No inch is spared inside Samovar Cafe in Nikolaevsk, Alaska. Save for the U-shaped bar top and the six seats that surround it, almost every other surface is covered with Soviet memorabilia or tchotchkes, including decorative plates, posters, photographs, nesting dolls, scarves, handicrafts, and beyond. The scene looks like a Slavic-themed page in an I Spy book. It’s overwhelming, though not as much as the experience of dining there.
“One piroshkis? No, you take three. What do you mean, ‘No tea’? Of course, you have tea. It’s very good, real Russian tea. And also, you have dessert,” Samovar’s proprietor Nina Fefelov told me the last time I visited, in 2018, before the onset of the pandemic. “After meal, we do real Russian experience, take photos, yes?”
Sitting in the overstuffed eatery can be a dizzying experience: a whirlwind of color, plate after plate of pelmeni and cream puffs, and Fefelov fussing over guests. Seemingly without fail, at some point during or after the meal, you’ll find yourself dressed in old-world regalia (on my visit, it was a patterned skirt, oversized shawl, and tiara-shape headdress for me and a blue, belted tunic paired with a fur hat for my partner) and posing somewhere in the shop, whether you’d planned to or not. But either way, you’re paying $20 for the privilege.
Samovar is an unlikely destination, despite its proximity to a popular interstate road trip. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, a parade of hulking RVs and local vehicles makes the Sterling Highway on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula one of the most traveled thoroughfares in the state, connecting Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city, to Homer, a popular fishing town also known as “the end of the road.” The turnoff to Nikolaevsk is 20 miles from Homer, but by and large, the small community of just 188 people, many part of the devout Russian Old Believer faith, would prefer visitors not come: They don’t want their influence.
At the Samovar, one septuagenarian babushka offers a rare glimpse into the Old Believers community by pumping her guests full of traditional Russian foods and having them dress up to look like life-size Matryoshka dolls. The eatery is admittedly a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s not to be dismissed entirely. It’s a rare look into a place that typically doesn’t throw the doors open to visitors — and, according to Fefelov, after the pandemic, one that might be closing itself off forever.
Coming to Alaska
Most of the villagers in Nikolaevsk are of the Russian Old Believer faith — a particularly stringent offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church — and the largest of four such communities in Alaska.
In 1666, Russia’s Orthodox Church made several reforms — including how Jesus’s name was spelled and how many fingers were used to make the sign of the cross — that didn’t sit well with a small segment of the population. In their eyes, the changes were unsanctioned, and so they decided to break off from the Church and form the Russian Old Believers. Fearing persecution, those who didn’t move their practice underground fled to a remote region of Siberia, where they remained for more than 200 years. The communist revolution in 1917 drove the Old Believers to China, where they made a living hunting tigers and elk in Harbin until just after WWII, when China deported all foreigners and they scattered across the globe.
Roughly a quarter of the way through the Old Believers’ Siberian tenure, in 1732, the first Russian colonizers came to Alaska’s shores in search of animal pelts like mink, fox, and most importantly, sea otter, which was the most lucrative. In 1867,Russia agreed to cede its claims to the Alaskan territory to the United States in exchange for $7.2 million (about two cents per acre); it would become the U.S.’s 49th state in 1959. (As Russia’s current attacks on Ukraine continue, Kremlin officials have hinted at a desire to reclaim Alaska should the U.S. continue its involvement in the war.)
A decade after Alaska’s statehood, in 1969, the Fefelovs settled in Nikolaevsk, which sits on the traditional Dena’ina homeland, as one of the town’s five founding Old Believer families. Reverend Kondraty Sozontovich Fefelov, who was born in Russia, his wife Irina, and their seven children (of an eventual 10) had initially tried to live in Brazil, then Oregon. (The first location didn’t pan out because of the weather; the second was too close to big cities, and the youth were getting lured away by modern life.) They decided to go to Alaska — a place that was once the Russian Far East — as it was more remote and not as advanced at the time. Kondraty Fefelov would go on to a career as a boatbuilder and serve as the town’s church leader. Nina, who was born in Russia but moved to Alaska in 1991, joined the founding family when she married Kondraty and Irina’s son Denis, who himself was born in Brazil.
Like in many isolated communities worldwide, modernization is creeping in. In 2013, the Atlantic reported that the majority of Nikolaevsk’s schoolchildren spoke English, and that decidedly modern American sports like football and basketball are part of the local culture. Men and boys in Alaska’s Old Believer communities often work in commercial fishing, and the New York Times noted in 2017 that as “technology became more vital to the fishing industry, many in the village began to welcome the internet, smartphones, television.”
But residents in Nikolaevsk still try hard to hold onto what life was like before they split from the Orthodox Church. They wear colorful embroidered outfits with hand-woven belts, and married women cover their hair; Russian is spoken in most homes; religious services are often conducted in ancient Church Slavonic; and at sporting events, you’ll see nearly as many signs written in the Cyrillic alphabet as the Latin one. Founding Nikolaevsk, Nina Fefelov says, was an opportunity for her in-laws and their compatriots to “seek for the true religion.” Today, the balance between tradition and modern life is more strained than ever.
Dining in the Old Russia
It seems that those who’ve reviewed the Samovar Cafe online either love it or hate it — there’s little to no middle ground. Beyond working as a chef and host, Fefelov has a reputation for having both a big personality and being a shrewd saleswoman (in fact, she even billed the writer of this article and the photographer for her time). While prices were listed on the laminated menu, they’ve not been updated in some time, and there are myriad unseen asterisks. Inevitably, you’ll wonder why you were handed a menu at all; it’s not like you were allowed to make your own choices. But for those willing to fork over the cash, a meal at the Samovar Cafe has long been the only way to get a glimpse into the ways of the Old Believers — their history, as well as the traditional crafts, clothing, and customs — and the opportunity might not be around for much longer.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Fefelov’s cafe has largely been closed to visitors. Fefelov’s husband is disabled and has spent much of 2022 in the hospital. There have also been far fewer tourists during the pandemic than in the years prior. “I’m now 71 this year. I think this is enough,” Fefelov said recently. “My son says to me, ‘Mom, stop. It is enough now.’ I told him, ‘[If] they’re hungry, why not?’”
Fefelov said that starting this summer, she’ll be operating under a new business model. Going forward, guests won’t come into the restaurant, and the “Russian experience” will be no more. However, she’ll still sell to-go borscht, bread, mains, desserts, and tea through a window on the balcony, more like a food truck than a restaurant. While the food — simple Russian fare like borscht and pelmeni, most of which Fefelov purchases from Costco — will likely remain unchanged, that’s not what brought visitors here in the first place. It’s not about the dinner, but the experience. They came for the chance to glimpse what life is like in a community that has fought to remain unchanged for hundreds of years, despite a rapidly modernizing world.
Still, if you find yourself driving down the Sterling Highway, it’s worth stopping by to meet Fefelov and sample her wares. And would that be one piroshki or two?
Who are we kidding? Of course you’ll take two.
Bailey Berg is a travel writer who spent seven years living in Alaska.
Nathaniel Wilder is a photographer from Anchorage who loves all things Alaska.
Fact checked by Victoria Petersen
Copy edited by Nadia Ahmad