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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Feb 12 1997
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February sunlight finally triumphs over the anemic fog bank that has hung over the Russian Center for most of the morning. Gathered on the sidewalk outside is a small crowd of white-haired ladies and gents wrapped in furs and long wool coats. Clearly, they could care less about the weather: The warmth of fruit-flavored vodka shots shows in their powdery cheeks. One woman whose aristocratic beauty contradicts her diminutive 4-foot-9 stature manages to remark on the delight of mango-flavored vodka (already out of stock inside) between salutations from passing acquaintances. Her large companion looks uncomfortable in his suit, as if it has been some time since he wore it last, but he too is in high spirits. He takes a dark, crumpled cigarette pack from inside his coat and says something in the mellifluous tones of their native tongue. The woman gives a slightly scandalized laugh and a much younger man who has just arrived with his wife and rambunctious child slaps the man affectionately on the back. The family exchange warm greetings and make their way up the staircase to where the annual Russian Festival is in full swing.

Inside, "Mikes" magically become "Mishas" for the day and the first thing asked of strangers is "Do you speak Russian?" Strangely, the question, which is asked often, does not feel exclusionary (the crowd for the most part is enthusiastic and ridiculously friendly). Rather it serves as an invitation, one which seems especially enticing for anyone over 50. The dining area is bursting with color, laughter, and music supplied by a tireless accordion player dressed in a traditional Russian tunic. Plates of steaming meat-filled piroshkis and blinis (traditional Russian pancakes served with caviar, sour cream, and smoked salmon) are passed across the counter by large women in colorful wraps. Young boys wearing blinking Smirnoff patches spend the day collecting the dirty dishes and speaking hesitant Russian when asked. The bar, tended by three robust men who offer a wide variety of flavored vodkas, hors d'oeuvres high in salt content, and "Russian Barbie" dolls -- while supplies last.

"I would like one," says Magdalena Mironov, a rosy-cheeked 6-year-old dressed in a festive little get-up with red ribbons.

Her mother, a tall woman with thick, unruly hair and a small, lilting voice, contemplates the doll and asks the price. "No," she tells the child, pulling her away from temptation. "We'll go watch the dancers." Magdalena's lower lip begins to quiver slightly. Her mother says something softly in Russian and this seems to appease the girl somewhat. They make their way past the large dining tables that are shared by families and strangers alike and enter the spacious theater where a group of children from the Khadra dancing school are performing traditional Russian folk dances.

The theater is standing-room-only. Several men standing against the back wall are swept up into the traditional accompaniment. They stomp and clap their hands in time with the music, smiling and nodding to their surrounding neighbors. "It's good," says the dark-haired ringleader, midstomp. When the children finish and file out of the theater, he claps ferociously, shouting at them "Good! Good!" as they pass by. Lilian Kumansky, a singer well-known for her performances at Russian festivals, takes the stage with pianist Olga Kirsanova. The rabble-rouser immediately falls silent, even shushing his compatriots.

"He has a bit of a crush, you know," chuckles one of his friends. "It will never come to anything."

Upstairs, a group of teen-age girls gathers in the hall outside the Russian museum. Away from the adults and the "old songs," they talk in English about boys and school. Still, when pressed, they admit that they don't actually mind giving up their Sunday to spend time in this fashion. "It's nice to be part of something," says Katrina (Trina to most of her friends). "Even if it gets kinda boring after a while, it's probably good." The rest of the girls agree. Three of the five speak nearly fluent Russian, though they mostly speak it only to their grandparents. One of them is planning to visit Russia next year.

In the museum, three distinguished-looking men in suits sit at a large desk, talking. It is clear that they are connected to the museum in some official capacity, but they are enjoying their conversation too much to be bothered. No matter. Within a moment of looking over the antiquated medals and photographs of great dancers and czars a slender old man approaches me and offers a brief history lesson. "Do you speak Russian? No? Well, no matter. Are you familiar with Diaghilev and Stravinsky?" Methodically, he expounds on the brilliance and revolutionary nature of The Rite of Spring. It is clear from his unhurried speech that he will talk to me for as long as I am willing to listen. He is a great lover of Russian dance and he is more than willing to share.

Across the room, I overhear a similar exchange as another aging gent explains a print of a great battle scene to a man my father's age. "Do you speak Russian? A little? Good." Patiently, the older man explains the politics leading up to the event. He speaks perfect English, but provides the history lesson first in Russian, then in English when the younger man begins to look lost, and finally reverts into Russian. The exchange is long and intense and when the younger man finally takes his leave of the museum, it is clear that he carries away much more than just a history lesson.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor

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