From the Archives: Refugees from the former Soviet Union find new beginnings in Spokane

click to enlarge The Solodyankin family in front of the year-old Slavic Evangelical Baptist Church. - AMY SINISTERRA PHOTO
Amy Sinisterra photo
The Solodyankin family in front of the year-old Slavic Evangelical Baptist Church.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is from the Inlander archives, having first been published on November 30, 2000.

When Yelena Solodyankin arrived in Spokane nine years ago with her husband Alexander and their three small children, she didn't know what to expect. "I imagined America from the movies. And when I came here, I realized you start from the bottom. I cried for two days."

It's just the kind of story third or fourth generation Spokanites remember hearing from their own great grandmothers, who may have come to the United States — and the Inland Northwest — around the turn of the last century. Back in the city's infancy, you would have found enclaves of non-English speaking recent immigrants, like Italians or Germans, churches that catered to those groups and children from those immigrant communities who were rapidly assimilating.

For the past decade, Spokane has seen a replay of that early burst of immigration. The Solodyankins are among thousands who have emigrated from the provinces of the former Soviet Union and who now call Spokane home. No one knows for sure, but educated guessers say anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 refugees from the former Soviet Union have resettled in Spokane since 1989.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, the centralized power of that government broke down, leaving power vacuums across that vast land. As we have seen in places like Kosovo and Bosnia, the rise of religious intolerance was one unintended consequence of Gorbachev's policy of glasnost and the fall of communist regimes in places like Yugoslavia. But after the wall fell, the USSR's borders were opened, and Russian-speaking Christians were helped by churches in the U.S. and allowed to emigrate claiming that prototypical American reason, which dates back to the Pilgrims' voyage: religious persecution. Though nearly all of Spokane's Russian population (since these immigrants come from a variety of places, not just Russia, it's a misnomer that has nonetheless become the group's accepted title) share experiences of religious persecution, each one brings a singular story with them to the New World.

For the Solodyankins, the couple left their home in the mountainous, mineral-rich nation of Kyrgyzstan with the hopes of a new life and the freedom to practice their Christian faith without fear. After the Muslim and Sufi majority in their home region (which is closer to China than Moscow) made it hard for them to work, get their children educated and retain basic human rights, they sought — and after two years received — asylum in the United States. Today, they are American citizens living comfortably in their new country, with good jobs, a nice home and a couple of cars in the garage. But their nine years in Spokane have been anything but easy.

Along with the ups and downs of finding work, learning English and gaining acceptance in a place where they are often viewed with suspicion, tragedy struck in 1995. Alexander's brother and sister-in-law died in a house fire in Bellingham, where they had been visiting relatives to celebrate a cousin's 15th birthday party. Also lost in the fire were three of that couple's eight children. Agreeing it was best to keep the children together, and mirroring the culture's resolve to stick together as they transition into their new lives, Alexander and Yelena became the legal guardians of the surviving children and have raised them as their own.

Their family doubled from five to 10 members, and their story became the stuff of newspaper headlines: "FIVE ORPHANED RUSSIAN CHILDREN TRY TO ADJUST TO LIFE WITH THEIR AUNT AND UNCLE." Five years later, the family could be a model for healthy adjustment. On a recent chilly Saturday morning, the couple order a couple lattes (how very American) and talk about their family and life in Spokane.

Modesty seems to come naturally to Alexander and Yelena Solodyankin. But looking through a handful of pictures of their eight children, they can't help but brag just a little.

"All of them are good in school," says Yelena. "Ivan was chosen speaker of the class; he's in fourth grade. Olena, last year she went to Germany as an exchange student. She speaks three languages fluently. They all learn music. We thought it was important."

With so many different schedules (again, very American), Yelena says they make time to have family meetings at least three or four times a week. "We get together for 30 minutes, we sing songs, read stories or play music. Even our oldest likes to be with us. She loves it."

Yelena says the children, whose ages now range from 10 to 18, have adapted well, but blending two families has been a gradual process. "It was hard at first. For the first three or four years, they talked about their parents every day. Usually, I would say to them, 'You are lucky, you have four parents to raise you.' The children went through a lot of stress, they cried a lot and plus we needed so much communication between our children and those children to make a family. We teach them to appreciate each other's differences. I'm so glad that my children accepted those children, and now they are like brothers and sisters. It didn't happen right away. We go to a restaurant, and they would ask if we were having a birthday, and I say no, they're all mine."

Alexander, who was working at Kaiser at the time, says, "It was not only a loss for those five children, but also a loss for our children. The three of them had so much attention from us. Now we had to divide it between eight children."

Turmoil at home has been matched at work for Alexander. In 1998, Kaiser went on strike, and he lost his job. For the next two years, he worked three different jobs to pay the bills. He now works for the State of Washington as a job counselor, helping refugees with job skills and learning English. This job, he says, is more in line with his education. As a teacher with a master's degree in his former country, he says it was very humbling when he first arrived in Spokane. "What I noticed sometimes is because of the language and not speaking fluently in English, it feels like people speak to us like you're limited — below a normal person."

Alexander, who now speaks very good English, provides English translation at his Russian-speaking church.

Yelena, who received her bachelor's degree from Gonzaga University and is working on her master's degree at Whitworth, works at Chase Middle School as a bilingual specialist. She is also director of Sunday School at her church. Asked if she gets tired, she says, "We need to do it for our future."

The couple says they planned to have a small family and feel they've been blessed, but Alexander admits, "We're 37 and have big children already. Sometimes we feel older than we are."


For the Solodyankins, their unfailing optimism is rooted in their faith, and like most of the refugees from the states of the former Soviet Union, the church is central to their lives and at the heart of their community. It can provide an antidote for the culture shock and isolation felt by many who left their homes. It is a place where Russian language and culture are preserved, and residents can worship in ways denied them in their homeland.

"For Russian community, it means everything," says Aleksandr Sipko, pastor at the Slavic Evangelical Baptist Church on the Five Mile Prairie. "Especially for the older people who cannot learn English. They communicate here, they discuss their problems and their needs and they fulfill their desires here."

Built entirely by church members and completed in December, 1999, the church is now Spokane's largest Russian-speaking church with 700 adult members, including one American woman who was recently baptized into the church.

The impressive building with large, arched windows stands like a palace on the prairie, as neighboring cows, looking for vegetation in the snow, provide the backdrop. On a recent visit, a wedding service for a young couple was being performed to a standing-room-only congregation. On the back wall of the church two large banners written in Russian broadcast the message, "Value time" and "I will come soon." Behind the altar, the choir sang hymns. Downstairs, the large basement held eight separate classrooms, each filled with bright-eyed children dutifully studying their Sunday School lesson. Pastor Sipko's commanding voice fills the building, while in the back of the church, a group of small boys have difficulty containing their playful energy. This is one of several services to be held on this day.

Spokane has at least eight Russian-speaking churches, filling the pews at a rate of about 70 percent who attend church on a regular basis, compared to about 20 percent for the rest of Spokane. Aleksandr Kaprian, pastor at Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church in downtown Spokane, says the church plays a variety of roles. "Church for the Russian community is just everything for them. It's a common place to meet for social communication, spiritual, educational, English and music classes. If you need any kind of information, you come to the church. It's a support group for elderly. If they don't speak English, they don't have any other place to go." Kaprian's church even boasts a 50-piece brass band as well as a jazz band and large choir.


For many new arrivals, resettlement can be overwhelming. Agencies such as World Relief, which is an arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, help refugees navigate the uncertain landscape of American culture. Counselors work directly with each family with all aspects of adjustment: housing, work, English classes, healthcare and finding a school for the kids.

Alla Derevenchuk emigrated from Ukraine in 1989 and is now a counselor for World Relief. Recently, she made a home visit to a young family that has been in Spokane for less than a month. Irina, 24, and Aleksandr Sinitsa, 35, along with their 3-year-old son Vladislov, emigrated from Kovel, Ukraine, and are temporarily living with relatives, Yelena and Vasiliy Kravchuk, who preceded them from Ukraine in 1996. During the visit, Alla talks with the young couple, explaining basic rules to them: what refugee status means, how to apply for temporary welfare, upcoming appointments they have.

Irina was a nurse in the Ukraine, and Aleksandr worked as an electrician. Asked what his first impressions have been, he says through translation, "Of course, I like it. But I'm unsure of the future."

Vasiliy, with a been-there-done-that look, predicts the path Aleksandr will have to tread. "The next year will be hard. Learn English, get a job and a place to live." Then adds his first impressions of America. "There was no one on the streets. I thought, where are all the people? In the Ukraine, the streets are full of people walking. Then someone told me, they're all in the cars."

Vasiliy and Yelena have been here just four years and seem to have made a smooth transition to a pretty typical American lifestyle. They own a comfortable split-level home on the South Hill. They have four children and both work. "We both work because we have to," says Yelena. "For Russians, it's about survival." Meanwhile, their youngest, 4-year-old John, takes a break from blowing bubbles in his glass of milk and laughing hysterically to show off his toy fire engine.

"He loves cars," says his mom.

Every refugee who arrives experiences culture shock to varying degrees. Linda Unseth, West Area director of World Relief says there are four basic stages: "First the honeymoon stage when they first arrive: Everything is great. Then, the homesick stage where they grieve the loss of friends and family they left behind. They miss the smells and foods they knew. Third stage is anger and frustration, when the reality of the language barrier and difficulty of finding a job hits. And finally the resolution or acceptance stage when they become assimilated into the culture."

"Language is the key to assimilating in the culture," says David Holter, Spokane director of World Relief. "The younger people are best at learning the language and integrating. For the elderly, only a small percentage has made an effort to learn the language. So they rely on their relatives and friends."

Mastering the language often puts the children in a position of control over their parents.

"There's a gap between parents and children, and many times the children go ahead of the parents, and the parents just follow," says Yelena Solodyankin. "It's hard for parents. Older parents lose control of their children because of their communication level."

Alexander Solodyankin says he's seen children take advantage of this situation. "Sometimes children fail in school and get F. And parents ask them, 'What is this?' and they say 'F stands for fine.' And so parents believe them. If families are not educated, their children will plan their future."

Mike Wallace, who directs the English as Second Language Program through the Community Colleges of Spokane, says 70 percent of his program's adult students are from the former Soviet Union and know the importance of learning English. "They come from a literate culture and are tenacious about learning. Learning English and working can be a juggling act. They may work all day and come to school at night — also taking care of large families. Many of them get very little sleep, I think."


For refugees who come as children, change means a new way of living, quickly embracing all things American. For their grandparents, change may be less internal and more a simple matter of geography. "I think the older generation is just transferring their community to America. They can feel pretty isolated," says Unseth. "For the children, they're often caught between two worlds. 'I'm Russian, yet I'm American; which world do I fit in?'"

For Alexander and Yelena's eight children, English is already their primary language. "They are more Americanized than we are," says Yelena. "Right now, children speak to me in English even though I speak to them in Russian. We have to force them to speak Russian language. They want to be more American. My son says to me, 'Mom, when I'm old enough, can I marry an American girl? They're more fun.'"

Asked if becoming "too Americanized" was a concern, Alexander says, "Every nation has good and bad people. So to be Americanized is not bad or good, just to be a good person."

A common observation about American culture is the pace of living and the influence of cars. Eric Miller, who came to America 11 years ago as a religious refugee from the Ukraine, calls it, "a freeway culture. What I noticed was there was nobody on the streets. Everyone is in their cars. It seems people don't take time to walk down the street and meet with their neighbors." Miller owns the European Deli on North Monroe, one of three food stores in Spokane that caters to the palate of Eastern Europeans.

In the decade since this wave of immigration started, the word has spread, and Spokane has become a destination of sorts for citizens of the Ukraine, Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Many say it reminds them of their home. The wheat fields, the mountains and the four seasons — they seem to like it here and want to stay. "We don't have a lot of second migrations out of Spokane," says Unseth. "When people come here, they seem to be fairly satisfied with our community."

However, Spokane is not immune to discrimination. In 1997, a lawsuit was filed here that became the nation's first federal housing discrimination complaint based on allegedly unfair treatment of Russians. The suit claimed the managers of a Browne's Addition apartment complex, "...waged a systematic campaign to rid the building of 14 Russian families." The families eventually won that lawsuit.

Any other anti-Russian or anti-immigrant sentiments seem to be reserved for the fringe. "I think there will always be those who are anti-immigrant and express that in ways that are inappropriate. Spokane gets a bad rap on account of a few bozos," says Holter.

Over the past 11 years, more than 10,000 refugees from the former Soviet Union have moved to Spokane to quietly construct new lives for themselves. And in doing so, continuing the tradition of looking to America — and specifically the American West — as a place of renewal.

"It's the only country where your dreams can become true if you work hard," says Alexander Solodyankin. "I regret one thing. That I didn't come earlier." ♦

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