The Ann Arbor Russian Festival brings Northern Eurasian culture to Washtenaw
For the group that puts the Ann Arbor Russian Festival together every year, it’s about much more than simply having a fun time, it’s about sharing their culture.
“Nobody knows what is Orthodox church,” laughed Leta Nikulshina, the festival’s entertainment director. “People think, ‘Are you Catholic?’ ‘No, we’re not.’ Or, ‘Are you Jewish?’ ‘No, we’re not.’
“Its kind of the way to open up who we are and bring us closer to everyone else,” she said.
The festival’s beginnings also had a slight ulterior motive.
“It was kind of political as well because we need to be understanding and see that we’re not monsters who are going after America either,” she said. “Its kind of like, we are friends, we’re normal people just like you are. So, come and see who we are.”
Guests will be able to do that during this year’s festival, which will take place Sept. 15-16 at St. Vladimir Russian Orthodox Church in Dexter, as it has since its 2013 inception.
During the festival’s two days attendees will enjoy entertainment, food, dancing, church tours, a chance to shop, and a kids corner, where there will be a bounce house, playground, coloring, ice cream, and games. There will also be an infused-vodka tasting for the 21-and-older crowd Sunday afternoon. (FYI: It is not a drinking contest.)
When asked how the festival has changed over the years Nikulshina laughed and said they’ve gotten a lot more efficient.
“I remember the first year. … We didn’t have the parking space on our grounds so we had a couple of shuttles going back and forth to the neighboring parking lots, and we were shocked how many people came,” she said. “It was kind of overwhelming.”
Now, they have the parking figured out, have learned how to deal with lines better, and accept credit cards. Getting musicians to come has gotten much easier as well.
While there haven’t been many changes over the years, the 2018 edition will have one: more entertainment than previous festivals, bringing performers together from all over the world, including a few groups connected to St. Vladimir’s, like their adult dance Group and kids choir.
This year’s main entertainment will be Barynya, a Russian dance, music, and song ensemble from New York. There will also be performances by Konevets Quartet, who were founded in 1992 by musicians from the St. Petersburg Conservatory; the Academy of Russian Classical Ballet; and a very interesting choir from Chicago called Golosa.
“They are just regular Americans and most of them don’t have any sort of tie with Russian or Slavic heritage,” Nikulshina said. “But they sound like actual Russians.”
Nikulshina said that the folk style of music Golosa plays was lost in the Soviet Union while she was growing up. It was so connected to faith and the Soviet Union didn’t want that.
When Nikulshina talks about Golosa, you can hear the nostalgia in her voice for a time long ago.
“It’s interesting to see that actually just regular Americans picked up something like that and kept it,” she said. “That’s our history and we just love to hear them, it’s just so beautiful.”
One of the many other ways they get to show off their culture at the festival is through the food, all of which is handmade. About 15 people are responsible for soup, salads, shish kebabs, crepes, and baked goods, with 10 men preparing the meat. Nikulshina makes the soup every year.
But when you’re expecting 4,000 people at an event -- as they are this year -- why make all the food? Why not get some vendors?
Well, there really aren’t that many Russian restaurants in the area. The few they did come in contact with didn’t want to participate since it took place on a weekend, their biggest nights of the week. They did use some food vendors but then decided against doing that again.
“We were really struggling to actually find food so we decided we’re just going to make our own,” Nikulshina said.
Plus, this way people can taste and learn about real, authentic Russian cuisine, like borscht and pelmeni, which is kind of the whole point of the festival. It lets them truly experience a different culture, something Nikulshina thinks people enjoy.
She hopes they can keep doing teaching others about their heritage for years to come and become a bigger part of the Dexter community.
“It’s always fun to be a part of the Dexter community as much as we can,” Nikulshina said. “I think it’s only going to get better.”
Dana Casadei is a freelance reporter covering arts and entertainment in Michigan.
The sixth annual Ann Arbor Russian Festival runs Sept. 15-16 at the St. Vladimir Russian Orthodox Church in Dexter. Visit russianfestival.stvladimiraami.org for tickets and the full schedule of events.