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.”