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Russian Culture and History are Integral to America
Olga Zatsepina is a teacher of English language and American culture, the head of the Russian-American Cultural Heritage Center (RACH-C), and a board member of the International Council of Russian Compatriots. She shared about her life after leaving Russia, as well as the RACH-C’s involvement in strengthening Russian-American relations and in preserving Russian cultural heritage.
– For about 20 years you have been heading the Russian American Cultural Heritage Center (RACH-C) known to many people in the USA. You are a member of the International Council of Russian Compatriots (ICRC) and represent the ICRC at the UN... How did you embark upon a path of a public diplomat?
– The first fifty years of my life I lived in Moscow, and for twenty-five of them I served as a teacher at Lomonosov Moscow State University. In quite some time, I also taught American culture, literature and history. I was always actively involved in social activities. For instance, when I was a schoolgirl, I joined the Friendship Center in Moscow in a voluntary capacity, and then worked in the USSR-USA Friendship Society there for many years. Later on I became the chairperson of the education commission in the Russia-USA Friendship Society.
Olga Zatsepina, President of the RACH-C. Reception on the occasion of the Russian American History Month at the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in New York, 2016
After the societies were liquidated in 1991, I became one of the founders and establishers of the Association of Scientific, Business and Cultural Cooperation between Russia and the USA. I participated in and organized exchange programs between educational and women's organizations of both countries, taught courses based on programs of American universities at Moscow State University, and later in the USA.
I married an American professor who’d come to Moscow State University to give lectures. It just so happened, that after the marriage I continued to live in Moscow for more than six years. Eventually I moved to New York. In my first years there, I used to work at various colleges of New York University during the second semester and at Moscow State University during the first one. But there came a time when I had to stay in New York for the whole year, and then my husband, Julio Rodriguez, and I thought to establish an organization so that we could continue activities that I had performed in Russia, as well as activities he had performed at the Connecting Cultures Inc. and New York University for many years. By that time, having met Mark Kopelev, an outstanding photographer and chronicler of the Russian diaspora in New York, we decided to establish the Russian American Cultural Heritage Center (RACH-C).
From the very beginning, we set the task to get Americans acquainted with Russian culture, the enormous contribution that Russians have been making into American history and culture, and history of Russian America. That was the reason we began to use English for the RACH-C website.
We have already had a lot of implemented projects in New York that became well-known among Americans. They include exhibitions of Russian-speaking artists in Manhattan, participation in festivals organized by Americans, and concerts of Russian music.
We learned a lot not only from Russians, but also from Americans. Therefore, foundation of the RACH-C included establishment of the Board of Directors with prominent figures of the Russian community. We are proud to have some renowned names of Russian history in our Board of Directors: Igor and Nikolai Sikorsky, Nikolai Sluchevsky, Georgy Sheremetev, Tatyana Bobrinskaya. Unfortunately, three of our associates and friends who were members of the Board of Directors, supported and were actively involved in the RACH-C activities, have already passed away. I am referring to Kirill Giatsintov (President of the Russian Nobility Association in America), Vladimir Golitsyn (President of the Russian Nobility Association after Giatsintov), Elena Mayakovskaya, daughter of Vladimir Mayakovsky, etc.). But we do remember them. We are proud of their friendship and appreciate their contribution to the RACH-C activities. Today the RACH-C Board includes three American, one Russian and eleven Russian American members.
– Every April the Heritage Center holds the month dedicated to history of Russian Americans in the State of New York. It was first held in 2012. Please, tell us about this initiative.
– Initially, the goal of the Russian-American History Month was to preserve Russian history and pass it on to new generations of Russians and Americans.
The initiative came from the RACH-C members. Later on we established the Coalition of Organizations of the State of New York for Support of the Month, which today includes more than forty organizations.
For the first time in the whole history of Russians living in the State of New York, the Russian American History Month has been introduced at the legislative level, which we are proud of. It is the RACH-C that has organized and coordinated the Month for all these years.
Since 2012, every year the New York State Senate votes for the resolution and files it for consideration by the Governor of the State who proclaims April to be the Russian American History Month in the State of New York.
The Month includes the ceremonial hearings held in the Senate in the city of Albany. The hearings are attended by the delegation from Russian Americans organizations and open with a Russian prayer. Traditionally, on this day, the Senate invites an Orthodox priest, who is a member of our delegation, to open its work.
Members of the Russian delegation who were first to arrive to the hearings on the Russian American History Month are standing in front of the New York State Senate, Albany, 2016
We also organize visits to the Senate for representatives of Russian organizations, concerts of the best Russian performers, receptions where senators and assembly members supporting the Russian month are invited to, and tours to Russian places of New York. We conduct a quiz to test knowledge of history of Russian America and solemnly celebrate significant dates of the year. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Great Victory and the 180th anniversary of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s birth.
Delegation of Russian Americans from New York standing in the stairway of the State Senate before the hearings on the Russian American History Month, 2019.
Organizations of the aforementioned Coalition conduct educational activities, such as the Comprehensive Spelling Competition for children to test their knowledge of Russian language.
Events scheduled for this April include unveiling of a plaque in honor of Patriarch Tikhon. It commemorates his outstanding role in history of Russian Orthodoxy in the United States. The RACH-C has worked on this project for several years; and the event will have historical significance not only for Russian Americans, but also for history of New York City. The plaque is to be installed on St. Nicholas Cathedral, which Patriarch Tikhon laid the foundation stone for back in 1901. The plaque shall be unveiled as soon as possible subject to the epidemiological situation.
– How did you celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Victory in the midst of complicated epidemiological environment?
– We decided to devote the 2020 Russian Month to the 75th anniversary of the Great Victory. Preparatory activities were commenced a year in advance.
Senator Robert Jackson, the main backer of the Month Resolution, suggested us to bring veterans to the Senate, so they could attend the ceremonial hearings, address senators and share how they met American soldiers at the Elbe River.
We have prepared many events. One of them is a photo exhibition dedicated to the Encounter at the Elbe River arranged with help and support of the Sputnik News Agency. However, due to quarantine, we had to postpone many events to the end of the year, while some of them were transferred online with support of RTVI, an international Russian-language television network broadcasting in 55 countries of the world, which became the backer of the Month. Thanks to RTVI, audience in 55 countries could watch reports, exhibitions, and the RACH-C’s congratulations to veterans, addresses by veterans, speeches by senators supporting the Russian History Month, and contributions by prominent figures of the Russian community.
Participants of the History of Russian America Conference, organized by the RACH-C with support of the Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund at New York University, 2013
We strive for the Russian American History Month to be celebrated not only in the State of New York, but also in other states. We are working towards this goal.
The main thing for us is to become allies again, just as during the Second World War, so that the Spirit of the Elbe restores relations between Russia and the United States.
– One of your speeches emphasizes "significance of two main tasks: preserving the legacy and necessity to share it with the Americans." How have RACH-C projects put those tasks into action?
– The answer to such a question would require a long time. I would like to mention some major projects that the RACH-C has developed and implemented since 2003. I think even a brief description will demonstrate the tasks translated into action: in 2005 the RACH-C was the first and for the following eight years it was the only organization in the United States that distributed St. George ribbons in all states of the USA and Canada; the RACH-C also organized Russian Salons at Columbia University, which were attended by prominent representatives of Russian America (2005 - 2007); it was our organization that organized and held five conferences on the history of Russian America (2005 - 2017), including those at Columbia University (CU), at New York University (NYU), and at the City University of New York (CUNY).
Performance of the Golden Cockerel Ensemble led by Irina Zagornova at the First International Children's Festival of Russian Culture at the Permanent Mission of Russia to the UN
The RACH-C has organized and held 11 annual international children's festivals of cultures of the peoples of Russia in New York (since 2006). Over the years, the festivals welcomed various children's groups from Russia, including talented children of the Spivakov Foundation, children from 10 US states, Canada and Europe. From 2006 to 2008, the festival included a philanthropic event held at the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the UN. There was a fundraiser auction for sick children in Russia. I’d like to emphasize that the RACH-C has been assisting in establishment and registration of new public organizations of Russian America during all the years of its existence.
Our goal is to perpetuate Russian culture and history in America so that more Americans learn about our common history and history of Russian Americans. After all, when you know, you begin to understand; and when you understand, you begin to respect. All of that can be achieved by working in joint projects of Russian organizations.