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Beyond Borscht 

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & Y & lt;/span & ou may come for the kvass and pelmeni, but you'll leave with increased cultural understanding.

That's the plan, anyway, for Saturday afternoon's first annual Slavic Cultural Heritage Celebration at Riverside State Park. There will be music -- choirs and orchestras, dancers and accordionists. There will be crafts -- jewelry and icons, Russian blue china, children's books and those cute little matryoshka dolls that nest inside the next one and the next one.

And there will be Russian food -- which, unlike the stereotype, doesn't necessarily involve matrons with giant forearms ladling out beet soup. Oh, there may be some borscht available. But there also will be the real delicacies -- stuff like bliny, thin buckwheat pancakes smeared with sour cream or caviar, or else rolled up around fruit and cottage cheese. Or like the Russian ravioli known as pelmeni, stuffed with meat and potatoes. Or like the small semicircular dumplings called pierogi, served several at a time with their fruit fillings. And you can wash down your feast with a glass of kvass (which is sort of like lemonade but lightly fermented).

Still, consider the obstacles between you and all that shopping and dancing and eating. It may be a long drive for you out to the Bowl and Pitcher. And what do you know about Russian culture, anyway?

Though if Russian immigrants find the American obsession with cars and hamburgers a bit of a cultural shock, you might want to be prepared for some culture shock of your own at the Slavic heritage fair. "We're not all Russian," says Tatyana Bistrevsky. "Ask people where they came from -- maybe from Georgia, or from the Baltic republics, or from Ukraine. We all came from different regions and brought our own cultures." Bistrevsky runs community programs -- life skills, language, outreach for immigrants -- for both Spokane Public Schools and WSU Extension, so she's a leader in the regional Russian community.

And she knows that there are obstacles to understanding both ways. Roughly one of every 15 people living in Spokane County is of Slavic descent -- and yet, according to Bistrevsky, "we are a hidden culture. We are here, but we are a white minority." She has witnessed firsthand how the older generation relies on the younger one for English-translation skills, and how teens and young adults "start to hate their culture, because of peer pressure." Their Russian heritage is what sets them apart and makes them different. Like teens everywhere, they just want to fit in.

Then who exactly is going to show up on Saturday? Maybe lots of us will. Maybe the older generation will be there sharing recipes. And Ukrainian teens will more or less have to be there as part of the orchestra from Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church, along with other performing groups. And maybe you'll be there too -- for a little cultural tourism in your own backyard, or maybe just for the sweet-tasting food.

It's about getting past labels, then. They're not all "Russians," and you can be more than just a meat-and-potatoes man. After all, meat and potatoes are what goes into those pelmeni things, and they're yummy.

As for those other Russian dumplings -- will they be homemade?

Bistrevsky laughs. "I'm going to make them on the spot," she says. And the fillings? "Oh, that's a secret," she says. "But I'll be combining blueberries, cranberries, peaches -- all kinds of things."

You may leave Saturday's celebration of all things Slavic with increased awareness of Spokane's Russian community. But you'll also leave with pleasant taste-memories of Tatyana Bistrevsky's fruit-filled pierogies.

Slavic Cultural Heritage Celebration on Saturday, July 26, from noon-6 pm at Riverside State Park's Bowl and Pitcher campsite on Aubrey L. White Parkway on the east side of the Spokane River. Free admission. Call 477-3881.

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