NEWTON — Before any piano keys were struck or opera arias sung at a Russian arts and culture festival Friday night, Newton Mayor Setti Warren sounded a somber note, reflecting on the Boston Marathon bombings and ensuing manhunt that ended in nearby Watertown.
“Last week was so tragic for this region, this city, this country,” Warren said. “But through that, what is so vitally important . . . is that we continue to celebrate what makes this community so strong and vibrant.”
Organizers of the event said they were horrified to learn that the suspects – brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – were from the semi-autonomous Russian republic of Chechnya. But they stressed that the brothers’ background bears little resemblance to their own stories of emigrating from Russia.
Olesya Koenig, director of Newton’s second annual From Russia With Arts and Culture festival, moved to the United States from Russia three years ago and called her new home “full of hospitality.” After the bombings, she said, she was inundated with e-mails and phone calls from friends and family in Russia.
“Everybody is concerned and sad, especially the ones who visited Boston,” Koenig said. “They say it is the worst place in the world an attack could be performed, because it’s so peaceful. It doesn’t make any sense, what they’ve done.”
The three-day festival, which is being held at the Newton Cultural Center and runs through Sunday, features artwork, music, and film by Russian-American artists. Admission is free, but organizers are asking for donations to local food pantries.
The festival was delayed one week because the manhunt had Newton and surrounding communities on lockdown for an entire day, organizers said.
Tatyana Dudochkin, a Newton pianist who performed at the opening reception Friday evening, said the “evil” suspects have nothing to do with Russia. “When they say ‘Russia,’ I just feel so bad,” she said.
Dudochkin said the festival was a welcome relief after the events of last week. “I’m happy that Mayor Warren did, very quickly, rearrange the time for the next weekend, to return us back to the energy and positive feeling.”
Saturday night features a screening and discussion of the documentary “Second Life. Boston,” which tells the story of people who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the Boston area in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Because of the events that happened at the Marathon, this has extra meaning to all of us,” said Koenig, who lives in Cambridge and operates an art gallery with her husband. “Needless to say, it is sad, awful for us. But it shows how immigrants from the Soviet Union were able to come to the US and find a second home here. This is a very kind and beautiful movie.”
“Particularly in the first years, it’s difficult years, when people experience nostalgia,” said Mariya Gershteyn, a Newton resident who directed the film, which won NewTV’s award for the best program of 2012. “But after these first years, people are assimilated, people are integrated in American life, and appreciate it very much. When I’m with my parents and their friends, every holiday they toast and pronounce, ‘God bless America.’ People love America.”
As of a year ago, when Newton launched its first Russian festival, there were 18,784 Russian-born residents in Massachusetts and about 9.2 percent of Newton’s population reported having Russian ancestry, according to the US Census Bureau.
Gershteyn said many Russian immigrants to the area are Jews who fled religious persecution and came from the central part of Russia. “Chechnya, it’s a totally different region,” she said.
The Marathon bombings, she said, were beyond comprehension. “All our friends and Russian-speaking immigrants are devastated by this horror that has happened.”
Inessa Rifkin, founder of the Newton-based Russian School of Mathematics, said she was upset that the Tsarnaev brothers came here when they were young but apparently never learned to love the country that gave them a home.
“What’s amazing for me is this is such a great country,” Rifkin said in an interview earlier Friday. “If you look at me, you hear my accent. I immigrated here with $90, four suitcases, and two children. Now, 25 years later, I have a growing business. This is a country of opportunity.
“They don’t understand how unique this country is and how special it is,” Rifkin said of the suspected bombers.
Linda Plaut, director of the Newton Mayor’s Office for Cultural Affairs, said the Russian festival last year drew around 800 people and inspired the city to hold festivals for other ethnic groups to celebrate their heritage.
“Not only do native-born Americans, come, but they are coming to each other’s,” Plaut said. “That is really gratifying. There are many Indians that came to the Chinese [festival]. There were Russians that came to the Indian [festival]. I think this just demonstrated that this is getting to be a more and more diverse community.”