Far from Home

The history and future of Slavic refugees in Oregon

A few years ago a pro-immigration rally in Salem crowded the front steps of the Capitol and spilled across the street onto the Capitol Mall. Almost everyone in the crowd of about three thousand mostly Latin American immigrants and other supporters were wearing red, white, and blue shirts and waving Mexican and American flags. Scenes like this, along with daily news stories, political debates, and dinner table conversations are reminders that issues surrounding immigration have become one of the hot button topics of our times.

Latino immigration issues have dominated recent news headlines, but about a week before that rally, a smaller but equally engaged group of Slavic Christian fundamentalists and other supporters gathered on those same steps with a protest of their own against proposed legislation in support of gay rights. This less-publicized event not only provides evidence of the increasing numbers of Russian-speaking residents here, but also signals their increasing involvement in American politics and culture. Much like immigrant groups who arrived in the early twentieth century, newcomers from the former Soviet Union are not only finding ways to adjust to their new lives in the United States, they are also becoming active players in reshaping the landscape of the place they now call home. Because of their relatively large numbers and well-organized networks, and the availability of instant communication systems and high-tech media exposure, Slavic refugees and their families have the potential to make their mark on local landscapes more rapidly than did earlier groups.

More than one hundred thousand people from the former Soviet Union now call the Willamette Valley home. These new Russian-speaking residents have quickly become a part of a place experiencing its own sets of new challenges and opportunities. Building on the post-1970s era of political, environmental, and economic changes, Oregon has been caught up in a new era of possibilities and also of problems: the rise and fall of high-tech industries, the increasing popularity of often invasive tourism on our coasts and in our deserts and mountains, and the major, ongoing demographic shifts that are now reshaping the state. These phenomena offer opportunities, as well as concerns, for the future. How are these interrelated demographic, environmental, and economic issues reshaping our state, and what role do recent Slavic migrants play in these changes?


Oregon and Washington added more new migrants born in Russia and Ukraine than any other part of the country between 1990 and 2005. Attracted by sponsors affiliated with Christian fundamentalist church congregations, a network of well-organized social service and refugee resettlement agencies, and a physical environment that resembles their homeland, Russian and Ukrainian Baptists, Pentecostals, and Seventh Day Adventists combined are now by far the largest refugee group in Oregon.

About 40 percent of the more than one hundred thousand Slavic people who live in the region are from Ukraine. Others were born in Russia, Belarus, or other republics that formerly made up the Soviet Union. While the vast majority of these immigrants live in the Portland-metro area, about three thousand currently reside in Salem, with significant numbers also living in Woodburn and smaller towns such as Lebanon and Albany.

The exodus from the former USSR to the United States began with changes in both Soviet emigration policies and American refugee policies, and the religious groups that were able to prove to the United States government that they were refugees under this legislation included Jews and evangelical Christian migrants who were persecuted for their religious beliefs under the Soviet system. The American evangelical lobby and the religious right in the United States have been influential factors in securing and holding on to selective refugee status for these Protestant groups, even though their persecution virtually disappeared with the collapse of the Communist regime in the early 1990s. In addition to large numbers of well-established congregations arranging for sponsors for newcomers, those who were already resettled in other states heard about the West Coast mecca and migrated to Portland, Seattle, and Sacramento, and the smaller towns and cities located in between along the I-5 and Highway 99 corridors.

There's actually a much lengthier back story to the Slavic experience in Oregon, one that began a century before the most recent post-Soviet era. A Russian Orthodox church was started in North Portland by an Alaskan of mixed Russian and Native American heritage as early as 1890. The membership list of this first Russian Orthodox church in the Pacific Northwest mentions only two Russians, six Arabs, and four Serbs. Ten years later, a visitor to Portland from Seattle noted that there were about fifty believers in Portland at the time, even though their chapel was in disrepair and ethnic factions regularly disrupted services. This historic Orthodox chapel was abandoned in 1910 and remained closed until a new wave of Russian Orthodox immigrants settled in Portland after the Russian Revolution ended in 1922.

Other early and mid-twentieth-century immigrant groups from Russia settled in the Willamette Valley town of Woodburn. Molokans, members of a Protestant sect that left Russia between 1901 and 1911, first settled in East Los Angeles; San Francisco; Glendale, Arizona; and California's Central Valley. In search of a more rural environment, a small group of California Molokans visited Woodburn in the early 1950s and, since then, hundreds more have come north to stay.

The early node of Slavic settlers in Woodburn set the stage for the arrival of another group of ethno-religious migrants from Russia/the Soviet Union who arrived midcentury: Russian Old Believers. Old Believers are the most distinctive of all Slavic residents of the Willamette Valley because of their unique style of clothing and their propensity for constructing ornate Russian Orthodox chapels reminiscent of those built many centuries ago in Russia.

Old Believers are a sectarian group who separated from the Orthodox Church in 1666 after a series of reforms were enacted by the ruling czar and Orthodox patriarch. Refusing to go along with these changes (such as the number of fingers used to cross oneself and the spelling of the word “Jesus”), thousands of people who came to be known as Starovery (or “Old Believers,” as they are called in English) burned themselves to death in mass suicides or left Moscow and St. Petersburg to move east, where they hid in remote Siberian villages. Others fled west to rural areas in Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Turkey, or Iran, seeking a safe place to practice their traditional Orthodox religious rituals.

After the Russian Revolution in the early 1920s, many of these Old Believers were forced to move yet again when anti-religious Socialist forces swept through their Siberian villages. To escape Communist control of their lands and lives, most fled across the Chinese border to the city of Harbin in Manchuria. Others moved into the Sinkiang Province in central China. There they lived their lives in relative peace and safety until 1949, when the Communist takeover of China resulted in the forced collectivization of thousands of Old Believers into isolated villages. Their plight drew the support of the Council of World Churches, which secured visas and funds to help them emigrate to a safer haven. Thereafter, these two groups of Old Believers—one group from Manchuria and the other from central China—gathered together in Hong Kong in the early 1960s to prepare to once again start new lives in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, or Uruguay. Some arrived in wagon trains that had made the long trip all the way from central China to the coast. Stories abound among old-timers in Woodburn who still remember the trauma of this trip. One recalls losing a toddler along the way and then rushing frantically back to find her on the side of the muddy trail. Eventually the group decided to go to Brazil, where they had been offered free land and safe haven.

When these Old Believers stopped in Los Angeles to have their ship refueled after the long trans-Pacific crossing from Hong Kong, a group of Russian Molokans from East Los Angeles rushed down to greet them. “Welcome, welcome! But where are you going?” they called out in Russian to the passengers on deck. “We're going to Brazil!” a few of the Old Believers called back. Hearing this plan, several of the leaders of the Southern California Russian community reacted negatively, asking how Russian foods could be grown in such a tropical climate and if they were aware that neighboring Chile seemed to be moving toward a Communist government. When the Brazil-bound Old Believers asked where they should go instead, many replied, like all good Californians, that they should “go to Oregon, to beautiful green Woodburn, a place where some people from our community already live and where Russian is spoken on city streets.” As their ship pulled out of the harbor, many of the Old Believers had already begun planning for yet another move to the United States to find the town of Woodburn.

Two long years later, because of problems finding funding for their trip to the United States, most still lived in Brazil on land donated by the government. Life proved to be extremely challenging in this unfamiliar climate. One elderly man I interviewed—who was among the original Brazilian migrants—in the Old Believer village of Nikolaevsk, Alaska, remembered, “These were very hard years, and it was very hot in Brazil. We could not grow potatoes or beets, and so we had no borscht. So what is life without borscht? It just could never feel like home there, you know?”

Finally, in 1964, funding was secured from the Tolstoy Foundation in New York City for the trip to Oregon. With the sponsorship of a few Russian Molokans in Woodburn, almost all of the Old Believers from Brazil migrated to the rich farmland of the Willamette Valley. Less than one year later, another group of Russian Old Believers from New Jersey (who had come to the United States from Turkey, where they had been living since their escape from Russia in the late seventeenth century) arrived in nearby Gervais. There are now about two thousand Old Believers living in the Woodburn area.

Just as Russian Molokans helped sponsor Old Believers who came to Oregon, Woodburn's Slavic Pentecostal community played a major role in attracting the most recent wave of migrants from the former USSR. In a story that has become legendary among local Russian-speaking residents, the minister of the tiny Russian Pentecostal church in Woodburn (the only one of its kind in Oregon at the time) asked his congregation to sponsor refugees from the Soviet Union when he heard about Gorbachev's new and more open emigration policies in 1988. Several years later, Pastor Ben Shevchenko's church finally received word that one of the families it hoped to sponsor had been approved, and the family was now on its way to Woodburn. This started a chain migration that exploded after the Soviet Union dissolved and that continues to this day. Overwhelmed by the numbers of new arrivals in the early 1990s, the church in Woodburn asked the largest refugee resettlement agency in Portland for help. That agency has since morphed into the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, or IRCO; Pastor Shevchenko sits on the board.

Family reunification is a top priority of U.S. immigration policy, so the numbers of new arrivals have continued to grow with the arrival of the parents, children, and other family members of these post-Soviet-era refugees. According to Victoria Libov, a Russian social worker who lives in Beaverton and is a program administrator at IRCO, “In a short time, you've moved almost an entire village here.” An estimated 90 percent of these Slavic refugees remain in the area after their initial settlement in the region because of the support provided by refugee resettlement agencies, church networks, and family and friends from home.

Slavic refugee leaders are beginning to play a role in reshaping the politics of our region. The Slavic Coalition, for example, provides a voice for the Russian-speaking community to ensure maximum opportunities for gaining county and city funding and political power in the urban region. The coalition was founded three years ago to advocate for youth success, family stabilization, and elderly support for the area's Russian-speaking residents. Membership grew and galvanized around the issue of local American teachers sending notes home to Russian-speaking fundamentalist parents warning them not to use spanking to discipline their children, advice those parents strongly disagreed with.

More recently, thanks to its political efforts, the Slavic Coalition was added as a voting member of the Community of Color Coalition in Multnomah County, an organization established for Africans, African Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and Latin Americans. Despite the whiteness of all of the members of the Slavic Coalition, Slavic members now serve on advisory committees and participate in funding decision-making bodies for this mixed-race, multicultural group. Two leaders of the Slavic Coalition were also recently appointed to serve on the Portland mayor's new advisory board in support of immigrant and refugee issues in the metropolitan area. Another Ukrainian-born leader in the Salem community, Anya Sekino, currently serves as the cultural competency coordinator of one of Oregon's major state agencies headquartered here in Salem.


As did many other immigrant groups before them, migrants from the former USSR are changing the face of Oregon. The most visible changes are in our economic landscape, with the more than four hundred Slavic-owned businesses now operating in Willamette Valley towns and cities. Other changes are fast becoming part of our region as well. Fundamentalist churches play stronger roles in the politics and values of the local and statewide scene than they used to. For example, the Slavic Christian Church in Salem, an activist group of more than five hundred congregants, has organized satellite congregations in Albany and Lebanon, and provides headphones that translate services into English for non-Slavic members. Like some of the largest churches in Sacramento, California, the Slavic Christian Church sends missionaries to Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics to launch and organize new church congregations that are supported by weekly radio shows broadcast from a studio inside their church on the outskirts of Salem. This large congregation is only one example among more than forty new Russian-language churches in our region, each providing evidence of the increasingly important role of Slavic values and beliefs in our area.

As this large and diverse group continues to provide strong and often quite vocal support of conservative issues such as anti-gay and anti-abortion rights, the politics and culture of this region of Oregon has slowly begun to change. Will Salem become the next Sacramento, home to the largest Slavic fundamentalist community in the United States, where anti-gay activists organized by Slavic church congregations picket gay pride events, jam legislative hearings, and demonstrate at school-board meetings? Only time will tell.


Belonging, History, Immigration, Home, Global and Local


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The Guilty Traveler


The Crossing

Far from Home

Here, Not There

Distance as an Illusion

Irreconcilable Dissonance