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Russians in St. Louis document their lives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 25, 2010 - Words of advice for photography buffs who plan to check out a new exhibition by and of Russians living in St. Louis: Don’t come hungry.

Among the 30 prints in this collection are several close-ups of delectable foods – strawberries, meats and a stack of traditional Russian blini (pancakes) with a cherry on top. These images are on display through March 14 outside the offices of the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Then again, ignore the above recommendation if you want to see the exhibition at its other location, Astoria Restaurant in Creve Coeur, starting on Tuesday. The eaterie has a long list of filling Russian staples like blini, borscht and dumplings. So come as hungry as you dare.

“Food is a huge cultural thing for Russians,” said Dmitri Kabargin, president of the Greater St. Louis-Samara Sister City Committee, which helps sustain a relationship between St. Louisans and residents of the western Russian city. “There are so many kinds of dishes that we cook from scratch.”

Kabargin is one of the photographers featured in “Russian St. Louis,” the latest collection to emerge from the Public Policy Research Center Photography Project, an ongoing initiative in which a photography expert teaches different groups of St. Louis residents how to artfully document their lives with a digital camera. The project is modeled after the programs of prominent photographer and teacher Wendy Ewald .

The Public Policy Research Center began showing photography exhibits in 1978.

“They’ve always felt there was a strong connection between urban issues and photography,” said Mel Watkin, director of the center’s Photography Project.

Professional photographers had long displayed their work documenting St. Louis communities in the lobby of the UMSL building where the center is located. But when Watkin arrived in 2003, she introduced the idea of having photography novices who could have been the subjects of past shows turn the camera on themselves.

Starting in 2004, a St. Louis-based photography instructor began working with groups like Bosnians, North St. Louis residents, social service organizations and preservationists to help them photograph their work and lives. For each project, the instructor introduces a brief history of photography and teaches technical basics like composition and lighting. The focus then turns to content -- how to engage a subject and how to develop a photographic point of view.

For 10 weeks last fall, a dozen project participants met to dissect their photos from an artistic standpoint and to discuss the cultural significance of the images – in this case what they reveal about being Russian in St. Louis.

Each group selects photographs to go on display at UMSL and at a location that’s meaningful to the community that’s being portrayed – thus the choice of holding the second exhibit at a recognizable Russian-owned restaurant. (Kabargin said he knows of only one other such restaurant in St. Louis.)

Watkin said she was surprised to learn that the Russian-speaking immigrant population in St. Louis is just under 17,000. Many came during waves early in the last century, just after World War II and toward the end of the Cold War.

Like other immigrant groups who settled here, theirs is a diffuse community. Kabargin said that there’s a substantial Russian-Jewish population in University City, as well as pockets of Russians who live in Creve Coeur and South St. Louis. Many newcomers find jobs in construction, and Russians are well represented in fields like medicine and secondary education, according to Kabargin. He came to St. Louis seven years ago as an exchange student at UMSL, stayed afterward to get an advanced degree and has never left.

Kabargin said that despite the sizable Russian population, there aren’t many occasions when large numbers of people get together.

“There are a lot of people who immigrated a long time ago who don’t want anything to do with the Russian community – they came here to be a part of American culture,” Kabargin said. “But I was surprised after visiting with people how many were interested in finding out about other Russians who live in St. Louis. This project is a chance to introduce people to communities they didn’t know about before.”

Added Watkin: “People in this project came from very, very different backgrounds. They are all different ages (the youngest is 13 and came over when he was 6), they live in very different parts of St. Louis and they came from very different parts of the Soviet Union. They also represent different points of view in terms of their feelings about their country. Some came and missed their country and still feel homesick. Others fled for political or economic reasons and they want to learn everything they can about the U.S. and meet new people in addition to Russians. The photographs really reflect that.”

Ron Laboray, the Photography Project instructor, said he wanted his students to illustrate Russian traditions and contemporary culture without falling back on stereotypes and clichés. He asked students to document their daily lives, which took them to a church, a barber shop and into the homes of some of the photographers.

There are a range of self-portraits and family photos in the collection. One photographer snapped a shot of a favorite family portrait.

“They’re playing with this idea of recapturing family history,” Laboray said. “The family connection is so evident in these photographs.”

Kabargin spent time documenting a different sort of close-knit group. He visited an elderly care center operated by Russian women in University City where Russian natives gather to sing Russian songs, cook Russian food and play pool, cards and chess. “It’s like a small Russian village over there,” Kabargin said.

In that setting, he photographed a World War II veteran who regularly visits the center. The close-up shot of the man’s face is among the most striking photos in the collection.

Kabargin’s wife, Anna Kabargina, also took part in the project. She is pictured in a color print with her arms reaching out seemingly to touch both ends of the Gateway Arch. Kabargina proudly wears shorts with “Sochi,”  the Russian city that will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, written on the back.

The center’s next project involves Lydia’s House, which provides transitional housing for abused women and their children. The exhibit is slated to go on display in the spring.

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