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Russians' Tale 

by Suzanne Schreiner & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ast summer, there was a bad car accident out in Mead. As the Russian names of the victims were broadcast, I was reminded in this sad, strange way of Spokane's large Russian-speaking community from the cluster of republics that replaced the Soviet Union. The year before, the Chase Gallery at City Hall showed a retrospective of the work of Leonid Bergoltsev, a well-known Soviet photographer. Why would such a man have been drawn to Spokane? And whatever his reasons were, what kept him and all the other Russians -- by recent estimates, some 25,000 Russian language speakers from places such as Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Belarus -- in our smallish Eastern Washington city when they might find much larger enclaves of their countrymen in Seattle or Portland or San Francisco?

The reasons, I discovered, are the same ones that have brought immigrants to these shores since the dawn of the nation: freedom from religious persecution, economic opportunity, ties to family already in America and attraction to a place that reminded them of the home they had left behind. Sometimes all of these converged at once. The religious refugees, by far the largest group, had first come in the late 1980s. I wondered how they had fared, whether they had put down roots and realized whatever version of the American dream they had been pursuing.

We learned the American immigrant story as children, slogging our way through grade school history classes, gaping at movies and TV miniseries. The oppressed or impoverished immigrant makes his way to our teeming shores, finds an unpleasant bottom-rung job, struggles to learn English and is sneered at and kicked around by those who got here before him, in a kind of immigrant hazing ritual. But -- the story continues -- through dint of hard work and just plain grit, he improves his lot. In a couple of generations, his American offspring are indistinguishable from the general tide of home-owning, beer-drinking, flag-waving, rugged individualists stretching from sea to shining sea. How, I wondered, did the Russians' stories compare to the larger American immigrant story?

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