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Why are there so many Ukrainian Americans in Spokane?

Feb. 27, 2022 Updated Sun., Feb. 27, 2022 at 11:47 a.m.

A protester waves a Ukrainian flag as he takes part in a demonstration outside a NATO leaders virtual summit on Friday at NATO headquarters in Brussels.  (Mark Carlson)
A protester waves a Ukrainian flag as he takes part in a demonstration outside a NATO leaders virtual summit on Friday at NATO headquarters in Brussels. (Mark Carlson)

Everyone knows the story.

Christians, fleeing religious persecution in Europe, made the arduous trek over the Atlantic Ocean to reach America and freedom. It’s the story of the Pilgrims, who settled in Massachusetts 400 years ago.

It’s also the story of how thousands of Slavs settled in Spokane.

Many Spokanites are feeling shock, anger and despair as they watch Russia invade Ukraine. But for a significant percentage of the community, the invasion is personal.

Spokane’s Slavic residents represent all Eastern European countries, and most arrived from the Soviet Union between the late 1980s and early 2000s.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how many Slavs live in Spokane County. Alex Kaprian, a Ukrainian American pastor at Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church, said the best guess puts the number at roughly 50,000 Slavs in the Spokane area, and Ukrainians make up the largest percentage of that figure. All throughout Spokane County, Ukrainian Americans are terrified for their friends and family in Ukraine.

Laura Brunell, a professor of European politics at Gonzaga University, explained the origin of Spokane’s large Slavic population “all goes back to religious persecution in the Soviet Union and Reaganism.”

Being a Christian in the atheistic Soviet Union was often miserable or dangerous. Clergy and believers could be imprisoned, especially Baptists, Brunell said.

Between 1989 and 1991, parts of the Soviet Union began to democratize and claim independence. During that period of instability and turmoil, millions of Christians had an opportunity to leave.

Many came to America, a majority-Christian nation of immigrants with a strong belief in religious freedom.

“Reagan was like, ‘Yes, anybody can get out of any of the Soviet satellites or the Soviet Union, come on down,’ ” Brunell said.

In the mid- to late 1990s, economic factors may have fueled the Eastern European exodus more than religious persecution. The Russian economy collapsed in the mid-1990s, and the region experienced a period of upheaval.

Petr Gaydarzhi, a Ukrainian American who came to the U.S. in 1997, said his family wasn’t being persecuted for being Christian by the time they left. But they were worried religious freedom in newly independent Ukraine might be temporary.

“Life is not getting better, so people try, try, try, and then they move,” Gaydarzhi said.

The United States was willing to accept large numbers of Christian refugees, and it had a policy to determine where to put them. Refugees often don’t get to pick their new home town.

“Our government puts them here,” Brunell said. “They didn’t pick Spokane, Spokane was picked for them.”

Brunell said the U.S. tends to resettle refugees in areas experiencing population decline and deindustrialization. It’s an economic policy, and it’s often why there are seemingly random pockets of immigrant communities throughout the U.S.

While government policies may have been the impetus of Spokane’s Slavic population, some of the immigration is due to a snowball effect. Once the first people arrive, their family members often join them.

“It’s kind of like a chain reaction,” said Tanya Willard, a Ukrainian American who works for World Relief and helps refugees get settled in the Spokane area.

Plus, once Spokane became established as a community with a large Russian-speaking population, it became a hub.

“We just knew that there were some Ukrainians and Russian speakers here,” said Anatoliy Mazhan, a Ukrainian American whose family originally settled in Sacramento, California, in 1998 before moving to Spokane in 2006.

The current war in Ukraine will likely create thousands or millions of new refugees. Some could come to Spokane. Based on the Slavic population already here, that’d likely be good for the region, Brunell said.

“They’re hard-working people. They’re here to build a better life for themselves,” she said. “They’re a benefit to the community.”

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