In their Minnetonka classroom, 20 kindergartners and first-graders repeat Russian words as their teacher slowly sounds them out. The lesson, though, isn’t just for their schooling, but part of a broader effort to keep their culture alive.

The charter school, Nasha Shkola, which means “Our School” in Russian, has nearly doubled in size since it opened last year — just one example of the increasing visibility of Minnesota’s growing Russian-speaking population.

Many other institutions that serve the thriving immigrant population have sprung up across the Twin Cities. Among them: a Russian newspaper in Plymouth, some 30 churches and a synagogue, a community center in St. Paul, and hundreds of Russian restaurants and other businesses.

“Wherever you’re going, there are Russian speakers,” said Mark Stipakov, who left St. Petersburg for St. Paul 35 years ago, part of the first major wave of Russian immigrants to come to Minnesota. Stipakov, who now lives in Long Lake, was the first Russian real estate agent in the Twin Cities.

“We’re not the largest Russian community [in the nation], but we’re one of the most robust,” said Stipakov from his real estate office in a Plymouth strip mall that he and others dub “Little Russia” because it houses several Russian businesses. “The Russian community has a huge potential. If we don’t do this [keep Russian culture and language], there will be nothing in 15 to 20 years.”

It’s an immigrant community that may not be well-known in the Twin Cities because in many ways it quietly blends into the largely European-heritage region. Just how large it is can be difficult to define, especially because Russian speakers originate from so many countries.

Gedaly Meerovich, a former mechanical engineer who started the Slavic Community Center in St. Paul in 2003, puts Minnesota’s Russian-speaking community at 50,000 to 60,000. According to the State Demographic Center, nearly 43,000 residents claim Russian ancestry, but most recent census data show 14,100 Minnesotans identify as Russian speakers.

“In Minnesota, there’s a huge number of people from the [former] Soviet Union, but the cultural influences are sometimes underestimated,” said Elena Polukhin of Minnetonka.

Hennepin County has the most Russian speakers, according to census data, with 5,800 residents, followed by Dakota County with 2,000.

While the data aren’t broken down by city, school districts like Anoka-Hennepin, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Osseo, Shakopee, Wayzata and Elk River report the most numbers of Russian-speaking students, according to public school data from 2011-12.

New residents, new programs

The Russian immigrant wave began in the 1970s and 1980s when Russian Jewish refugees immigrated to St. Paul and St. Louis Park, opening churches and a Russian newspaper, Zerkalo.

A second wave followed in the 1990s and early 2000s, reuniting families like Eugene Kharam’s.

Kharam was 12 when he and his family left Russia in 1997, moving to Plymouth, where relatives already lived. Now, he and his wife own a house in Maple Grove — not far from his parents and grandparents in Plymouth and near Nasha Shkola, which he helps run.

“Let’s be honest — not a lot of people in Russia know about Minnesota,” he said. “If it weren’t for family and friends, I don’t know [that] a lot of people would come to Minnesota right away.”

He said that, over time, Russian immigrants and their families moved to west-metro cities because they were attracted to engineering and technology jobs such as those at Boston Scientific and St. Jude Medical as well as to the west metro’s schools and small businesses.

At Zerkalo, the Russian-language newspaper and magazine in Plymouth, publisher Leonid Grichener’s directory has grown from a couple of businesses in 1991 to now more than 1,000 Russian businesses.

“A lot of people came to America not just for bread and butter, but to do something for themselves … for this country; many people are entrepreneurs,” added Polukhin, who is a doctor with her own medical clinic in Eagan. “Our American dream came true.”

Now, Kharam hopes Nasha Shkola will be the next big attraction to the west metro.

“We are unique, and we’re a success story,” he said.

Some of the students were adopted from Russia while others have a Russian parent or ancestry. They come to the school from as far away as Prior Lake and Elk River. All classes are taught in English except for one Russian-language class and some music classes.

“Our purpose is to keep the tradition alive, the language alive,” said Stipakov, who is on the school’s board of directors.

Keeping the culture alive

Meerovich helped start the school last year after starting the Slavic Community Center largely to help Russian seniors who had little to no English.

“The Russian community is not different from any other immigrant community; we have the same needs,” he said.

But unlike other immigrant groups, he said there are still gaps in unifying the Russian community in the Twin Cities, especially since residents originate from so many countries.

He and other community leaders hope the school and future programs will help keep the immigrant community together and preserve what many American-born children may otherwise lose.

“We’re trying to keep our culture,” Stipakov added. “But who knows how long that will last.”