Slavic immigrants seek better life in America

Community share the joys and challenges they've experienced living in Clark County

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter





Svitoch (grocery store), 4804 N.E. Thurston Way, 360-896-6693.

Kolos Euro Foods (grocery store), 212 N.E. 164th Ave., No. 13, 360-896-0081.

Anoush-Deli & International Food Market (grocery store), 6808 N.E. Fourth Plain Rd., 360-693-4359.

Premier Euro Market (grocery store), 11216 N.E. Fourth Plain Rd., 360-885-9384.

Leyla's Bakery (bakery), 6300 N.E. 117th Ave., 503-764-7121.

Publications:Afisha (Portland-area magazine),

Kanon magazine (Seattle-area magazine),

n Russian Business Magazine (Portland-area free publication),



“Russian Hour,” with Galina Burley on 1010 AM, Russian Radio 7, 4 p.m. Sundays, http://russianrad...


AM-RU International Association (based in Vancouver):

Russian Speaking Youth Leadership Conference:


Soberiha, American-Russian Cultural Festival, held in Esther Short Park by AM-RU:


1700s: Russia, Britain and the United States all claim the Pacific Coast. Russian trappers, merchants and colonial officials sometimes visit the Pacific Northwest after traveling down through Alaska.n 1800s: In the late 1800s, some German migrants and their families who had settled along the Volga River continue on to the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the United States.

1917: White Army members, dissidents flee to the United States after the Soviet revolution.

1940s: Refugees from the Stalinist regime flee after the war and settle across the United States.

1970s: Many Jewish refugees leave the Soviet Union after new laws relax immigration rules for some religions.

1980s and 1990s: Catholics and Evangelical Christians take advantage of the relaxed immigration rules and settle in the United States, with many coming to the Pacific Northwest.

2000s and beyond: Family members of prior immigrants move to the United States to reunite with relatives.

A few small children alternately giggle, squeal and cry in the spacious living room and kitchen of the Zhukov household as light begins to fade in the evening hours on a typical Tuesday.

Their 47-year-old grandmother, Irina Zhukova, and her husband, Andrey Zhukov, moved to Vancouver from Ukraine in 1999 with nine of their 11 children in tow. The youngest two were born in Clark County, as were her seven grandchildren. And so will two more grandchildren that should arrive in August and January.

The large family, which sometimes uses the Russian style of adding an "a" at the end of women's last names, is fairly typical of the Russian-speaking population in Clark County and the Pacific Northwest. Pentecostal Christians, they left their homeland because of religious oppression, something that continued even after the old Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

As her daughters stretched out on the family room's four leather sofas, including one placed beneath a largely neglected television, the family shifts easily,

sometimes in mid-sentence, between English, Russian, Ukrainian and, on occasion, Moldovan.

"When we moved here, I was scared," Zhukova said. "It was a new country, a new language. When we came, I cleaned houses. My husband did (house) painting."

Eventually, the family started its own business, AZ Carpet, where Andrey Zhukov, five of the couple's six sons and two sons-in-law now work. Zhukov is also the pastor of a small Christian church in Orchards.

Ask the couple's children what they make of Ukraine, and you'll get a variety of stories.

Lidiya Tasmaly, 28, remembers well what it was like being a Christian teenager in a community that wasn't very accepting of religious differences.

"If you were Christian back there, when the Soviet Union was around, they would put you in prison for spreading the word of God," said Tasmaly, who was 13 when the family left. "Even after that, in school they'd always make fun of you."

Marina Zalyashko, 19, doesn't remember much about Ukraine. She was 5 when the family moved and remembers learning English from an American woman who lived next door.

"It was like our second house, our neighbor," Zalyashko said. "We were always with her. She introduced us to fast food, Goodwill, a lot of random stuff. She taught us words we didn't know, she used to take us camping. We grew up with her."

Zhukova, who was 33 when the family moved, probably has the strongest opinion about the homeland.

"Ukraine, it's our country, but I'm never going to move back," Zhukova said. "It's hard to live over there. Everything is expensive. Mafia is everywhere. This country, I love this country. Everybody smiles here. Nobody smiles back there. People are so mean."


Slavic immigrants have settled in the United States since before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. But most of those in Clark County and Portland came in waves after the Soviet regime loosened emigration rules for some religious groups starting in the 1970s, said Yulia Rogers, Russian parent liaison for Evergreen Public Schools.

The majority who settled around Portland came here in the late 1980s, early 1990s and early 2000s. A little more than 50 percent are Ukrainian Christians and the rest are mostly Russian Christians, although not all follow that pattern, Rogers said.

"The refugee program was quite popular with the Ukrainian population," Rogers said. "They have large families, so the families would keep coming because it's easier when you already have people you know there. There are actually some families here who have very few or no relatives left back in Ukraine."

That's true in the Zhukov family. Irina Zhukova's brother, her sister-in-law and several other family members also live in Clark County. Her family picked Vancouver because her sister-in-law was already here, she said.

"I still have a few aunts in Ukraine, but everybody else is here," Zhukova said. "And all my children still live in the area."

Andrey Dolbinin, principal of the Slavic Christian Academy in Vancouver, which has about 100 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, said he knows families here with more than 200 close relatives living in Camas, Washougal, Ridgefield and Battle Ground. Weddings in the community can sometimes be a huge undertaking, he added.

"The weddings, because I'm a (master of ceremonies) guy, there are like 400 people sometimes with just the two families; 350 is like the average," Dolbinin said.

There are census numbers, but it's still hard to get a true handle on the total number of Slavic people living in the region.

Immigrants, their children and grandchildren tend to continue using the languages and traditions of their parents -- even if they don't note that they're Slavic in the census, Rogers said.

"It's a hard population to keep track of because in the census, we're just classified as white," she said. "They call Slavic people the silent minority, because we blend in better on paper."

Another problem tracking the population is that those who grew up in the Soviet era often fear the government, which can make them reluctant to fill out accurate census information. For the older generations, the language barrier can also be hard to overcome.

Because of all that, the East European Coalition thinks the number of immigrants in the region is much larger than the census suggests.

The group, which has been surveying Eastern Europeans in Clark County and Portland, estimates there are about 30,000 Slavic people living in Clark County, almost three times the 12,222 estimated in a 2011 Census update. In greater Portland, the coalition estimates there are about 150,000 immigrants from former Soviet countries, said Galina Burley, a coalition member who has a show on Russian Radio 7 and is running for Vancouver City Council.

Burley, 37, is most likely the first Russian-born citizen to run for the office, at least as far as anybody can tell, she said.

"We looked it up for about the last 50 years and didn't find anything," Burley said.

The Vancouver mother of three grew up in Sochi, Russia, and moved to the United States in 1991 when she was 15.

"My parents moved for family reunification with my father's great aunt," who came here at the end of World War II, Burley said. "She wasn't able to talk to the family until the 1970s, when we got the first letters from her. In the 1980s, the family talked back and forth, and then she asked us to come."

She remembers the religious persecution by the Soviets, who wouldn't let Christians and Jews attend college or get certain higher paying mainstream jobs, she said.

"A lot of people I knew had to quit school," she said. "Many of those people didn't have (educational) opportunities in the former Soviet Union. They were just trying to preserve their religion. So when they came to the United States, they had to get jobs like construction, truck drivers, assisted living (attendants)."

The next generation

While their parents have faced low-wage jobs and problems with the economic downturn, many of the immigrants' children are getting more education and going into the medical professions -- nursing, dental assistants, hygienists and other fields, Rogers, of Evergreen schools, said.

"A lot of the kids are going into medicine now, some because they love it, and some because it's stable," Rogers said. "There's also some teachers, some going into computers and quite a few mechanics."

In the Zhukov family, carpet cleaning, day care and housecleaning have been dominant occupations for the older siblings. Only two of the kids have graduated from high school, Yana Chausov, 22, and Zalyashko, although their younger sisters, Yulia Zhukova, 16, and Tatyana Zhukova, 13, also plan to graduate.

As with many in the younger generation of Slavic immigrants, the younger Zhukov family members said they hope to get higher paying jobs through education.

"I went to the Skill Center to do dental work, and the pay is really good, but I can't watch people go through pain, needles," said Zalyashko, who recently got married. "Now I think I want to be a teacher."

When asked who would be the first in the family to graduate from college, the siblings and their mother all smiled and pointed to Yulia.

She attends Evergreen High School and is interested in eventually going into one of the medical professions, she said.

"Maybe I'll start as a medical receptionist," Yulia said.

Finding connections

The Russian language is both a connecting and somewhat uncomfortable bond between almost all of the Eastern European immigrants in the region.

In the Soviet Union, Russian was the first language taught at all schools from preschool through college. The native languages of countries such as Ukraine or Moldova were treated as second languages and discouraged.

American customs and the English language can also be barriers for elderly Russian-speaking residents wanting to integrate into society, Dolbinin, the principal, said.

In many former Soviet countries, communities cluster around neighborhoods. Your neighbors are the same as family, often sharing food, helping with labor, or just socializing, he said.

In the U.S., neighbors often don't talk to one another. And people here use technology and computers for communication a lot more than they do in Eastern Europe, he added.

"I think it's harder for senior people," he said. "In Russia, they go out and speak to the neighbors. Here they stay home most of the time."

There can be a tendency for elderly Russian-speaking immigrants to wall themselves up inside their apartments and not talk to anybody, he added.

"We try to teach people to not close the doors -- to open up," Dolbinin said. "Live here. Be involved in the United States."

Because the immigrants here are largely Christian, the population tends to be very different than in their home countries. But families are also often more old-fashioned than Americans.

"American kids, they move out at 18," Zhukov said. "Our kids, they live with us until they're married. And Sundays, everybody's here. Everybody comes after church."

Churches are so important to the population that they're usually center points of clusters of Eastern Europeans in the Pacific Northwest.

That's also true of the Slavic Christian Academy, but Dolbinin and others would like to see something bigger that would bring all the Russian-speaking peoples in the region together.

Part of that is embodied in the Vancouver-based American Russian International Association, or AM-RU, annual late summer festival at Esther Short Park called Soberiha.

Tina Esch, the group's president, launched the festival in 2006 as a way to celebrate the cultural diversity of Eastern Europeans in Portland and Vancouver.

"That's great, because you get people from different backgrounds, different parts of the community," Rogers said.

Community center

The next step is to build an Eastern European community center in Vancouver, said Dolbinin, who is also an AM-RU board member.

"It's our plan," Dolbinin said. "It's our dream."

So far, there's no large community center here for Russian speakers. Dolbinin wants to dedicate the effort to Valeri Chkalov, pilot of the first transpolar flight in 1937.

It's still in the early stages, but Dolbinin and others are trying to get a grant from the Russian Educational Commission to build the center, which is something the Russian agency has done for other groups in the United States.

The building would have a museum, art, maybe a music center. It would offer English as a second language, computer technology, cooking and other classes. It would have performances of Russian dance, games for the kids and a library of Russian language books. And it would encourage interaction between Russian speakers and the English speaking population of Clark County, Dolbinin said.

"I don't know how much it will cost," he said, adding that it would need perhaps 20,000 square feet of space.

Whether the group renovates an existing building or buys a new plot, it's something that could be helpful in bringing the community closer together, Rogers said.

Burley said she's also interested in the concept of a community center, although right now everything is just in the discussion stages.

"I'm still doing a lot of research and trying to figure out what that means to people," Burley said. "With multiple churches and voices, we need to understand what's important to our community as a whole before we build it."

As part of that community, Zalyashko, 19, said she'd love to see something like that.

"In school, wherever, you can spot a Russian right away and you click because you are from the same place," Zalyashko said. "But I'd love to hang out, meet new friends and bond."

Sue Vorenberg: 360-735-4457;;