In food and faith, Old Russia lives on at yearly bazaar on Capitol Hill
Bazaar on Capitol Hill showcases tastes and traditions held dear by immigrants ranging from wartime refugees to Microsoft families.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The powerful smell of incense permeated the interior of a small Russian Orthodox Church on Capitol Hill Saturday, while on the grounds and in the adjoining church hall the smell of Russian food drew hundreds of eager diners at lunchtime.
At the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox cathedral, topped with five distinctive onion domes, newer immigrants drawn to Seattle by Microsoft mingled with the offspring of families who fled the Russian Revolution of 1917 or were displaced during World War II.
At the church's annual two-day bazaar — "A Taste of Old Russia" — visitors feasted on golden piroshki dumplings, aromatic lamb shish kebab, delicate Uzbeki rice pilaf spiced with apricots and raisins and numerous enticing pastries.
Father Alex Kotar, archpriest at the cathedral, said that the number of Russian Orthodox believers in the U.S. is often cited at about 300,000. "But with the new immigrants coming in, we really don't know our numbers," he said.
For decades, St. Nicholas had just a tiny congregation. It now attracts 100 to 150 people for weekly services, swelling to many times that on the big religious holidays of Christmas and Easter. The church's Russian school on Sundays attracts 125 children, with many more on a waiting list.
Kotar said some new immigrants come to the church to reconnect with their roots.
Sometimes he finds that one-half of a married couple is eager to come, the other half not so much.
"I don't force the situation," Kotar said. "I tell them, as long as there is love between you, things will happen the way they should."
Olga Meleshko, 43, said she is one of about 30 or 40 women in the congregation whose husbands work at Microsoft. She said the wives attend regularly, most of the men less often. In her tradition, you can be a believer and not attend church, she said.
"Programmers are a different kind of people," Meleshko said. "They can sit 24 hours at a computer without ever talking to other people. They are very shy and don't like to be exposed to people. For this reason, you see fewer Microsoft engineers here and only their wives and children."
When Meleshko was growing up, the churches in her home city of Minsk, in Belarus, were mostly closed.
"I knew about religion; Grandmother told me about it. But when I was a schoolgirl and a student, I was not able to go to church," she said.
That changed in the late 1980s with the opening up of Soviet society, known as "Perestroika."
"When more people started going, I felt that I wanted to," said Meleshko.
Upstairs in the church hall, teams of women worked in tiny, spotless kitchens, making the piroshki: dough wrapped around ground beef, ham or cabbage and fried until golden.
Among them was Elena Kalfova, 85, born in Harbin, China, in 1925 after her family fled the communist revolution in Russia.
Like tens of thousands of fellow Russian immigrants in Harbin, she left after China also went communist. She spent seven years in São Paulo, Brazil, before coming to the U.S. in 1963.
Though she's stayed true to her Russian Orthodox faith and culture her entire life, Kalfova made her first trip to Russia only in May when she went on a cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg with some fellow St. Nicholas parishioners.
Downstairs, Ilona Melnyk, 64, sold the piroshki with cheery gusto. Her mother was from Estonia, her dad from Russia. She was born in Austria in 1946, then came to the U.S. and married an American in St. Nicholas.
"I grew up to be a fine, proud American, with that Russian flavor," said Melnyk. "I've always felt Russian in my blood."
She said her two grown sons speak only a little Russian.
"They sure do appreciate Russian food, though," Melnyk added.
The bazaar continues from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday at 13th Avenue and East Olive Street.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com
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