Cossacks Dance Toward a Better Life

Russian migrants left homes, families to follow a dream

At night in a gym south of Denver, a dozen Russian Cossack
dancers rehearse.

Sweat beads streak their faces as they clash swords. They
whirl around fiercely and, from squatting positions, snap-kick
their legs.


They’re giving their all after taking a big risk: snubbing
their Russian government sponsors on a U.S. tour 13 months ago,
and leaving their children back in Russia – on a hunch that the
people in materially rich America will accept them.

“To this day, I think we made a good decision,” Stanislava
Perets, 26, said confidently.

But their future is uncertain as they defy the norm for
immigrants in Colorado, where the foreign-born population is
growing faster than in any other state.

Most immigrants do cleaning work, drive cabs, haul boxes in
warehouses, cook in restaurants or sell products – basic wage
services the state economy devours. Few enter immediately into the
professional careers that many of them trained for abroad. That
causes frustration, especially among Colorado’s well-educated
20,000 or more Russian speakers.

Depression and family strife result, social workers say.

In contrast, the Cossacks see performing as their only way
into America.

This band broke away from an elite Russian troupe that
traveled the world demonstrating traditional soldierly skills in
skits and dances, accompanied by the three-stringed balalaika. It
is superpatriotic artistry. Russian nationalists revere the
Cossack culture that evolved among boisterous peasant soldiers on
Russia’s southern frontiers.

The problem: On government salaries of about $40 a month in
Russia, these Cossack dancers barely got by.

On Dec. 3, 1999, they were sitting in a Florida hotel the day
after their 84-member troupe completed a multicity U.S. tour.

They were taking stock, comparing America’s material comfort
and respect for law and order with hardship in Russia. Andrei
Perets, 30, was typical. He worked three jobs in Russia – as
performer, teacher and night security watchman. He hardly slept.
He hardly saw his daughter.

Five Cossacks initially announced they intended to stay in
the United States. Others followed. Supervisors bristled. Reports
of a mutiny made headlines in Moscow and Rostov, the troupe’s home
base on the Don River near the Black Sea.

Historically, ancestors of these Cossacks often defied
government control.

Peasant soldiers enslaved under the czars, Cossacks revolted
frequently and at times were enlisted to defend against the Turks.
“Cossack” means “free person.” On Russia’s southern frontiers,
Cossacks honed their skills riding horses, sword-fighting,
shooting and swilling vodka.

“We didn’t want to spend our lives as slaves,” Perets said.

From Florida, the breakaway, modern-day Cossacks called
Sergey Shadioun, 43, a former Red Army performer they knew who’d
emigrated to Denver. They begged Shadioun to contact lawyers and
explore how the performers could emigrate legally. Shadioun
obliged, and eventually agreed to be president and chief
choreographer for the group. He found apartments they share in
Glendale. He rounded up equipment, including costumes and swords
that had to be ordered from Russia.

Many in Denver’s Russian-speaking community are impressed,
and hope the group will succeed here. “It would be nice to have a
group of wonderful performers,” said Anna Tsesarsky of Jewish
Family Services resettlement agency.

Yet cracking mainstream Colorado as a Cossack is hard.

By day, the once-celebrated dancers are strangers driving
around in newly purchased used cars. They struggle with English.
They decline to talk about “little work” they may do to supplement
what they earn performing. Basic needs are met. Each performer now
lives on about $1,000 a month, Shadioun said.

Nearly every night, they gather at the Universal Gymnastics
gym in an office park south of Denver. Shadioun arranged to rent
the place after 9 p.m. The Cossacks train nightly for two intense
hours in a warm yellow light, leaping around, thumping on the
wooden floor, while a tape deck plays folk tunes that move them.

Veronika Alimova, 21, darted away now and then last week to
check on her baby, Cristina, almost 4 months old. “This is just
the beginning,” she said, cradling Cristina. “We hope to perform
on big stages here in the future. I want to spend all my life
dancing. I trained for so many years.”

In embroidered costumes, black boots and blue soldier caps,
chanting “Hey,” they ignited an otherwise silent suburban
nightscape of neon-lit car lots, warehouses, satellite dishes and

They miss home.

Stanislava Perets said she regularly phones her 7-year-old
daughter, Anastasia, – left with grandparents – asking about
school, promising they’ll be together soon if immigration
applications are approved.

Yuriy Abramenko, 39, yearning for his wife, clings to a
conviction that, among nations, “America is best. Beautiful. Every
citizen respects the law. This is a country of immigrants.” All
these Cossacks need “is a chance to show people our spirit.”

Nearby, blue TV light blinked inside airy pastel homes of
the Coloradans the Cossacks hope to reach. The group performed 13
times in December, but in small venues.

Now, Russian Cafe owner Eugene Valershteyn has discovered the
dancers. He hired them to perform Saturday nights at his
red-walled Russian Cafe at Orchard Road and University Boulevard.

Well-heeled Americans are his main clientele. At a recent
performance, they watched raptly, clapping, some standing on
chairs. Russian emigres Olga and Michael Novikov sat in the cafe
that night. They marveled as the Cossacks danced, nearly kicking
tables with their boots. Olga had seen them years ago in a large
Moscow theater. She cringed to think how they must feel to perform
in a tiny restaurant.

When she saw their passionate faces, she understood. “They
can’t live without dancing,” she said. “It is love.”

Haime Asfaw

Restaurant leads Ethiopian to better life

Restaurant owner Haime Asfaw, 40, fled Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,
during a civil war in 1982. She resettled in Los Angeles, where
she supported herself and her son by working in a bank. She
attended college, too.

But when her son, Michael, grew into a teenager, she worried
about his safety in Los Angeles. “We didn’t have gangs in our
country. That was the reason I moved to Colorado – to give him a
better life.”

Starting in 1992, Asfaw worked in a Denver typewriter shop,
then a bank, then as an accountant at Denver International
Airport. Gradually she settled into a city that felt cosmopolitan
yet relaxed, with a diverse population and good weather. In 1997,
she rented an old shop and began selling Ethiopian spices to other
immigrants. A year later, she renovated that shop at 3504 E.
Colfax Avenue and turned it into the Arada Ethiopian Restaurant.

Newspaper reviewers rate her food highly.

Michael, 22, now studies at Metropolitan State College. Asfaw
misses Ethiopia – her relatives and culture – and visits when

But more and more customers are demanding the spicy meats and
vegetables she prepares according to ancient traditions her mother
taught her in Africa. “My mother deserves all the credit,” Asfaw
said Thursday at work.

Luis Escebedo

Road paved with good fortune for RTD driver

RTD bus driver Luis Escebedo, 40, grew up on dirt streets at
the edge of Juarez in northern Mexico. He’ll never forget the
families who lived there without electricity, purchasing their
drinking water weekly from a tanker truck that filled metal drums.
Escebedo moved north to Denver in 1978 to visit his sister. “I
fell in love with the place.”

He found work as a janitor on South Colorado Boulevard. Then
he found better work driving a forklift at a brick factory.

He met his wife, Rosa, here in Denver. Now they raise four
sons in a tidy house off a park in northwest Denver.

“My children love it here,” Escebedo said Thursday before
beginning his afternoon shift at the Regional Transportation
District. “There’s not much crime. This is one of the most
beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. The economy is great. That’s why
so many people are coming. The weather is good.”

Two years ago, Escebedo became a legal resident – fulfilling
his mother’s dream back in Mexico before she passed on. His goal:
“Stay together as a family. My life is my kids. I would do
anything for them.”

The Escebedos envision their best future in Denver. Yet
every December, Luis or his brother return to the dirt streets at
the edge of Juarez.

They deliver toys to the children of fathers less fortunate.

Leonid Reznikov

Russian scientist was forced to leave

Telephone calls to scientist Leonid Reznikov’s apartment in
St. Petersburg, Russia, during 1992 forced him out. He remembers
the caller’s voice clearly: “Leave the country. This country is
not for you. You hold a good position, which should be for
Russians, not Jews.”

Police couldn’t guarantee his safety. And when the caller
threatened to kill his daughter, Reznikov rode a train to the U.S.
Embassy in Moscow. He moved to Colorado five months later as a
refugee and settled in Denver. Now 38, he works as an assistant
professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.
He’s trying to find new ways to diagnose cancer as part of an
elite international research team led by Dr. Charles Dinarello.
Reznikov also runs the local Russian newspaper Horizon, one of
four Russian newspapers circulating in Denver, along with helping
raise two children.

“I found lots of scientific opportunities on this team. Labs
like this, they are at the same level as the most advanced labs in
the United States,” Reznikov said Thursday at work. “I hope to
continue my work here.”

Foreign-born on the Rise in Colorado

Population growth fastest in U.S.

Colorado’s foreign-born population nearly tripled this past
decade and is growing faster than any other state’s, according to
an analysis of new U.S. Census Bureau data.

In 1990, 142,000 Coloradans, or 4.3 percent, were born
abroad. Last year, 413,000, or nearly 10 percent, were born

The newcomers arrived from all over, with the greatest
numbers from Mexico, East Asia, Europe and Africa. They’re
changing the face of almost every street: a hockey-loving Denver
bus driver from Mexico, an Ethiopian woman who cooks spicy meats
on East Colfax, a cancer researcher from Russia who also runs a

The influx over the past decade was far more pronounced than
in traditionally international states such as New York and

And considering the rapidly increasing foreign migration into
other interior states such as Nevada, Kentucky, Iowa and Arizona,
experts at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.,
think tank analyzing Census Bureau data, see the makings of a
major demographic shift.

“The places that are attracting a lot of immigrants that are
nontraditional places generally have the characteristics of
Colorado: good labor market and a relatively low cost of living,”
said Steven Camarota, research director at the center. “And
Colorado has reached a critical mass in terms of networks of
immigrants. Immigrants are drawn in by the economy and by the
networks. Middle America now is experiencing a lot more immigration.”

Colorado ranked 13th among states on number of foreign-born
residents. California had the most, followed by New York, Florida
and Texas.

The new numbers come from a population survey conducted last
year by the Census Bureau – separate from the bureau’s
once-a-decade population count.

The figures were broken down state-by-state and analyzed this
month at the Center for Immigration Studies. The bureau plans to
release more data on the foreign-born population over the next two

It might seem as if Colorado’s fast-growing foreign-born
population is a factor in the state’s overall population growth
last decade by 31 percent to 4.3 million. More than 1 million new
residents gave Colorado the third-fastest-growing population
behind Nevada and Arizona.

Actually, foreign migration into Colorado – including births
to immigrants – accounts for about one-third of population growth
here, Camarota said. Nationally, foreign migration plus births
play a larger role, accounting for about two-thirds of U.S.
population growth.

For The Denver Post, the Center for Immigration Studies
conducted some additional analysis of foreign-born population
survey data obtained from the Census Bureau. Among the findings:

About 223,000, or 54 percent, of the foreign-born population
resides in the Denver area.

Poverty and education levels of newcomers vary widely.
African, European and South American-born Coloradans over 21
generally had completed at least high school, but 62 percent of
Mexican-born Coloradans had not completed high school. About a
third of African-born Coloradans lived below the official poverty
line, as did 24 percent of Mexican-born Coloradans. Three percent
of European-born Coloradans lived in poverty.

Of the 413,000 foreign-born Coloradans, 234,000, or 57
percent, moved here during the 1990s, often after settling in
other states.

Colorado stands out nationally with a higher-than-average
share of Mexican-born and African-born residents. About 43 percent
of foreign-born Coloradans came from Mexico – compared with 28
percent nationally. About 6.5 percent of foreign-born Coloradans
came from Africa – compared with 2 percent nationally. East
Asian-born Coloradans made up 12 percent of the foreign-born
population – compared with 18 percent nationwide.