Russia and Ukraine have exported some of their artistry to the Valley, where their performers amaze audiences with displays of physical and aerial grace. Others from the former USSR make lower-altitude contributions to medicine, gaming, technology and other endeavors. As a past resident of Moscow and Saratov, I’m glad to have discovered two Russian markets and an authentic Russian restaurant here in Las Vegas.
One local enterprise with a strong Russian and Ukrainian presence is Cirque du Soleil, which has long recruited some of its best performance artists from the region. That’s where I found Lyudmyla Chovhun and Yuri Gotov, who kindly spoke to me about their lives here in Vegas.
Chovhun, who hails from Vinnitsa, Ukraine, performs in “O” at the Bellagio, where she displays her talents on the Russian swing and by diving from as high as 60 feet – about double the height of the Olympic high-dive platform – into the onstage pool. An irrepressible spirit, she broke her leg during her Cirque audition in Montreal but persevered and later won a place in the show.
Chovhun took her first career step at age 7 after an acrobatic and diving academy representative visited her school. Encouraged by her mother, she rose to the top of her field and has been with Cirque for three years. She was nice enough to allow me to conduct a portion of the interview in Russian.
“I miss my family and friends in Vinnitsa,” Chovhun told me, “but I love the freedom and opportunity to follow my dreams” in the U.S. She enjoys driving in Las Vegas, too, because “the drivers are not so bad [!] and I like having a car with an automatic transmission.”
“Las Vegas is the best city in the world,” Gotov said in English, letting me give my Russian a rest. Beyond the resorts and shows, he cited America’s “freedom and the ability to make good money and live a quiet life.”
After developing his skills as a gymnast on the Russian national team, Gotov joined Cirque, where he now delights audiences as a high-bar aerialist (from about five stories above the stage) and on the Chinese poles. He is also a backup for an act called Acrobatic Cube. Offstage, he enjoys spending time with his wife and raising his 5-year-old son.
Both Chovhun and Gotov patronize two stores that offer a wide variety of products from their native lands. The Jones Market, at 3389 S. Jones, on the northwest corner of Jones and Spring Mountain, offers meats, cheeses, vegetables, pastries and shelves stocked with packaged foods, candies, sauces and bottles — including the underrated “Soviet Champagne” and Georgian wines. The store has the feel of a Russian produkti, or grocery store. With a no-nonsense aesthetic, it even has handwritten display signs for such indispensables as “Big Cakes.” The Max Market, at 8450 W. Sahara No. 117 (just east of Durango) likewise delivers the goods and atmosphere.
For an immaculate taste of Russia, both expats and natives flock to the Artem restaurant. Located at 4825 W. Flamingo No. 9, on the southeast corner of Flamingo and Decatur, the Artem is home to the husband-and-wife cooking team of Oleg Basov and Svetlana Basova. The Basovs honed their skills as professional chefs in Moscow before bringing their talents to the Valley. Basova also taught at a Russian culinary school.
The Artem frequently appears on “Best of” lists, and the staff estimates that 60 percent of its clientele is American or otherwise hails from outside the former USSR. Even more impressive than its décor (it could be the twin of a nice restaurant outside St. Petersburg where I once ate), the restaurant boasts an extensive selection of appetizers, salads, vegetables, seafood, blini (like crepes or pancakes), soups, meats, caviar and drinks.
With items like “Tipsy Salmon” (marinated in cognac) and “My Mom’s Blini” (crepes with salmon or caviar), how could you go wrong? Beef stroganoff, sturgeon, borscht (beet soup), shashlik (skewered beef), and pelmeni (similar to ravioli) are among the most popular dishes.
But don’t take my word for it (my credentials as a Russian epicure have been under suspicion since a Russian in Saratov asked about my favorite local food and I answered, “Turkish bread”). Listen instead to Chovhun and Gotov, who confirmed the Artem’s quality. Priyatnovo appetita!