ON a recent Saturday morning, Ruzanna and Adrian Dziubinski sat side by side, smiling as their daughter coloured a drawing of a Russian matryoshka doll.
Ruzanna, originally from Moscow, speaks little English and has recently moved to Cork. The couple had brought their four-year-old daughter, Ruslana Utkina, to attend an event marking the tenth anniversary of the Russian School of Cork.
It is the only place in the city where Ruzanna, who is married to Polish man Adrian, gets a chance to hear the sound of her native language reverberate in rooms.
She says she wants to ensure that Ruslana absorbs the Russian language and culture.
“My wife wants to meet the Russian community in Cork, that’s why we come here,” Adrian says.
The school, located at Wilton Parish Centre, is the brainchild of Tatiana Zhinzhina, a long-time Russian immigrant, who wants Russian-speaking children in Cork to embrace and celebrate their roots.
Tatiana, who used to be the coordinator of the Eastern European Association of Ireland, says she became keenly interested in founding a Russian school after Russian-speaking families in Cork told her about their children’s lack of interest in learning their language.
“The families wanted me to do something about it, and I said ‘OK, if you support me, then let’s do it’,” she says smiling.
The Russian language is not only spoken in Russia, but by a significant number of people in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Latvia and Moldova. Estonia is also home to an estimated 300,000 Russian-speakers.
It is believed 100,000 Russian-speakers live in Ireland, although some estimate it could be many more.
“We have children from six or seven nationalities, but they all have Russian roots, and the families want them to learn the Russian language,” explains Tatiana.
Tatiana, who has decorated her school with samovars — tall, metal and often pleasantly shaped tea-makers that are the traditional symbol of Russia — says the school relies solely on donations from the local Russian-speaking language community. However, she has managed to carry the torch through the years.
“When we first started, there was a group of committee members, and they all had interesting ideas. Years passed, and some of them just left,” she says.
“Every year, some people come, and some people leave, you know. We worked very hard during these ten years to get where we are.”
While Eastern Europeans, and Russians in particular, are often stereotyped in Hollywood as cold, all the families gathered at Tatiana’s party appeared cheery and warm. Tatiana likes to set the record straight.
“We are quite a friendly, happy community, and we hope to grow and develop, and integrate into Irish society,” she says.
Lord Mayor of Cork, Mick Finn, who joined the school’s birthday celebration, congratulated Tatiana for maintaining the establishment for a decade.
He says Cork City Council is highly committed to bolstering non-English speaking communities across Cork.
“It’s really important for us that communities that come to Cork retain their culture, and keep their language alive,” he says. “I went to St. Petersburg myself a number of weeks ago and found it really difficult just to do the basics.
“So, I can appreciate how difficult it was for people to come here, not just from Russia, but from Russian-speaking countries, and integrate into the local community.”
Tatiana Dima, a Russian-speaking mother of two, says she is delighted her children are learning their mother tongue.
“When we came to Cork in 2003, we learned about Tatiana’s initiative to make a group for children and parents, it is amazing to see how a group has now grown up into a school,” she says. “I want to say thank you to the people who are volunteering here and are so passionate about it; it just goes to show you how few people with one idea can make a difference.”
Nataliya Fokina, the school’s principal, explains that students of Cork’s Russian School become familiarised with the language through art, reading and puppet shows. They also immerse themselves in Russian culture by watching cartoons and films.
Tatiana says “depending on each student’s character” they either bank the acquired Russian, rather than using it to communicate, or decide to use it on a daily basis.
Lord Mayor Mick Finn, who spent some time talking to families and the school’s staff, says the Council would look favourably at their application for funding if Tatiana decides to apply.
He thinks Cork owes part of its vivacious vibe and energy to the growing immigrant communities,
“What makes Cork diverse is the new cultures that come and