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Russia: Ex-Soviet Immigrants Feel For Folks Back Home

Bellingham, Washington; 10 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The political and economic turmoil again engulfing Russia saddens and worries the growing communities of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the United States.

And although this is true in the Pacific Northwestern state of Washington, with its sizable immigrant population, nowhere are these feelings so intense as in Sacramento, the capital of California, 1,200 kilometers to the south.

That's because Sacramento today is home to more than 50,000 refugees from the former Soviet Union -- most of them from Russia and Ukraine.

Stephen Magagnini, a reporter at "The Sacramento Bee" newspaper who writes extensively about this population, tells RFE/RL that the immigrants he talks to are very concerned about events in their former homelands. Many also are sending food, clothes and medical supplies through their churches.

Magagnini says Sacramento is "probably the capital of Pentacostal Christians from across the former Soviet Union." These are people, he says, who were attracted to the California capital over the last decade through religious broadcasts by a Sacramento-based, Russian-language evangelist named Paul Demetrious, whose programs hip-hopped across the Pacific Ocean to the former Soviet Union.

So, says Magagnini, when Demetrious' listeners decided to seek freedom from religious persecution in the closing years of the Soviet era, they already knew of Sacramento and that name acted as a magnet drawing them to the central California city of half a million people at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Today, he says, the former Gold Rush city of the mid-19th Century counts "two dozen" Russian-language churches as well as a Russian-language radio station. Such a presence in itself continues to draw immigrants, in these far less politically oppressive days, as other family members, relatives and friends join the crowd.

Magagnini cites the case of Alex Plugovoy as an example of how this population feels toward the renewed hardships being felt "back home." Plugovoy is a Pentacostal Christian who came to Sacramento just two years ago to escape what he describes as Muslim persecution in the Caucasus. He says his father, brother, cousins and his wife's parents have lost heavily through the last month's fall of the ruble.

"Everyday," Plugovoy says, "I listen to news from Russia, and it's very bad. The hurt," he adds, " is certainly felt here."

Multiply Plugovoy's feelings by the thousands, because immigrants to the United States from the former Soviet Union now rank second in annual numbers to those from neighboring Mexico to the south of California.

Many of the immigrants who now make Bellingham and surrounding Whatcom County in Washington state their home -- and even more across the Cascade Mountains in Spokane, Washington, to the east, reached the Pacific Northwest by way of Sacramento.

That population -- there as here -- includes not only Russians, but also Armenians, Ukrainians and a sprinkling of natives of other of the newly independent states and the Baltics.

In this, these recent arrivals of the post-Cold War world echo the several previous waves of immigration from there to here over the last 150 years.

First, there was the handful of Russian entrepreneurs who settled on the West Coast after the czar sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 (for 7 million, 200 thousand dollars).

Next came refugees of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. These were mostly aristocrats and intellectuals, and it is they who laid the foundation for today's Russian-language communities.

The third and much smaller wave -- and necessarily smaller, because of the political repression then prevailing -- were those who fled the policies first of Nazi Germany and later of Josef Stalin and his Soviet successors.

But this relative trickle of refugees grew into a torrent during the last years of the Soviet Union -- and, especially, in the five years since its collapse. And Sacramento remain as the main magnate to which they were drawn.

It is fascinating to see how this community of religious fundamentalists view the current market turmoil (which has so far spared the United States). First, remember that free-market economics is a social science and not a natural science. Second, keep in mind that markets that rise also fall, but that in the several centuries of free-market experience the net gain far outweighs the loss.

Without recalling such basic points of free markets, today's events may seem epochal.

And that's what Steven Magagnini says he finds among the immigrant community of Sacramento. He says "the general feeling among Slavic Christians (there) is that (the biblical) Judgment Day is near." But, he adds, this strictly construed biblical belief has not stopped the people he talks to from sending what aid they can to the former Soviet Union.

The First Slavic Evangelical Baptist Church is a case in point. Pastor Ted Karpiec, says his congregation of 1,200 people sends money to missions in Russia, Ukraine and Moldova. Other churches send food, clothes and medical supplies to people throughout the former Soviet Union.

"Sacramento Bee" reporter Magagnini says about 40 percent of that region's immigrants from the former Soviet Union come from Ukraine.

He tells of a long-time Sacramento resident from Ukraine, Yuriy Oliynyk, president of the Ukrainian Heritage Society of Sacramento, as seeing some benefit to Ukraine in Russia's turmoil. Oliynyk says Ukraine could benefit because of the favorable hryvnia-dollar exchange rate, relative to the Russian ruble, "as far as paying back Russia the money Ukraine owes for natural gas and oil."

But there is small comfort in that situation for Sacramento's immigrant community, Magagnini tells RFE/RL. The stress abroad is straining the relatives of these people in Sacramento.

As Plugavoy says, "We must love each other. We must think about people who don't live good like us. We must continue to help people."