunchtime lecture about art, history and cultural identity in the National Gallery on Friday.

If throwing shapes on a dancefloor rather than on a canvas is what you’re after, there’s a Russian disco at the Czech Inn in Temple Bar. And there are also screenings of Russian films in the Light House Cinema in Smithfield as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

One of the commonalities between Irish and Russian culture is a dense literary history. This is marked during the festival with an introduction to Alexander Pushkin’s short stories at the National Library on the 175th anniversary of his death.

Thursday is all about another great Russian pastime, chess, a game that has been traditionally dominated by Russian players. In the Civic Offices at Wood Quay, there’s a chess workshop for teenagers, a third-level student’s chess challenge, and a lecture and simultaneous-play exhibition. All of these chess events are presided over by Alexander Baburin, a grandmaster, the highest title a chess player can earn.

After attending the launch of the festival last Thursday, Anna Rooney’s task will be informing Russians living in the Border counties and other multi- cultural networks in other counties about the upcoming events.

“I’m very proud,” she says of the festival. “It makes you feel like you’re really home. It’s very nice that Russian culture is highlighted and well supported.”

After 12 years, Rooney has no hesitation in calling Ireland her home, although she says that can sometimes be a confusing term to use when she returns to visit Russia. “Mammy is laughing at me when I go home to Russia and after a couple of weeks I’ll say, ‘Mammy it’s time for me to go home’ and she’ll be looking at me asking, ‘Where is home?’”


In numbers

The Russian embassy has a register of 5,000 Russian citizensliving in Ireland, although there are many citizens who are not registered with the embassy.

The number of Russian speakersis much bigger, including citizens of Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.

It is believed that 70,000 to 80,000Russian speakers live in Ireland, although some estimations are larger.