An assortment of nesting dolls or “matryoshka” sit on glass shelves at the Russian Cultural Center.
Some are in traditional Semenov style, hand-painted in traditional red, gold and black with leaves and vines wrapping around the wooden exteriors. Some more modern designs are playful with caricatures depicting former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and basketball legend Michael Jordan wearing his No. 23 Chicago Bulls jersey.
These nesting dolls serve as an iconic symbol of Russian culture and tradition. But, Sophia Grinblat, executive director of the Russian Cultural Center near Rice Village, smiles knowingly as she explains nesting dolls appeal more to foreigners.
“You would not typically see this in a Russian home,” Grinblat said. “It usually attracts tourists.”
With the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki less than two weeks away, tensions between the U.S. and Russia have only escalated with disputes about the economy, free speech, election collusion and international coalitions. Many are concerned that miscommunication between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump may stymy diplomatic talks. Grinblat emphasized that she wants Trump and Putin to find “a common language” at the summit.
“It is as bad a situation as it has been in many years,” Grinblat said.
The nesting dolls reflect the incredibly complex, multilayered and fragile relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Even the harmless memento reveals a misunderstanding in America about Russia and its culture. Many Americans might view the Russian-speaking population as a monolithic group, but they do not share the same opinions on what is happening on the international stage. Take for example the Russian interference into the 2016 elections.
Ilya Itkin, 58, who was waiting for his 9-year-old son to finish a Russian-language class at the Houston center, is certain Russia interfered. While they may not have directly tampered into the U.S. elections, he said it is indisputable that Russians created accounts on social media to spread fake news.
“I don’t think Russia is that powerful,” Grinblat said. She said that she doesn’t think that Russia has the capability to do the kinds of hacking and interfering that has been reported in the news. Both are Russian-speaking immigrants who have been in the U.S. more than 20 years.
As someone who immigrated from Moscow 26 years ago, Itkin said that Americans do not know a lot about Russia, but encourages them to travel there to better understand it. Developed cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow might surprise tourists because of how modern they are. A lack of understanding can make it easy to overlook all of Russia’s positive qualities, including: a rich cultural tradition, literature, music, science and art, he said.
Many people, like Itkin, are skeptical that the upcoming summit on June 16 between Trump and Putin will be productive in solving the miscommunication between the two countries. However, he hopes that more cultural interactions between the two countries will help connect the two groups of people.
“There is not a lot that can be done at a political level,” he said. “But I think more cultural exchange would be helpful.”
Doylton Davis, a life-long Houstonian, has attended Russian language classes at the cultural center every Saturday and Monday for more than four years. He first became interested in learning Russian after his daughter studied the language in college and later moved to Russia for her job.
‘Reality is different’
The Russian community is thought to be at least 78,000 strong in Houston, according to census data. They are dispersed across the region, but the Russian Cultural Center serves as a gathering spot for various events, including Saturday’s Summer Art Bazaar.
For Davis, the Russian language was an entry point to educate himself on topics like the Gulag and Stalin and to visit Russia. Davis said that learning about Russia helped him to realize what a modern, safe society it is, contrary to popular belief.
He plans to visit Russia again next summer, but many family and friends have expressed concern about the country being dangerous. He thinks people misconstrue Russia as being overly hostile.