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Acrobats who defected from Russia in 1992 return to thank Newfoundland 'mom'

Russian acrobats who defected to Canada in 1992 have returned to St. John's to celebrate a Newfoundland woman who helped them restart their lives. The former members of the world-famous Moscow Circus and their growing families continue to perform across North America.

Alex and Elena Arestov say Judy Tulk helped them take their first steps in Canada

A group of people smile for a photo in a white room.
The Arestov family, from left: Sasha, Ivan, Elena and Alex. The family was in St. John's in April to thank Judy and Leo Tulk and celebrate an 80th birthday. (Submitted Sasha Arestov)

Russian acrobats who defected to Canada in 1992 have returned to St. John's to celebrate a Newfoundland woman who helped them restart their lives.

The former members of the world-famous Moscow Circus and their growing families continue to perform across North America. They say that would not have been possible without the kindness they found in St. John's.

"Judy did everything for us. She took my hand and gave me my first steps in Canada," said Alex Arestov, referring to Judy Tulk, the driving force behind the Cygnus Gymnastics Club in St. John's.

"Judy, I love you. For me, she's like my mom."

Defected 32 years ago

Arestov was one of seven Russians who defected in Gander more than three decades ago and then months later found safe haven at the Cygnus Gymnastics Club.

There are dozens of people who would have done the same thing. It was actually an experience and a joy.- Judy Tulk

They were raised in the circus, schooled and trained to become acrobats, performers who toured the world as ambassadors for the USSR. 

But just months before they arrived in Canada the Soviet Union dissolved.

The country's future was as deeply uncertain as theirs was when they arrived in St. John's in January 1992.

A man with dark hair sits in a gym.
Alex Arestov is pictured at the Cygnus Club in 1992. (CBC)

"I knew just two words: hi and goodbye. That's all," said Arestov, who returned to Newfoundland and Labrador with his wife, Elena, and two of their children, Ivan and Sasha, this April.

'This is our place'

In 1992, they needed a place to keep up their skills and train, and they were lucky to find the Cygnus Club, which at that time was in the Buckmaster Circle area of St. John's.

"A miracle," said Arestov.

"We just walked in and we couldn't believe it because we knew nothing but when we saw the gym, when we saw children jumping on trampolines doing gymnastics, we thought, 'This is our place.' I was an acrobat so for me it was, 'Wow, maybe we can practise here?'"

WATCH | The bond between this N.L. woman and Russian acrobats started in 1992:  

Meet Judy Tulk, who helped Russian acrobats when they defected to Canada 30 years ago

1 month ago
Duration 1:15
Join a special reunion between Judy Tulk, former manager of the Cygnus Gymnastic Club, and the former members of the world-famous Moscow Circus who travelled back to St. John’s recently to visit the woman they consider their “mom.” Tulk tells the CBC’s Mark Quinn how the life-long friendship got its start.

In the early 1990s Tulk was the manager at Cygnus. She spoke no Russian but that didn't stop her.

"They were there every day but no one was communicating because we couldn't. So one day I said, 'We got to go down and make contact,'" she said.

"I went down and I sat on the side of the pit, and Alex came over and we looked at each other and I said 'hello' and he said 'hi.'"

Their relationship grew from there, and slowly Tulk helped them settle into St. John's. They learned from each other.

A woman with white hair sits, smiling, in a gymnastics club.
Judy Tulk managed the Cygnus Club in 1992. She retired two decades ago but visited the club this April. (Katie Breen/CBC)

"They had ideas about coaching and different moves that we don't have and we have a lot of ideas that they didn't have. So we just shared, and they coached the girls and they loved it. We were so amazed at what they were doing. We had never seen anything like it, and they were just turning this seven-year-old [son Simon] — I mean, he was like a pretzel."

As time passed they turned their attention to making a living in Canada. They were highly trained, experienced entertainers and St. John's was full of willing audiences.

A man in a yellow suit waves a flag over a woman posing in a pink dress.
Alex and Elena Arestov defected from Russia to Canada in 1992. They were members of the Moscow Circus and continue to perform across North America. (Submitted by Ivan Arestov)

"I was the manager of a company we set up and I would book shows for them. We went to just about every school in St. John's and put off shows for the elementary and primary school grades. We were so well received. It was unbelievable," said Tulk.

They hoped to stay in Newfoundland and start a circus school but eventually the former Russians realized there were many more opportunities for them to perform in the large cities of Canada and the U.S. 

"They had nothing to start the school with so they figured that they probably would have to move on to a larger area and grow from there. So that's what they did," Tulk said.

Performing across North America

As Canadian citizens, the Arestovs have flourished. Today they are based in Ontario but are constantly travelling for work.

Their son, Ivan Arestov — who is also Judy Tulk's godson — has a performing company of his own that travels across North America. His brother, Sasha, has also remained in the family business.

A large man balances a small boy on one hand , held high above his head.
Seven-year-old Simon practises with his father, Alex Arestov, at the Cygnus Club in St. John's in 1992. (CBC)

Their eldest son, Simon, who was seven when his parents brought him to Canada in 1992, now has a family of his own. They've performed with him in well-known venues, like Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Returned to mark Tulk's 80th birthday

At 67, Alex and Elena Arestov continue to perform together. Alex says they have no plan to stop but they did take a short break to visit Tulk and celebrate a milestone with her.

Feb. 11 was Tulk's 80th birthday.

She says she received much more than she's given and was thrilled the Arestovs came to visit her.

A man, a woman and a child in acrobat's outfits pose on a basketball court in front of a large crowd.
Simon Arestov, Lyric Wallenda Arestov and their son Alexander Arestov are pictured after performing at a basketball half-time show in the U.S. (Submitted by Ivan Arestov)

"It's just utter happiness. I just can't explain how I feel," she said. "There are dozens of people who would have done the same thing. It was actually an experience and a joy."

The Arestovs have gone back to touring but promise they'll be back in St. John's for Tulk's 90th and 100th birthdays.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Quinn

CBC News

Mark Quinn is a videojournalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.