Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

July 31-August 6, 2003

cover story

RUBA in the Rough

Moscow west: Northern Liberties‚ RUBA club began 

as a gathering place for Russian immigrants.
Moscow west: Northern Liberties' RUBA club began as a gathering place for Russian immigrants. Photo By: Michael T. Regan

Long before it became the up-and-coming hipster enclave, Northern Liberties was the place many Russian refugees settled after escaping a homeland ravaged by World War II.

Today, there are still three Russian churches in the neighborhood which still hold mass. And tucked away down a short paved driveway along tree-lined Green Street sits a nondescript building with the letters R.U.B.A. nailed atop the wooden doors. Ask locals what they mean and many guess the Russian Ukrainian Boating Association. A neatly painted, white rowboat leaning against a hallway and the boat steering wheel hanging above the bar inside might bolster that thought. But a yellowed certificate in a cheap frame gives the cozy dive bar's real name as the Russian United Benevolent Association.

On a nearby shelf sits a set of nine Russian nesting dolls. Amid flashing white Christmas lights that create a year-round festive mood, the walls are adorned with interpretations of a fairy-tale Russia painted by neighborhood artists. Established in 1914 as a mutual-aid organization for Russian emigres, there's hardly a Russkie in the place these days.

In the wee hours, Monday-morning drinkers flock to the watering hole since most other joints have already closed. There, middle-aged men watch sports on the tiny, overhanging television while drunken hipsters sway their way through games of Ping-Pong or pool and locals catch up on neighborhood gossip.

Still, RUBA maintains its status as a private, nonprofit ethnic club with the unique standing as a place for customers of any ethnicity or age group.

Known as Mike to most, Mecheslav Shiroky can usually be found popping beer bottles open and pouring some mean shots. Customers know him as the affable, lanky, cool bartender with a ready smile for regulars and a glare for those taking embarrassing advantage of $2 beers and $1.50 shots to slurry-word extremes.

What they all don't know is that Mike was orphaned at the age of 9 when his parents were killed in a Soviet bombing. As the Soviet Army approached his Latvian town -- Latvia was independent until the U.S.S.R. invaded in 1940 -- he escaped into Nazi Germany in 1944, immigrating to the United States as a teenage refugee in 1951.

Never married, he calls RUBA "my baby" and has stayed close to the remaining 12 Russian members (there are 300-plus social members), who recently returned to Russia for a 19-day river cruise from the Black Sea to Moscow.

Yes, even though it's now a late-night haunt, the RUBA will always hold a place in those Russian immigrants' hearts, says Mike, noting that the bar helps ensure they'll "never forget their own."

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