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Tsarist Russia’s last refuge in Vancouver

George Patrikeeff collects antique books, whispers Orthodox prayers, paints portraits of poets and drinks tea from a samovar on a…

By Lena Smirnova , in Culture Feature story , on April 5, 2011 Tags: , , , , ,

George Patrikeeff collects antique books, whispers Orthodox prayers, paints portraits of poets and drinks tea from a samovar on a glass veranda. Every half hour a mantlepiece clock chimes a melody reminiscent of the Russian “God Save the King” to help him keep track of the time.

“My own home, my own country inside,” said Patrikeeff of his Abbotsford dwelling. “This is the house of the heart.”

This is the closest Patrikeeff can come to traveling back in time to visit his country. His real home is tsarist Russia, which ceased to exist at the turn of the twentieth century.

Patrikeeff, 78, is one of a few descendents of the old Russian officer class who live in Vancouver but identify first and foremost with tsarist Russia. They are desperately trying to keep its traditions alive.

But now even these traditions are slipping away as the formerly tight community loses its members and becomes increasingly fragmented.

A dying breed

Patrikeeff and his family stepped off the train in Vancouver on a Friday night in 1949, their few suitcases hurriedly packed with clothes and a hand-drawn portrait of tsar Aleksandr II. On Saturday morning, they went to a Russian Orthodox church.

Patrikeeff, the son of a tsarist officer, describes himself as a White Russian – the term used for those who remained loyal to the monarchy during the 1917 revolution. Like his ancestors, he sticks to the view that only people of Orthodox faith can be considered truly Russian.

The church Patrikeeff visited on his first morning in Vancouver no longer exists.

He now goes to an Orthodox church in Dewdney even though the services there are in English. Church remains the main place where he meets his fellow émigrés.

Photo gallery: Inside Patrikeeff’s home (click for larger image)

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Every Sunday he slowly climbs the stairs to the second floor of the small wooden cabin and stands for the two-hour service. Church has become more difficult to attend, Patrikeeff said. He now rarely goes to the Saturday evening vespers.

George Vishniakoff, 66, also attends Orthodox services regularly. He has worshipped at the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church on 43rd Avenue since he was six and sometimes still volunteers there.

He met other White Russian immigrants at church, but has lost track of them over the years, Vishniakoff said.

Even when he meets his old friends at church, they rarely speak in their native tongue. Meetings are so rare that there is little to talk about.

“It’s sad we are little by little losing our Russian character, not only the language but the culture as well,” Vishniakoff said.

The Russian Community Centre on 4th Avenue promotes itself as a gathering place for Russian émigrés, but Vishniakoff goes there only once a year for the Christmas bazaar.

Patrikeeff has not been at the centre for seven years even though he was one of its founding members. He sees his old friends so rarely that he doesn’t know whether they are still alive. When asked where they are, he pointed his finger at the ceiling and shrugged.

A vibrant community

It’s been nearly a half century since Patrikeeff worked weekends to transform an old Kitsilano movie house into the Russian Community Centre, but the memories of that time are still fresh in his mind.

eorge Vishniakoff said it's hard for immigrants like him to find a balance between the Russian and English cultures.
Vishniakoff finds it hard to find a balance between the Russian and English cultures.

He and a small army of other immigrants ripped out movie seats, rewired the stage and re-floored the main hall to have the centre ready to open its doors by 1964, according to the centre’s current directors.

The centre had up to 300 members in the 1960s and 70s, Vishniakoff said. Hundreds of Russian immigrants still come out for the centre’s events, but it is rare to see the older White Russians among them.

Russian immigrants donated their personal savings to build orthodox churches in Vancouver.

“It was like a second home,” said Vishniakoff of the church on 43rd Avenue. “It was important to help the church when possible.”

White Russians came across the city to the community centre and two orthodox churches every week.

Large crowds partied at the centre every New Years, Patrikeeff said. Russians as well as Canadians would also rush there when Soviet musicians, actors or circus acrobats came to perform.

“It helped at that time to connect among ourselves,” Vishniakoff said. “It gave the opportunity not to just us Russians, but also Canadians to see what Russian talents there were.”

A new generation

Snow typically piled six feet deep outside Edna Cazakoff’s small Saskatchewan farm house in the winter. Cazakoff remembers how she and her three siblings would cozy up by the stove on cold evenings and listen to their father read them Russian stories.

But Cazakoff, 89, could not read these stories to her only daughter when she raised her in Vancouver.

Her daughter spoke Russian until she was five years old but switched to English after she got teased for her accent at school.

Cazakoff’s daughter has also not shown interest in learning the family history except for the few borsch and vareniki recipes that Cazakoff passed down to her from her own mother. Cazakoff’s parents fled Russia before the turn of the century to escape the tsar’s religious prosecutions.

“It doesn’t seem to be important…as if there’s no time for it,” Cazakoff said. “It’s hard to hang on to the things that were very important to us.”

Vishniakoff and his Canadian wife picked Russian names for their daughters “so that they know that they’re from a Russian family,” he said.

His mother fled Russia after the revolution and lost a brother in the Soviet Gulag camps after he returned to his fatherland.

Nadejda Vishniakoff passed on her language and traditions to her granddaughters Tamara and Larissa. But the girls spoke English at home since their Canadian mother did not know Russian.

They now go to church only once or twice a year because they no longer understand the Russian service.

Vishniakoff also started to go to church less because his family does not go.

“I argued, argued, but what can be done?” Vishniakoff said.

Patrikeeff remains hopeful that his country’s history will not be forgotten. He is widowed and doesn’t have any children, but hopes to start a new family with a mother of an older child who is interested in history and could carry on old Russian traditions, Patrikeeff said.

For now he jokingly calls his home the Ipatiev House after the last living place of the Russian royal family in Ekaterinburg. The site has since become a memorial for the family and the old Russian state.