As Native Language Fades, Ozarks Immigrants Take on New Identity

Dec 11, 2017

Anastasia Gantuyk, a young mother living in rural, south-central Missouri, was born in Tajikistan.
Credit KSMU Radio

On a rainy morning outside her church near Willow Springs, Missouri, Anastasia Gantyuk sits in her minivan with two of her children. A kids' DVD plays in the Russian language while they wait for the school bus. 

Anastasia was born in Tajikistan and moved to Russia at age six to avoid ethnic fighting. Her dad was a fireman; her mother, a farm hand.

She says some of the older members of the Russian-speaking community here fear that the younger generation is losing the language that holds them together.

“Actually it’s not as important for me to keep the Russian language as much for the older generation. Because basically I don’t see myself as a Russian anymore but, Russian-American, I guess," Gantyuk said.

"For me, the most important thing [is] for them to know God, and to be good people," she said.

Anfisa Tolokovskaya grew up in Siberia and attends the Russian-language church in rural Howell County, Missouri.
Credit KSMU Radio

Some grandparents cannot communicate with their grandchildren, she says, because they don't speak a common language.

In Ozark, Missouri, Anatoliy Chernioglo is a father trying to navigate the two cultures. He moved to the United States from Moldova as a teenager.

He says many immigrant parents send their children to the Russian language classes at the local church.

"We talk to them about culture, history so they can understand where we’re coming from in certain traditions, why we’re doing the things we’re doing," Chernioglo said.

Anastasia Gantyuk, second from left, with her family outside the Russian language church in rural south-central Missouri. The family moved from Tajikistan to Russia then to the United States.
Credit KSMU

Back in rural Howell County, Anastasia Gantyuk is the only person under the age of 35 in the weekday morning prayer service. The church follows Pentecostal teachings, but it also keeps some of the laws of the Jewish Sabbath.

Several older women wearing headscarves and long skirts are praying in the back row. 

Anfisa Tolokovskaya, who grew up in poverty in Siberia, is among them. Her husband survived a famine, a German firing squad in WWII, a labor camp, and imprisonment for his faith in the former Soviet Union, she tells us later.

For the older generation, the Russian language, which many were forced to learn in the former Soviet block countries, is a testament to their journeys, their sacrifices, and their unified story.

But Anastasia, the young mother, discreetly pulls out her phone and opens an app that translates the verses to English as she follows along in the service.

When they begin to pray out loud, Anastasia tells us that some are praying in Russian, and others are speaking in tongues.

They’re praying for the future generation, she said, to have wisdom and to follow the correct path.