To understand something, you have to enter into another culture. It is never one hundred percent possible, but you have to try. In order to perceive that otherness, you must be open, disposed.
The ribbon of St. George adorned the lapels on all the attendees of the Victory Day ceremony, with those orange and black lines, a strong memory of the Soviet Army’s incredible feat in defeating Nazi Germany on May 9, 1945. However, this major patriotic celebration for Russians was taking place almost 11,000 km away from Moscow’s Red Square, in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City.
“All Russians used to meet for New Years Eve, Women’s Day or Victory Day, we have the same love for our country, and it is a motive to get together. I think everyone who lives in a foreign country feels happy about it, it’s a very positive energy. I do not presume my patriotism, but I have it in my heart,” says Vasily Leonov, a native of Tatarstan in Kazan, who has lived in Mexico for the last 17 years.
Russia’s foreign policy has also strengthened communication among Russians over the last decade, and has sought to consolidate the society of compatriots living outside of Russia. Naturally, the migratory phenomenon leads to the assimilation and adaptation of these actors to a new geography, language and cultural environment.
Russia and Mexico: The Cultural Bridge
The relations between Russia and Mexico date from the times of exploration and European conquest towards the territories of America, but only in the commercial field, without formalizing relations. The beginning of the 20th century was marked in both countries by governors who held power for long periods: Porfirio Diaz in Mexico from 1876 to 1910 and Nicholas II in Russia from 1894 to 1917. Cultural, scientific and educational exchanges were intensified between both countries during these negotiations. After both revolution – the Bolshevik in 1917 and the revolution of Mexico in 1910 – diplomatic relations were established, highlighting the fact that Mexico was the first country in America to establish relations with the USSR, in 1924.
In the following decades, a very important cultural exchange took place through such characters as the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and filmmaker Serguei Eisenstein, who travelled to Mexico during those years. Some Mexican artists and intellectuals, like painters David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, also travelled to Moscow.
From a political point of view, because of the intense communist propaganda at the time, in January 1930 Mexican president Emilio Portes Gil decided to break diplomatic relations, citing the intervention of the Soviet government in Mexico internal affairs. This did not stop the link between both nations however, especially in the cultural sphere.
In fact, it was at this time when a period of great affinity between certain circles of artists and the Mexican intellectual left, supporters of the communist movement, began with the Soviet Union.
In the introduction of Capricious Landscape of Russian Literature by the Mexican translator Selma Ancira, she mentions that “our relationship with Russia has always been intense and passionate. It has been nourished and kept alive by the mutual fascination that Mexicans and Russians have felt for their cultures.”
During General Lázaro Cárdenas‘ term as president of Mexico, this country provided asylum to a large number of persecuted politicians of all kinds. Mexico was a safe place for foreigners to live in.
On September 5, 1941, writer and activist Victor Serge and his son, the painter Vladímir Kibálchich Rusakov, better known as Vlady, landed in Mexico City, exiled from the USSR.
Vlady was very much influenced by the Mexican muralism painting; “the first thing that I saw were the murals of Rivera and Orozco; the size of their works … And suddenly you see that Diego Rivera draws people in the markets, this immediate relationship, environmental, which contains all the prestige of the Renaissance, all the painting of the fifteenth century. And that Jose Clemente Orozco surpasses in an impressive way all the German expressionism, often, timid. All this takes me to another world.”
Vlady’s major work, called The Revolution and the Elements, consists of a set of murals on the walls of the Miguel Lerdo de Tejada library, located in Mexico City’s downtown district, which he painted from 1973 to 1982. With a figurative style, the pictorial set of about 2,000 square meters reflected this idea of utopia and the claims of the dissidents of all present, past and future revolutions.
“Friendship makes the cultural encounter more intimate. The friendship between poets endures, not only because of the intellectual closeness, but also because of mutual admiration”, points out Selma Ancira.
Indeed, thanks to the intervention of some prominent Mexican communists like Diego Rivera, President Cardenas decided to grant political asylum to Leon Trotsky in 1937.
After relations between the two governments were officially established on November 19, 1942, a period of uninterrupted official relations began which have lasted until today, 127 years after. As a result, Mexico is the Latin American country that has had relations with Russia for the longest consecutive time. And the Russian diaspora in Mexico has provided a very important contribution to its new home, from science to art.
“Now we are a mini nation, the Russians who live in Mexico”
– Ekaterina Belyaeva, singer and music teacher, from Ekaterinburg. She has lived in Mexico since 2003.
The Russian diaspora in Mexico is small, the last wave of Russian migration occurring after the fall of the Soviet Union in early ’90s. According to official statistics published in April 2012 by the National Institute of Migration (INAMI), the official number of Russians in Mexico is 1,453 people. Among them, some well-defined groups are distinguished: diplomats, scientists, mixed marriages, the younger generation (under 35), the parents of this generation, and so on. These groups usually gather on national holidays such as Victory Day, Women’s Day, New Year or Russia Day.
An element always present in national holidays events is the artistic expression: for example, the popular songs and the dances performed in such commemorations, along with the painting and gastronomy.
There is a very important activity by the Russian artists formed professionally, who moved to Mexico to continue with a work that had been forged and developed in Russia initially, and that now in this country has found a place for its development; perhaps seemingly dissimilar, but in which points of encounter and understanding have emerged. Through their work, they have professed the intention and taken the initiative to spread the Russian culture in the Mexican circles.
One discipline in which the subject of the interaction between cultures has been very evident is painting. Masha Vinogradova, a plastic artist from St. Petersburg, married a Mexican living in Russia and arrived in Mexico in the 1990s. “Being a foreigner here is easy enough, Mexicans are very open with other people. I have developed professionally in Mexico, my work reflects the good design, drawing, and composition from the Russian school, but the colors of Mexico distinguish my art. In Russia the limits are more defined. It seems to me that the most important thing is to express what you feel, and it is what I find very interesting in Mexican art, freedom.”
Nina Diakova, a native painter also from St. Petersburg, who has a long history with Mexico, recalls that her formative years in the USSR were very strict about the school of drawing which was close to realism: “those who dared to make their own creations were criticized and were not exposed. Many went to live in other countries, when I had the opportunity to come to Mexico.”
“When I had exhibitions with Mexican painters, my paintings contrasted by their light colors, without contrasts, and gradually I started to work with more vivid colors, because it is more difficult to achieve harmony between vivid colors. I began to be interested in the ancient art of Mexico, the faces and the character of the people.”
“I am always thinking about cultural exchange. The first thing to be achieved is the friendship between painters, among people and to paint about a country, it is necessary to know it, you need to understand the character of this country, people, and to love these subjects.”
Another aspect in which the cultural heritage is reflected enormously, is through gastronomy. One of the best restaurants in Mexico City is the Kolobok, founded by the Leonov family. They arrived in Mexico by accident, having originally planned to emigrate to Canada because of the economic crisis in Russia and the Chechen War.
Vasily Leonov, who runs the majority of the business now, recalls: “We sold everything, we arrived in Mexico because we could not go to Canada due to migratory issues. So we started to work, cleaning and washing cars. In the Santa Maria la Rivera neighbourhood, where we lived, there were two buildings with about 20 Russian families. My mom started selling patties, and my brother found this empty place in Santa Maria. We were afraid to rent it, but we took risks and it turned out good, many people knew us for the patties. From the first day there was a lot of demand, then we started to add soups, stews, and the menu was formed. At first the whole family worked and then we started to employ staff. We were able to open another restaurant in 2005 and the current remodeling was done in 2014.
I think that Mexico is a country of many opportunities, it is very competitive for Russian professionals if they know Spanish because of the lack of education in Mexico, where trained professionals are needed. ”
When it comes to music, there are a large number of Russians in Mexican orchestras. Milana Soboleva, a violist from Moscow, came with her husband Valery Nypomnyshi in 1990 to work in the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra. Maestro Herrera de la Fuente founded the Philharmonic Orchestra and invited musicians from all over the world to join up.
“Most of us did not know Spanish, all we arrived with were the customs of our countries, and it was a very interesting time because each one showed the different aspects of their culture, and little by little, we soon began to assimilate”, says Milana.
Her daughter, Masha Soboleva, was born in Moscow, but has lived since the age of two in Mexico. She studied classical singing and created the P.I. Tchaikovsky Foundation, which seeks cultural exchange between Mexican and Russian musicians. “I grew up in the Russian community, I kept all the traditions, the language, I never left Russia while in Mexico. The Russians are usually closed in their own circle, but after 2010 we began to appear more familiar with others. We began to invite more Mexicans to our community, to share our traditions and our culture. My idea is to further expand knowledge about that cultural aspect of Mexico and the same with Russia.”
Ekaterina Belyaeva, who is also dedicated to singing, managed to develop in music thanks to her decision to settle in Mexico. “The audience gave me wings and the desire to continue singing, in Russia I feel that there are many like me, I would not have dedicated to this, but after coming to Mexico, with different voices and a different repertoire I had more opportunities.” Ekaterina formed with Jessica, a Mexican singer, the group Duet Image, and they sing a repertoire in six languages. “Being able to work with a Mexican and me being Russian, allows us to do a very varied show. Thanks to our audience I continue in music, they gave me strength and a desire to continue.”
Ekaterina is part of the traditional dance and music ensemble Russian Mosaic, created by the artistic director, also of Russian origin, Roxana Lissovskaya. “I made the proposal to include the Russian songs known in Mexico and worldwide, songs like Katiusha, Black Eyes or Moscow Nights. The experience is very beautiful, we try to balance dance, opera, folk, circus performances, the event goes in a very positive tone, people are encouraged, I am very happy with the reception of the public, in an atmosphere with lots of friendship and affection”, Ekaterina says.
Vadim Proshich, originally from Kaliningrad, is also part of the Russian Mosaic. He is a dancer and dance teacher, although he has also trained as a doctor.
“Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova was a great inspiration. When I was 5 or 6 years old I saw a movie about her life and I was impressed. I found that her life was wonderful for her courage and willpower, I loved the fact that a person can achieve not only success, but something that transcends history with a lot of effort.”
At first, Vadim did not want to visit Mexico because of the image he had of the country, of violence and drug trafficking, but that quickly changed: “I came to Mexico on vacation with a Mexican friend and I loved everything. Here I feel happy, I feel something mystical, as if I have always lived here … I do not feel the measurement of time, I feel eternal.”
“In Russia I did not dance because of my age; you must be impeccable in your technique always because the Russian spectators are very demanding, there is a high level of stress. When I arrived here I went to many dance concerts, I saw Mexican dancers and I understood that it is very different, I learned that the main thing is the emotion, a perfect technique is no guarantee to transmit the emotions, and the Mexican spectators want to see and feel when they come to a show. ”
Vadim developed in Mexico, together with his friends, dancers Karla and Luis, a method of corporal therapy through dance and an academy of ballet for adults, which has contributed in spreading this methodology to other dance schools.
“It seems good to me that there is this spread of cultures, the new world has to be open and we have to learn the best of each culture,” added Vadim.
Masha Vinogradova admits that being an artist in a different country implies some difficulties, “sometimes it is hard to accept what is different from ours, but I admire my fellow artists because they continue to dance, act, paint, represent our country, spread our culture, and try to preserve our traditions. It’s something beautiful”.
The Embassy of the Russian Federation in Mexico, the Cultural Affairs Agency Rossotrudnichestvo and Society of Russians in Mexico SORUMEX, seek the participation of the Mexican society interested in becoming involved with Russia, from the study of the language, such as development or cooperation in projects, and Mexicans are also invited to the various national commemorations events that take place in Mexico.
Tatiana Romanova, who lived in Mexico 10 years ago, teaches music and Russian language. “My country was closed for a long time, however, its cultural wealth is immense and sharing that enriches the souls of other people. Learning something different, both ancient and modern, always gives you pleasure and you receive a lot of attention and thanks when you truly do it with your heart. ”
Beyond preserving memories, their identity, and sharing these experiences with their compatriots living in Mexico City, the mutual enrichment derived from these exchanges, knowledge and perceptions in different spheres contribute to the continuity of the bonds that have twinned Russia and Mexico for more than a century.