February 21, 2014

Charlotte’s Russian community enjoys Sochi Olympics spotlight

As Tatyana Thulien of Charlotte watched television coverage of the Winter Olympics opening in Sochi, she remembered the Black Sea resort from her childhood visit.

As Tatyana Thulien of Charlotte watched television coverage of the Winter Olympics opening in Sochi, she remembered the Black Sea resort from her childhood visit.

Palm trees, little pebbles on the beach, white buildings bathed in sunlight – old images stirred in her memory.

Thulein, 48, saw the opening ceremony at a reception held at the Washington, D.C., residence of Sergey Kislyak, Russian ambassador to the United States.

President of the Russian American Business & Cultural Association, Thulien helped bring Kislyak to Charlotte in January, when he visited UNC Charlotte and met with local business leaders.

Thulien is a leader in Charlotte’s Russian-speaking community, which is helping sponsor the Queen City’s second Russian festival on March 1 at the International House.

The event – called the Maslenitsa Salvic Festival – will feature local musicians and artists, authentic crafts and handmade souvenirs, wine tastings and traditional foods like blini – Russian crepes.

For Thulien, the festivals are steps toward a larger vision – creating a local center that can stimulate interest in Russian culture and history.

“We want to create awareness in the best Russia has to offer,” she said. “Politics divide people; art unites; the Olympics unite people. Our mission is to change perceptions. Culture is an instrument for perceptions to change.”

Thulien said the Russian-speaking community in North Carolina numbers between 12,000 to 15,000.

On the sidewalks of uptown Charlotte, Natalija Vanesse often hears conversations in Russian.

Raised in Lithuania by Russian parents and a student at Russian schools, she moved to Charlotte in 1998 and is director of client development and customer relations at Opera Carolina.

Like Thulien, Vanesse joins a group of professionals who go out once a month for a “Russian lunch.”

She’s helped with the first Russian community festival and hopes the second one will have “great success.”

“It’ll be lots of fun,” said Vanesse. “And there will be a surprise from Opera Carolina.”

Cultural exchanges

The 2012 Russian Community Day coincided with the opening of Opera Carolina’s production of the Tchaikovsky classic “Eugene Onegin.”

Opera Carolina director James Meena was involved with the festival that was part of Charlotte’s Ulysses Spring Festival of the Arts. He said about 1,500 people came out for an all-day event at the Levine Museum of the New South that featured food and music, both classical and traditional.

“It’s a great way for newcomers in particular to come together and get into the swing of the Charlotte cultural community,” said Meena. “It’s a huge win for everybody.”

Ambassador Kislyak was invited to the festivities, but couldn’t attend. Meena met Kislyak during the ambassador’s recent Charlotte stop and said they talked about the possible cultural exchanges of opera companies.

Meanwhile, Meena hopes Thulien’s efforts in expanding cultural awareness are successful.

“She’s a force of nature,” he said. “We need people like that who are completely committed to engaging the community.”

Born in Kiev, Thulien grew up in the Black Sea city of Sevastopol. Her father, who came from nobility, was a small boy when the 1918 revolution that devastated his family’s fortunes. He became an officer in the Soviet Air Force and told his daughter stories about serving with the legendary French combat squadron Normandie-Niemen in World War II.

Thulein’s father also told her about meeting American soldiers during the war.

“He said they were simple people serving their country people,” she recalled. “He felt there were two great nations fighting a common enemy shoulder to shoulder.”

Growing up, her knowledge of American culture came from movies like “Some Like It Hot” and required reading in school – books like Theodore Dreiser’s “American Tragedy” and James Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans.”

Thulien earned a master’s degree in engineering and in 1996 came to the University of Missouri to study under the USDA Cochran Fellowship. It was there she met her future husband, Tim, and they were married in 1997.

The couple lived briefly in Seattle and then moved to Minneapolis. Three years ago, they came to Charlotte where he works with Duke Energy.

Differences ‘artificial’

Thulein occasionally sings with Opera Carolina. On March 19, she’ll perform numbers from the Golden Age of Russian jazz at UNC Charlotte.

And she’s deeply involved in the preservation of Russian cultural heritage, history and language. She hasn’t found a location for the proposed cultural center yet, but said the Russian Culture Center in Washington is sending a small library of Russian classical and children’s literature.

Thulein wants to “define the mystery of the Russian soul,” and help people in America and Russia to better understand each other.

“Some stereotypes are true, but it doesn’t mean perceptions don’t change and people don’t change,” Thulein said. “I believe the differences between the U.S. and Russia are more artificial than they actually are.”

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