Uncle Vanya: From Russia With Love

By ZACK SNIDERMAN 

Uncle Vanya is finding fresh legs as an arts haven for the Russian community in New York.

Uncle Vanya is finding fresh legs as an arts haven for the Russian community in New York.

The deep-red couch at Uncle Vanya is littered with mismatched pillows. A guitar rests against the open window behind it, propped next to a wooden owl and a large, beat-up lamp. The couch is tucked into a corner beside the restaurant’s piano. The piano is buried under stacks of old playbills, songbooks, and flyers for local Russian events.

The couch is symbolic of the restaurant: a little beat up, always welcoming, and surrounded by art.

Uncle Vanya is a small Russian restaurant on West 54th Street. It offers traditional dishes like vareniki (potato dumplings) and shashlik (grilled meat kebabs). But the restaurant, named after a play by Anton Chekhov, has developed a reputation that extends beyond its kitchen.

Since its opening in 1992, Uncle Vanya has been a place for the Russian arts community to meet, mingle and network. While the restaurant used to host frequent events and readings, it slowed down in the last nine years, offering only a couple Mondays of live music per month. Uncle Vanya’s owner, however, is committed to re-establishing its identity as a supporter, promoter, and haven for Russian artists.

The owner, Marina Troshina, a former actress from Russia, had travelled to New York in 1990 as part of a show with the Lenkom Theater (formerly the Moscow State Theater). After the company ended its 45-day stint at City Center, Troshina stayed in New York. While trying to act in America, she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. During that time, she frequented La Russe, a small, Russian deli nearby. One day she suggested that the owner renovate the modest restaurant to bring in more customers. The owner was uninterested in her suggestion, but he was looking to leave the restaurant business. He offered Troshina a chance to buy out his lease and take over the deli.

Unhappy at the Fashion Institute and looking to reconnect with the arts community, Troshina bought La Russe Deli, installed a kitchen for $75,000 and turned the restaurant into a social space called Uncle Vanya.

More than 80,000 Russians live in New York, according to the latest U.S. census. Troshina has always banked on the allure of Broadway to draw the Russian community to Uncle Vanya, which is only a 10-minute walk from theater-land. “I think all actors want to be on Broadway,” Troshina said. Its proximity to the Mecca of the New York arts world makes it seem closer to home, even for artists living in other boroughs.

Despite being around the block from the well-established Russian Samovar restaurant, Uncle Vanya was able to build its reputation by word-of-mouth and through Troshina’s circle of artistic friends. “My idea was to form a club,” she said. “Samovar was a snobby place for early immigrants. Vanya was for newcomers who had no place to go. I opened it to have fun.”

This sense of fun translated into a regular series of events such as weekly poetry readings, music jam sessions and art exhibits.

But a decrease in activity came at the turn of the century. The drop was partly due to Uncle Vanya’s increased competition. Artistic programs began popping up in Brooklyn after the 1990s, including concerts and performances at the Millennium Theater, Brooklyn College and the Brooklyn Public Library’s “Russian Literary” series.

The shift of Russian cultural events from Manhattan to Brooklyn corresponds with the movement of the Russian population. According to the 1990 census, the population of lower Manhattan was more than 60 percent Russian. By 2000, that number was closer to 10 percent as Russians began moving into outer boroughs, especially Brooklyn and Queens.

Anton Chernassky speaks about his time at Uncle Vanya.

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It’s a rainy mid-November night and the couch at Uncle Vanya is taken up by a rotating cast of literary types. A young Russian couple, a drunk man gazing out the window, and a poet in leather jeans take turns on the couch, listening to a poetry reading taking place in the main dining room.

Tonight is the launch party for the second issue of Novaya Kozha Magazine (New Skin). The event is meant to showcase the magazine’s writers, sell some magazines, and simply to celebrate. The night features mostly Russian poets reading their mostly Russian poems to a mostly Russian audience. Several poems are read in English, but they too are translated and read again in Russian.

The avant-garde magazine contrasts with the Soviet-kitsch posters lining the walls of Uncle Vanya. The roughly 40-person audience packs the restaurant. They applaud, drink, shout commentary and laugh along with each poem.

A short, balding man wearing dark jeans and a white shirt scurries between the bar and the dining room event. Alex Galper is one of the featured poets. Rather than rehearse his lines, he is busy introducing and re-introducing his friends to local artists. He points a Brooklyn musician toward a Manhattan-based Russian graphic designer. He introduces a saxophonist to a Russian piano-player.

Despite his energy, Galper is anxious about tonight. His translator for the night drank too much and left without warning him. Galper, an émigré from the U.S.S.R. arrived in the US in 1990, speaks English but not well enough to perform confidently without assistance. Galper has a following in Russia, but is still struggling to find an audience in New York.

Troshina provided the restaurant space for free, said Igor Satanovsky, a translator and editor for the magazine. While he didn’t have to pay for the event, Satanovsky said, “We brought people in, and people tend to spend money when they’re out.”

In the mid-90s Uncle Vanya was a hub of artistic activity with regular literary nights, Satanovsky wrote in an email. But the activity began to fade by early 2001.

Satanovsky first read poetry in Uncle Vanya in 1996 but hadn’t been back in years. “Four or five months ago I got a call from Troshina, who wanted to bring literary activities back to the café,” Satanovsky said.

Troshina has recently steered UV into the arts in other ways too. In November, she set up a concession stand at a small production of Alexander Pushkin’s “Little Tragedies” at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. She sold drinks, chocolate and sandwiches as well as memorabilia from the show. On nights when she had food left over, she would leave it for the cast and staff. She also promoted the show at Uncle Vanya by displaying and handing out posters for the play.

She has invited the play’s translator, Julian Lowenfeld, to hold readings at the restaurant. She is planning a “White Christmas” celebration showcasing Russian singers performing Romances on the traditional Russian day of Christmas: January 7. And she’s also considering starting a blog for the restaurant to keep patrons, new immigrants and interested artists up-to-date on the restaurant’s events.

While Troshina hopes these event will drive traffic to the restaurant, she also hopes they’ll provide Russian artists with opportunities to perform and show their art. It is difficult for any new artists to break into the market, but Irina Stepnova, executive director of the largely- Russian Steps Theater in New York, said it is especially difficult for Russian artists. Not only has the recession cut donations to the arts generally, but funding from the Russian community has always been slim because that kind of philanthropy isn’t part of a national tradition.

“For years the Russian theater existed because the government supported it,” Stepnova said. “Russians consider themselves intellectual; they understand performing art, they like it, respect it, it is part of their lives … but it is hard to change that mentality.”

With a steady flow of events already scheduled, Troshina hopes to keep Uncle Vanya and its deep-red couch full with artists and other guests as a patron and friend.

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