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Russia: Immigrants Find New Lives In U.S. Northwest

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Wash.; 16 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - The collapse of communism and the lure of a better life have pushed immigrants to the United States from the former Soviet Union to the second rank in annual numbers, statistics show.

Only neighboring Mexico send more immigrants to the United States.

This immigration pattern has developed chiefly in the wake of the end of the Cold War. That replaced vast ideological distances with the realities of geography. And geography places Russia, at least, closer to the United States than any other country but Mexico and Canada.

So it's not surprising that Russian-speaking immigrants in the area around the northwestern coastal city of Seattle should now number nearly 45,000. Seattle today is just a commercial airline flight from the Russian Far East.

Seattle's Russian-speaking population amounts to the size of a small city. It includes not only Russians, but Armenians, Ukrainians and a sprinkling of natives of other newly independent states. And this population has accumulated along the Pacific Ocean in several waves generated by historical events.

First, there was the handful of Russian entrepreneurs who settled on the West Coast of the United States after the czar sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million. But the first real wave is considered to be those Russian speakers who fled the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. These were mostly aristocrats and intellectuals. And it is they who laid the foundation for today's Russian-language community.

The next wave escaped religious and ethnic persecution, first by Nazi Germany, and later by Josef Stalin and his Soviet successors in the Cold War years, which contributed only a trickle of political dissidents and Jewish and evangelical Christian refugees.

But this trickle grew into a torrent during the last years of the Soviet Union -- and especially in the five years since its collapse.

Typical of this new wave of Russian-language immigrants may be Victoria Karp, 31. Karp is a native of Khabarovsk, north of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East. She lives now in Seattle as regional manager of I-C-M, a large seafood company in Vladivostok. Karp said recently that she recognizes a debt to the immigrants who preceded her.

"The older wave," she says, "had to overcome much more difficulties. For us, all the doors are opened."

"We are more aggressive and driven," she said. "The old waves were satisfied with medium-paying jobs. Russians now are not willing to work for $6 an hour" -- a common entry-level wage.

This doesn't necessarily make for a life of ease, however. Kamila Mnatsakanova, 32, moved here four years ago from Ukraine and now helps run a posh Russian restaurant called Metropol in the affluent Seattle suburb of Bellevue. Mnatsakanova says that in some ways, it was easier surviving in the USSR.

"The education was free, and almost everything was subsidized by the government," she says. But in America, she adds, "there is more prosperity. Things are more progressive and ... there is more freedom."

A representative of the earlier wave of Cold War immigrants who has prospered is Efim Tulchinsky, 49. He came to the United States from Ukraine more than 20 years ago with his wife, Alla, and their 4-year-old daughter, Mariana. The young family arrived with $300 and a few suitcases of belongings.

A dentist in Ukraine, Tulchinsky at first worked for $600 a month as a dental technician at the University of Washington in Seattle, while taking classes to earn certification to work as a dentist in his new country. Today, he has his own patients and lives with an affluence symbolized by the black Mercedes-Benz that he drives. He says he likes "the good life," but acknowledges that "I work six days a week, often late into the night" and "don't really have the time to enjoy what I've accomplished."

Offspring of the earliest wave of Russian-language immigrants can still be found gathering at Seattle's St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church for religious services on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. Its small but faithful congregation comprises first-and-second-wave immigrants, says Bishop Kyrill, whose San Francisco-based diocese includes Seattle.

Bishop Kyrill says the old church used to be the foundation of the immigrants' lives. Everything, he says, revolved around church life.

No longer, he adds, echoing some of the remarks by Tulchinsky and Victoria Karp of the more recent waves of immigrants.

"The material world is more important," Bishop Kyrill says. "There is a vast and colossal difference between Russians now and then."