The unfamiliar-sounding names can be seen along a stretch of Collins Avenue and East Hallandale Beach Boulevard: Matryoshka Deli Food, Tatiana Club & Restaurant, Kirova Ballet Academy. The owners of these businesses are Russian-speaking professionals catering to Russian-speaking customers.
Welcome to South Florida’s Little Moscow.
Among the most famous of so-called Russian residents in this region are NHL player Pavel Bure and tennis player Anna Kournikova, who own luxury waterfront villas on nearby Miami Beach.
But those who live in the district that stretches from Sunny Isles to Hallandale Beach, could hardly be called “Russian.” They consist of more than 20 nationalities: Ukranians, Belorusians, Jews, Lithuanians, Latvians, Moldavians, Uzbeks and Chechens, to name a few. The only thing that unites all of these people is the Russian language.
Russian speakers began to emigrate during former Soviet Union times when many were fleeing for political and social reasons. Among those relocating to South Florida was a significant Jewish population. Immigrants of the 1970-’80s adopted the United States as their new homeland, so they spent much of their time trying to adjust themselves and their children to American traditions, culture and way of life.
The second wave of Russian immigration came after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For many, the desire to relocate was for economic reasons.
“These people didn’t ruin their Russian connection — they kept on developing businesses and investing in Russia while staying in Miami,” writes Vera Kishinevski in her book Russian Immigrants in the United States: Adapting to American Culture (New Americans).
The author adds that many of the immigrants from that era still call Russia their home and follow Russian news, politics and the economy. Many also hire Russian teachers for their children.
At the Russian-named shops, cafes and bars that dot the bilingual Sunny Isles/Hallandale Beach district, customers can find just about any service in Russian faster than in English. Lawyers, doctors, hair stylists, tourism managers and journalists are ready fulfill the needs of Russian-speaking clients.
Janna Kirova, founder of Kirova Ballet Academy of Miami, has spent about 10 years teaching classical Russian ballet to American, Russian and Hispanic children. A professional dancer trained at the prestigious Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia, Kirova said she can’t imagine herself without endless ballet classes. She teaches Russian-style choreography to her 200 students.
“Ballet is undoubtedly one of Russia’s symbols,” Kirova said. “As opposed to other arts, it’s been cultivating in our country throughout its whole history, even in the Soviet times. So it’s literally our natural way to express feelings in motion.”
“When I watched a ballet performance for the first time in my childhood, I was fascinated by its airy beauty and symbolism,” she said. “Ballet has become my way of life, my language and my love.” While Kirova’s dance academy has survived, other businesses in the Russian-speaking district have struggled, and a few have closed over the years.
Matryoshka Deli Food, which opened in November 2012, has become a popular gathering spot for Russian-speakers in Sunny Isles Beach. According to store owner Tatyana Pugachova, “It is a supermarket and bistro with traditional Russian food and with the high level of service that the Americans are used to.”
Although the shop provides clients with authentic Russian caviar, bakery and milk products, the assortment includes some international dishes, as well. Next to the solyanka soup one can find a traditional Ukranian borsht and Jewish potato latkes.
“Our clients could be Russians, Ukranians, Jews. … It doesn’t matter. Every tenth client is American, and every seventh is Latin,” said Tatiana Kolpakova, the executive chef at Matryoshka. “Everybody likes delicious Russian pancakes with caviar or delightful steaming borscht with sour cream.”
“Relationships with Americans are mostly for business. We prefer to spend our free time with Russians just because it’s more comfortable for us,” said Pugachova, the shop owner. “It’s not a question of liking or the language barrier, but the mentality thing. With Russian-speaking people, we laugh at the same jokes, remember the same books and films. And it doesn’t even matter where he (the customer) is from — Israel or Ukraine, whatever. If he grew up in the Soviet Union, we consider him a part of our community.”
As Russian-speaking families adapt to life in the United States, they also work hard to preserve their language so it is not lost among the younger generation.
“We always speak Russian with our children when they are at home, but they also study English at school,” said Pugachova. “My son may ask me to give him a toy car in Russian and name the color in English. There is a mix of languages in his head now, but in the future he will be able to speak Russian and English fluently. It’s our goal as parents.”
Elena Potapova is an executive multimedia editor for the Moscow-based Russia Beyond The Headlines online news site. She was in Miami on an exchange program sponsored by the Washington-based International Center for Journalists.