The Saskatoon Russian Cultural Club
Makes Its Mark

By Koozma J. Tarasoff, January 21, 2007
Article submitted for the Spring edition of the
Saskatoon Russian Cultural Club’s Newsletter

The Saskatoon Russian Cultural Club is a unique cultural institution in the province of Saskatchewan. It was founded in 1982 largely at the initiative of Saskatoon farmer and businessman John Atamanenko who sought ways to provide some understanding between the socialist East and the capitalist West. Its stated purpose was ‘to promote a greater understanding and appreciation of the Russian language and the Russian culture’. Now, 25 years later, John as President along with other members of the Club are assessing its performance over the years. 

Specifically, they have noticed that with new Russian immigrants coming to Canada and Saskatoon, the membership has been increasing. At the same time, membership is decreasing for Canadian Russians (including the Doukhobors) who were largely the core founding group.

Is this a sign of the times or is the Club failing to meet the needs of the Canadian Russians? As a distant member of the Club, I would like to briefly summarize the important work that it has done, but also to point out some of the ongoing challenges that its members still face in a rapidly changing world.

The Club is a legal organization with a structure including a Constitution, an order of business and elected officers. Its activities have included a wide range of cultural supports in a multicultural environment. These include: Russian language courses, the promotion of Russian language and history classes at the University of Saskatchewan, a Russian Conversation Circle, a Newsletter, Christmas parties and summer picnics, book presentation evenings, occasional participation in the Folkfest Russian Pavilion, poetry readings, occasional participation in the Doukhobor bread-baking project at the annual Exhibition (with the sale of kvass, borshch and pirogies), film evenings, local and international tours, concerts, fundraising in support of Chernobyl children, and periodically hosting speakers. 

In 1980s, for example, the Club has hosted Russian/Soviet singers and a sculptor during the 1987 event when the Lev Tolstoy statue was installed in Verigin, Saskatchewan and in Castlegar, British Columbia. In 2006, the Club assisted two Doukhobors (80 year-old Russian Doukhobor Alexsei Oslopov and me Koozma J. Tarasoff) on a bridge-building tour of Western Canada. Both events have helped dispel some of the misconceptions of the East and the West.

While reviewing the Club’s Newsletter, I discovered that two very prominent activists of the Club were dearly missed. They were Joe N. Fofonoff and Bill Lutz. Joe, a retired teacher, ‘actively promoted Russian culture in the community’, but he and his wife died in 1989. Bill Lutz (1922-1997) was ‘a very social person with a zest for life’. He died in 1997. The Saskatoon Russian Cultural Club no doubt was inspired by these two outstanding leaders. Also its members are thankful to John Atamanenko who has served as founder, president, past president, and program director. Without this leadership, the Club would have a hard time to survive.

Sources of organizational stability and loss probably go in cycles depending on a variety of factors including the availability of volunteers to carry out various tasks required by all groups. At the same time, organizations need periodic renewal. The recent coming of ‘new blood’ to the Club, so to speak, provides fresh opportunities for growth and development.

In measuring the worth of the Club, we ought to remember that heritage, language, and culture cannot be measured strictly in money terms. In our multicultural Canadian society with materialistic values, we need to enlarge our measuring stick to include a wider perspective that takes into consideration the quality of human relations across boundaries.  Russian roots can give us enrichment, strength, colour and inspiration in bridge-building between the East and the West.

I have taken the liberty to apply some of the findings to the health of the Saskatoon Russian Cultural Club from some ideas from my limited edition book on bridge-building initiatives East and West:
  1. By having our feet planted in both the East and the West, we have the capacity to make contributions to the understanding between capitalism and socialism. The Cultural Club provides an opportunity for working together across international boundaries and therefore helping to create a peaceful society. Let’s remember that isolation is no longer tenable. The larger context of building a world community is the way of the future.

  2. From my anthropological training, I have learned that ‘stepping in the shoes of the other’ is a good way to learn about the stranger. This action encompasses the same attitude as is found in the Russian proverb ‘When entering a church, do not bring with you your own charter.’ Another proverb says the same: ‘Do not measure others by your own arshin (yardstick)’. Anthropologists have helped to preserve cultures and often have served as intermediaries and cultural brokers between strangers in conflict.

  3. Russia is an important part of our world community and it is long overdue for Westerners to recognize this and actively treat them as equal neighbours.

  4. Today our attitudes and our communications skills are crucially important in opening doors and getting to know the stranger. As with any journey, we need to prepare ourselves. The Russian Club can provide some elements of this training in East-West bridge-building. ‘Begin with a good breakfast!’ (i.e. prepare with full use of seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting skills, etc.).

  5. Become an effective communicator with face-to-face contact. Let us use all of our senses, meet the Russians as equals, become interested in their history and culture and become friends.
Finally, I would like to confirm that the Club is providing a very valuable contribution to Canadian society.  In this spirit, I would urge its members to put your soul into this noble effort. Let us not forget that as citizens we can make a difference when we make friends.

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