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Russian Community in U.S. Watches Presidential Campaign

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington, June 11 (RFE/RL) -- Ask Walter Ilyin, pastor of the Slavic Russian Church in Bellingham, Washington, about Sunday's Russian presidential election and he will tell you that the 500 members of his congregation are "very concerned" about the outcome.

But Ilyin adds that he knows of none of his church members who are actually planning to vote in it -- even though they could cast a ballot by traveling to the Russian consulate in Seattle, 90 minutes away by car.

Ilyin says his congregation fears for the continued safety of friends and relatives living in Russia should communism, as they knew it under Soviet rule, somehow return to power.

This same air of wariness shows up in the distance that Russian expatriates appear to keep between themselves and Russian government outposts in the United States.

Valentin Parkhomenko of the Russian consulate in Seattle says only about 2,000 Russians living in the 11 western U.S. states covered by the consulate have registered with it, though he adds that "many more are living here."

Ilyin estimates that 10,000 Russians live in western Washington state, 1,500 of them in largely rural Whatcom County surrounding Bellingham and running to the Canadian border. To Ilyin, however, it is not apathy but habit that is keeping his congregation from voting. He says they appear to be watching hopefully as President Boris Yeltsin's standing in opinion polls rose and past his Communist Party challenger, Gennady Zyuganov.

Ilyin says "most of them" aren't voting because they have never voted -- barred from participating even in the uncontested Soviet elections, because of their evangelical Christian beliefs. Consequently, these people have never acquired the habit of casting a ballot, though they realize, he adds, that "this is a free election."

Ilyin himself has acquired U.S. citizenship and, therefore, cannot vote in the Russian presidential election. But his dissident roots reach far back into the Soviet past. So far back, in fact, that he himself was born in China, of parents who had fled the Soviet Union in 1928. They later fled China, too, during the famine-provoking "Great Leap Forward" of the late 1950s, which is how Walter Ilyin, in 1963, came to live in the United States by way of a few years in Australia.

A more recent arrival, who brings with her a far different heritage, is Katia Atzbach, who studied in the U.S. and works now in a Russian law firm in Seattle. Atzbach says she definitely plans to vote on Sunday at the Russian consulate. And, she adds without being asked, she intends to vote for . . . General Lebed.

That choice, she explains, reflects her continuing respect for the Russian military, in which her father is today a colonel on active duty in Ryazan, a couple of hours southeast of Moscow. Atzbach says she is skeptical of Yeltsin's reported improved standing in public opinion polls, which she considers to be exaggerated by pro-Yeltsin news media, though she thinks that the president will likely move on to the second round of voting.

Whatever the outcome, Atzbach says, she hopes that it will bring stability and order to Russia, whose democracy she likens to the relatively lawless frontier days in the democratic development of the United States. But even if the Communist Party were to return to power, Atzbach thinks that reforms have progressed to a point of no return, to a point where, "hopefully" -- she emphasizes with a touch of skepticism -- a neo-Soviet era has become impossible because nobody really wants that.

In preparing for Sunday's election, meanwhile, the three-year-old Russian consulate in Seattle has mailed invitations to the 2,000 Russian citizens on its registry, including Katia Atzbach.

Valentin Parkhomenko, deputy chairman of the consulate's election commission, says the invitations informed each recipient where and when to vote. The results of the balloting from across the United States will be tallied and forwarded to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., which will consolidate and transmit the results to Moscow.

Parkhomenko says, any Russian 18 years or older who holds a current Russian passport will be allowed to vote on Sunday. The Russian consular official is careful, however, not to take sides. He simply says that "we are having a democratic election and the best candidate will win."