Soviet Arts Festival : Emigres Have Faint Praise for Festival


Gula Yakhnich, who moved to the United States from the Soviet Union 11 years ago, said the Soviet arts festival can best be described with a shrug.

At least, she said, that’s the feeling of one emigre.

“I’m from Moscow, born and raised there,” said Yakhnich, who with her husband opened a barbecue restaurant in Mira Mesa six years ago before selling it to play the stock market. “I’ve seen more and better stuff back there. Besides, it should have been called the Georgian arts festival, since that’s what it is, isn’t it?”

But Michael Hyat, a financial planner who moved from Kharkov in the Ukraine nine years ago has “only the most positive feelings” about the festival.


“For Americans, it raises their awareness of and interest in the arts of the Soviet Union,” he said, “and that is a very good thing.”

Some say ticket prices are absurdly high and the panoply of opera, dance, theater and puppetry has done little to assuage what, if any, homesickness still exists. Others complain bitterly that the office of Mayor Maureen O’Connor did little to include them in the festival, as participants or observers.

“It’s the kind of festival that only the wealthy can take part in,” said Lois Bloom, who resettles Soviet emigres for Jewish Family Service of San Diego. “They’re saying it’s for the community as a whole, but it just isn’t so. It’s far too expensive. A lot of emigres who wanted to go are out in the cold--priced out.”

Bloom said that when representatives of Jewish Family Service called the mayor’s office several months ago wanting to volunteer emigres in the planning of the festival, and to check on discount tickets, the immediate response was easy to figure out:


It felt decidedly like a cold shoulder.

“A few ended up working--unpaid--as interpreters,” she said.

Paul Downey, a spokesman for O’Connor, said, “Every group that contacted the mayor’s office was treated equitably and equally” and that the nature of the festival work force was “strictly volunteer.”

Downey added: “We have well over 500 volunteers working in this endeavor. We took anybody who wanted to work, especially those who understood the language, the culture, the customs. . . . In fact, those people were sought out. I don’t feel anyone’s been excluded.

“As far as tickets go, I had to buy my tickets. And, yes, much of the festival was Georgian by design. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a Soviet arts festival, which is how it’s been advertised.”

Dolores Miller, co-owner of The Little Cafe, a restaurant downtown, grew up in Moscow as Rya Dolores Groodski. Miller’s local mandolin orchestra volunteered its music for Super Powers Sunday, but, several months ago, she offered to be an interpreter and called the appropriate person, to no avail.

“For some reason,” she said, “I never heard back--from anyone. I hear now that some of the translators are being paid, that they were brought in from the outside. Maybe they thought San Diegans just weren’t smart enough.”

Helen Kaminsky, who helps resettle the ever-growing community of Soviet emigres in her work with the Jewish Community Center in East San Diego, said she and “most of the people I know” are “disappointed and disillusioned” with the festival, known officially as “San Diego Arts Festival: Treasures of the Soviet Union.”


Kaminsky said most emigres wanted to participate because “a part of their hearts” remains in the motherland.”

“We all have roots there; we don’t want to lose our ties completely,” said Kaminsky, who moved from the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan nine years ago. “The good things still hold a place in our hearts. It’s so easy to destroy, so difficult to build. We’re trying to maintain our history, our culture, our language, and at the same time, we want to be Americans. We love it here. We’re grateful to be here.”

Kaminsky said she had seen “Boris Godunov” and “loved it,” but at a dinner Sunday night, she and other emigres complained about ticket prices they just can’t afford.

“The majority of us are left out,” she said. “The mayor’s lavish festival is just not for us.”

Kaminsky said several months ago she contacted the mayor’s office, hoping emigres could be involved in the festival, or at the very least, see its offerings at reduced rates.

She said the answer was no to both.

“At 4 p.m. Friday, two days before Super Powers Sunday, they finally acknowledged my request by saying I could have 150 tickets to the Georgian dancers,” she said. “By that time, it was too late. What could I do on short notice? I did receive 100 free tickets for the emigres to see the Red Army Choir, but of course, that isn’t handled by the mayor’s office. I received those in plenty of time, and everybody’s thrilled to be going.”

Hyat, the financial planner, said, “I went to see the San Diego Symphony’s presentation of ‘Alexander Nevsky’ the other night, and thought it was wonderful . For me, as an emigre, it brought forth a momentous discovery--that we, as San Diegans, have a right to be proud of an excellent symphony.”


Hyat said that “many in the emigre community feel excluded by the festival, but I can’t say that I’m one of them. I’m only 25, so I relate more to being American, but many have deeper ties to the Ukraine, or Russia or Georgia, where so much of this art is from.”

Hyat said he had been to several events and found the Russian translations “hilarious and sadly lacking.” He said the translators were capturing the “raw bulk” of the language but missing “most, if not all, of the subtleties.”

Phil Favelukis, who came to San Diego seven months ago from a work camp in Siberia, said he’s been working as an interpreter. He said the opera and the play “Brothers and Sisters” were “marvelous” examples of the best of Soviet culture.

Even so, he does not feel homesick.

“Ten years ago, I applied to leave the Soviet Union, to come to America,” Favelukis said. “Immediately, they fire me from my job in Odessa (near the Black Sea), remove me from my wife and children and send me to Siberia. I stay there for 10 years, waiting for the exit visa.

“So the answer to the homesick question is no, 100% no. ‘Brothers and Sisters’ is a nice play, but it will never make me miss the place. Nothing will.”