SAN JAVIER, Uruguay – Social networks, the digitization of farm machinery and government legislation are helping a community of Russians to begin integrating in Uruguayan society.
The Rio Negro tourism director for the village of San Javier, Leonardo Martinez, told EFE that this community of more than 100 people – known locally as “bearded Chinese Russians” – immigrated to Uruguay in 1968.
Martinez, who is also a historian, said the community fled from Russia because they were persecuted for being Orthodox Christians after the 1917 revolution.
They first found refuge in China and Hong Kong, which is why their blue eyes are often mixed with Asian features. They then moved on to Italy and Turkey.
They finally came to South America through Brazil, but the hot weather drove them on to Uruguay, where in 1968 a total of 17 families purchased 45 hectares (110 acres) in the province of Rio Negro. They were also attracted by the existence of another Russian colony just 13 kilometers (8 miles) away.
“They had a colony called La Pitanga in Guichon, Paysandu province. The newcomers were out to buy some property and learned about the Russian colony there,” he said with reference to his village, San Javier, founded by Russians in 1913, but which has lost most of its Eurasian culture including the language.
Martinez, who is the great-grandson of Russians, said his neighbors are “very reserved” and that they speak Spanish with a Russian accent, but that the younger generations are adapting quite easily and completely.
“I think the social changes taking place are inevitable, because until recently these Russians were not allowed, for example, to watch television, listen to the radio, use a mobile phone...the young people couldn’t drink beer and all that is changing completely,” said Martinez, who is also a tourist guide.
In that sense, he said that these country folk had to gradually start using technology for their work, since today’s farm machinery is digitized.
“Yes they have to know how to use computers, then they have to talk on cell phones, their vehicles have radios, they have it all...we even see members of the colony using Facebook, something unthinkable for the old folks,” he said.
Nonetheless, the director said that this “revolution” never took place among the elderly, who continue being “very reserved” and authoritarian toward the young.
He also noted that, despite some of them having profiles on social networks, in the Ofir colony – also known locally as the “road of the bearded ones – all continue wearing traditional Russian clothing and married women cover their hair with a shashmura cloths.
Another key for integrating this community into society was the passing of various laws by the Uruguayan government.
“Several years ago the Justice system began to have them fall in line with the laws of our country because they were like a separate people...so women had to use public health services before giving birth, for example, and the kids had to attend the rural school in the area. Meanwhile they all mixed with natives of the region who were also of Russian descent,” he said.
Uruguay is not the only home of these farmhands, since when the countryside doesn’t have much work to offer, many of the men go to Alaska to work on fishing boats and for companies related to forestry.
“They go (to North America) to work for a season and return with their pockets full of money, because they’re paid very well up there, and afterwards continue with their own seasonal jobs like sowing and harvesting crops and that kind of thing,” Martinez said.