As Spokane’s large community of Russian-speaking religious refugees began grieving Friday for six of their own, some interpreted a fatal house fire in Bellingham early Friday as a message from God.
“Maybe God wants to teach us something, that we must be more polite or loving to each other,” said Alexander Kaprian, pastor of one of Spokane’s seven Russian-language churches.
Russian refugees in Spokane, mostly evangelical Baptists and Pentecostals, see the deaths as a heavenly signal to stop fighting among themselves over religious differences, Kaprian said.
“We have to love each other more. We don’t have to have any divisions.
“The whole Russian community, it doesn’t matter what church they go to, is like one family,” he said. “I called so many people this morning. Everyone was crying and saying, ‘It feels like it happened in my family.”’
Word of the fire raced through the Russian community Friday morning. Kaprian, who called the other pastors, said all the Russian-language churches will help with a funeral, which has not yet been planned.
The fire killed six members of the Solodyankin family, a large, extended family of Baptists who resettled in Spokane after fleeing Kyrgyzstan, a former republic of the Soviet Union.
The adult victims, Vyacheslav and Yelena Solodyankin, had lived in the United States less than a year. The couple and their eight children arrived in Spokane last May, joining Vyacheslav’s parents and five adult siblings, their spouses and children who already lived here.
A fifth brother and his family also lived in Spokane until moving to Bellingham two years ago. Vyacheslav and Yelena Solodyankin were visiting that brother in Bellingham this week.
The large family and their evangelical faith are typical of the thousands of Russian refugees who came to Spokane during the last seven years.
Spokane’s 3,000 to 5,000 Russian refugees fled persecution and economic hardship in the former Soviet Union. Some believe God shapes their lives through prophecy.
Like other Russian refugees in Spokane, Vyacheslav and Yelena Solodyankin and their children shared a house with relatives when they arrived. They had trouble finding their own home because of the size of their family.
Landlords told them “they preferred to have dogs in their apartments to so many children,” said Kaprian, who is a social worker for the Department of Social and Health Services in addition to being a pastor.
When Kaprian met Vyacheslav and Yelena Solodyankin last spring he noticed their children were wellmannered and obedient.
While Yelena quietly deferred to her husband, Vyacheslav “asked many questions about rules and regulations in America,” Kaprian remembered. “He said, ‘I want to spend my life honestly. I don’t want to do anything against the law.”’
The couple visited Kaprian’s church during the past year and seemed to be adjusting well to American life, Kaprian said.
Kaprian found irony in the fact that the Solodyankins had left their homeland to escape suffering, only to find more suffering here.
“Nobody can answer this question, why,” Kaprian said. “But our faith says we don’t have to cry too much or suffer too much because if they were Christians they are now in a better place. Some time in the future, we will go to meet them.”
Ivan Skrobko, a pastor at the Solodyankins’ church, said the deaths will be looked at as a reminder from God.
“It reminds everyone that life can be interrupted at any minute,” he said. “That we must pray every day and every night before we go to sleep because anything can happen.”
The recent wave of Russian immigration began in Spokane in 1989 after Mikhail Gorbachev lifted barriers to emigration for religious refugees. Since then, Russian speakers have become Spokane’s largest immigrant group.
Spokane’s climate, low crime rate and affordable housing attracted Russians who first settled elsewhere in the United States. Russianlanguage churches sprang up, adding to the magnetism of Spokane for the Russians.
The Baptist churches splintered over old resentment between refugees who belonged to underground churches and those who belonged to churches that registered with the government.
The deaths in Bellingham may draw people together, Kaprian said.
There have been deaths in Spokane’s Russian community, but nothing of this magnitude, said refugee worker Heather Grannis of World Relief in Spokane.
“This is something that goes beyond Baptist or Pentecostal,” Grannis said. “It touches on their very beliefs and who they are. I think they’ll band together, at least I hope they will.”