A Russian thread in Newton’s fabric

Local community grows from immigrant roots to play vibrant role in city life

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe
Samarah Sameera checks the work of Alexander Zhang, 8, while Alexander Tang, 7, takes note at the Russian School of Mathematics.

Voices ping-ponged between Russian and English as a two-story brick building in Newton’s Wells Avenue office park came alive with activity one recent afternoon.

In the hallway outside Dance Fever Studio, girls in sparkling costumes strapped on their dance shoes. At the Russian School of Mathematics, a classroom of fifth-graders tackled equations scribbled on the blackboard.

Upstairs, in the high-tech company qaSignature, dozens of computers hummed as workers diagnosed maintenance problems over the phone.


Inessa Rifkin, Vlad Shamis, and Emil Ioukhnikov reign over this bustling realm, which they have owned together since 2006. All three are immigrants from the Soviet Union who hold their board meetings in their native Russian, but they slip into English when discussions get heated or they need to write down the minutes.

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As immigrants they understand each other’s drive to succeed, Ioukhnikov said.

“You want to prove something,’’ he said.

After more than three decades of migration to the Boston suburbs, the local Russian community is leaving a lasting mark on Newton. There are Russian restaurants, senior centers, and grocery stores.

And next weekend, the Newton Cultural Center for the first time will host a Russian arts, crafts, and music festival for the city’s residents.


Organizers said it is a long overdue acknowledgment of the vibrant Russian community that calls Newton home.

“When we arrived there were just a few families. I never heard Russian spoken in public,’’ said Ary Rotman, who immigrated in the 1970s and is the president of the Russian Jewish Community Foundation, a local charitable organization.

Now, Rotman said, even at the Stop & Shop he can hear the language of his birth.

According to a recent estimate from the US Census Bureau, there are 1,319 Russian-born residents in Newton, and about 9.2 percent of the city’s population reports having Russian ancestry. The local Russian-born population is slightly larger than Brookline’s 1,216 residents, but smaller than the 3,017 who live in Boston, according to the census estimates.

Statewide, there are 18,784 Russian-born residents.


Many immigrants were drawn to Newton because of its school system and the city’s proximity to other communities with people who speak Russian. And as their population grew, many started businesses in the city.

You can taste borscht at Café St. Petersburg, or sample a kalduni, a Belarussian meat-stuffed potato latke, at Inna’s Kitchen in Newton Centre.

At the grocery store Baza, Russian pop music plays in the background while shoppers peruse aisles stocked with pickled vegetables, smoked fish, and jellied cakes.

Leonid Komarovsky, the owner of a Boston media company, said a firm figure on the number of Russian-owned businesses is unavailable. But his own company’s database of advertisers includes about 60 companies that do business in Newton, Komarovsky said in an e-mail.

At 200 Wells Ave., Rifkin, Shamis, and Ioukhnikov have grown their businesses together from small operations started in their homes, or, in one case, a friend’s basement.

The three partners are as different as their companies.

Rifkin is a stylish former engineer who unapologetically asserts that “C is not average, it at least should be a B, if not an A,’’ among her students at the Russian School of Mathematics. She runs the popular tutoring program, which she founded with a friend more than a decade ago; it has expanded to California and Kentucky and enrolls more than 6,000 students.

Shamis, a sturdy man, is the talker of the group, and proudly shares that his father was interviewed by the CIA after he arrived in the United States. Shamis owns qaSignature, the technology company in the building.

And Ioukhnikov, the youngest and quietest of the trio, is a former youth and ballroom dance champion who owns the Dance Fever Studio with his wife.

They employ many other Russian-speakers and immigrants, although their businesses all serve a wider American audience.

“Of course it’s easier because we have the same culture, we all speak Russian,’’ Rifkin said about their collaboration.

When the first wave of immigrants arrived in the 1970s and 1980s, many were Jews fleeing the religious restrictions of the Soviet Union, and were granted refugee status by the United States. Resettlement programs that sprung out of the local Jewish communities helped ease the transition for many newcomers.

After receiving a visit from the KGB in 1985 because he and his family were practicing Jews, said Greg Margolin, now the executive director of the Russian Jewish Foundation, he was determined to leave the place of his birth.

After his family made many requests to emigrate, the Soviet government agreed to let them leave in 1986, Margolin said.

“I was able to give my children a Jewish education,’’ Margolin said, underlining his motivations for making the daunting move.

The next wave of immigrants arrived in the late 1980s, as the country’s government began to collapse. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev loosened immigration policies, and many professors, engineers, and professionals took advantage of the opportunity to leave. Religious freedom was not necessarily the overriding reason behind their departure.

Rifkin, founder of the math school, arrived in 1988. She is Jewish, but she said she and her family were more concerned about the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan and the constant apprehension of living under a totalitarian regime.

When she returned to work after her maternity leave, her boss congratulated her by proudly declaring that the Red Army had a new soldier, Rifkin recalls.

“I wanted out of there,’’ she said.

In the past decade, immigration from Russian-speaking countries to the Newton area has slowed, and economic opportunities are more likely the inspiration. Wealthy Russians who have made money in their homeland are moving to the United States and opening businesses here, Rotman said.

Unlike the refugees who arrived 30 years ago, many newcomers still have close ties to their homeland and travel between the two countries. Some have come to America looking for a safer place to invest their money after Russia’s rocky embrace of capitalism.

But newer immigrants face their own set of challenges. The support services that greeted refugees, such as language classes, no longer exist or have been thinned.

Mikhail and Yelena Sirota moved to the United States from St. Petersburg with their three children in 2002. Mikhail’s parents had immigrated years before to the area. When the Russian government could not pay for the uniforms it had ordered from Mikhail’s manufacturing company and forced it to shut down, the Sirotas left.

Their apartment in Newton Lower Falls showed the signs of all their various business ventures. One room, stocked with art supplies, is where Yelena paints and gives art classes. Chairs that Mikhail is in the midst of restoring for customers sit in their dining room. Many of their clients come from the area’s Russian community.

After a decade in the country, the Sirotas still struggle with the language. Yelena took English classes, she said, but they were costly and she did not have the time to continue because she had to work. It has made communicating with their sons’ teachers difficult at times, she acknowledged.

Still, the Sirotas said, they do not regret their decision to move. They are free from the economic roller coaster of Russia, they said.

“It’s very good,’’ Yelena Sirota said of the family’s life in the United States. “It’s comfortable.’’

Ena Feinberg, director of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service organization’s programs for newcomers to the country, said the needs of Russian immigrants have shifted over the years. Her resettlement team has dropped from 21 people in the late 1980s to three, she noted.

In the past decade, a large influx of elderly Russians have arrived in the United States to reunite with sons, daughters, and grandchildren, Feinberg said.

The elderly-housing opportunities around Newton and the city’s proximity to public transportation make it an attractive place for them, she said.

Where her staff in the agency’s New American Services department used to intervene to help parents communicate with teachers about their children, now they are more likely to help translate letters about federal benefits and explain medical issues to the elderly, Feinberg said.

After helping Russians resettle in Greater Boston for 23 years, Feinberg said, she’s learned that trying to define the local community can be difficult.

They may share a common language, but each wave of immigration brought different groups to America, she said.

“The Russian community is a vague idea,’’ Feinberg said.

Still, for all the diversity among immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the business owners at Wells Avenue have discovered a way to build a community in their nondescript office building. By pooling their financial resources and recognizing that their businesses share a common market, they were able to find space that allowed all three to prosper, they said.

“It helped to be together,’’ said Rifkin

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com.