21. UTAH’S GREAT, BUT UKRAINE IS THE PLACE ON NEW YEAR’S

New Year’s Eve in his hometown of Nikolaev, city of 700,000 near the
Black Sea in southern Ukraine, always biggest celebration of the year

By Cathy Free, Deseret Morning News
Salt Lake City, Utah, Thursday, December 29, 2005

It’s tough to find decent caviar, and the fireworks show seems to last no
longer than it takes Oleg Kustov to toast the New Year.

But the man who runs Salt Lake City’s only Russian cafe doesn’t mind a few
trade-offs to fulfill his dream. In his homeland of Ukraine, he probably
never would have been able to open his own restaurant.

“There’s too much crime there, too much corruption,” he says. “When I visit,
I am always glad to come home to Utah. This feels like home now.” Still, on
Dec. 31, Oleg usually feels a twinge of homesickness for the traditions he
left behind when he came to Salt Lake City 15 years ago with his parents and
younger sister.

New Year’s Eve in his hometown of Nikolaev, a city of about 700,000 near the
Black Sea in southern Ukraine, was always the biggest celebration of the
year. More than 50 relatives would fill his family’s apartment and sit down
at 11 p.m. to an elegant feast of roast goose with apples, veal cutlets, cod
liver salad and loads of red and black caviar.

At 11:59, the adults would fill their glasses with vodka and say “goodbye”
to the old year. Then, they’d quickly refill them to toast the New Year at
midnight, says Oleg.

“When the clock struck 12, there was an enormous fireworks show in the
city that would last 45 minutes,” he says. “To a child, it seemed to go on
forever – these magnificent bursts of red, gold and white. It was magical –
the fireworks in America just can’t compare.”

The best part of the celebration, though, was when his relatives pushed the
furniture against the walls, turned on some loud music and danced –
sometimes until 4 or 5 in the morning.

” Everybody was so happy – that’s what I remember,” he says. “Even in hard
times, people always came together to celebrate the New Year. It was the
most special night of the year.”

Hoping to share a few memories of his favorite holiday, Oleg, 29, invited me
to join him for a Free Lunch chat at Rasputin, the Russian restaurant he
opened with his mother, Asya, seven years ago. As the tantalizing aroma of
roast pork drifts from the kitchen, Oleg opens a large picture book about
his hometown.

“It was a beautiful city, but the economy went bad after the (Soviet Union)
breakup,” he says. “So many people wanted to leave – they would talk about
the United States like money grew on trees. ‘Everybody has a car, everybody
has a house,’ they would say. ‘It’s an easy life.’ Of course, they were
wrong. Yes, you can have a house and a car. But you have to work hard.”

In high school, Oleg taught himself to speak English by watching the
television news. Homesick for old celebrations, he went to Salt Lake City’s
annual New Year’s fireworks show at Gallivan Plaza but was disappointed.

“It took a while to get used to Christmas being such a big deal here,” he
says. “I was surprised when everyone went home to bed on New Year’s
Eve at 12:30.”

Between the 1917 Revolution and the fall of the Communist Party in 1991,
public observances of Christmas weren’t allowed in Oleg’s homeland. The
Russian New Year became the biggest day on the calendar – a celebration
that Oleg looked forward to for months.

Grandfather Frost- a Santa-like fellow with a flowing beard – would visit
that night, giving each child a small present. But the family feast was
always the star attraction. “Our family is smaller now in Utah, but we’ll
still make a nice dinner,” says Oleg. “At midnight, I will pour myself a big
glass of Stoli (vodka). It is in my blood, what can I say?” -30-


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