Spotlight on Sacramento Ukrainians

During the Cold War, thousands of Ukrainians were introduced to America by a voice that came across the Pacific Ocean and into their shortwave radios.

The voice was that of Paul Demetrus, a radio preacher in Sacramento who delivered Christianity to a community clinging to its faith in the officially atheist Soviet Union.

When Soviet emigration restrictions were eased in the 1980s, many of Demetrus' listeners joined a flight toward religious freedom and headed toward a place they knew: Sacramento.

There are now an estimated 75,000 Ukrainians and Russians living in the Sacramento metropolitan area, out of an overall population of 1.8 million.

Now that community has been shaken by a murderous rampage Monday that left five members of a family dead. A national manhunt was under way for a 27-year-old Ukrainian named Nikolay Soltys.

"He's making a black mark on our community," said Eugene Kovalenko, one of those who made the long journey from Ukraine to California.

Kovalenko and his father run a grocery named Arbat, where customers speaking Ukrainian and Russian buy delicatessen items and chocolate.

He and other newcomers have established a major presence in neighborhoods outside downtown, beyond the Capitol. In the Rio Linda school district, for example, 15 percent of the students with limited English skills are Ukrainian, spokeswoman Heidi Van Zant said.

The immigrant groups also boast two TV companies, a pair of radio stations, several small newspapers, private schools, a half-dozen Russian-style stores and five Christian missions that work in the former Soviet Union.

Last year, the city boasted its first Russian Yellow Pages, with 300 advertisers, 90 percent of them Ukrainian and Russian.

Like many immigrant groups, older members of the community place an emphasis on faith: There are about 25 churches dedicated to emigres from the former Soviet Union in the Sacramento area.

Teen-agers learn English and the new ways they see on television as best they can.

It is a regional influx: Approximately 150,000 Russian and Ukrainian immigrants have settled in Sacramento, Portland, Ore., and Seattle since the late 1980s.

Asked about his influence, Demetrus, now 85, said: "I did it for 40 years, but when communism fell, I felt it was no longer necessary."

The talk Tuesday was all about Soltys, who is accused of stabbing his pregnant wife to death before driving 20 minutes to another suburb and killing his two young cousins and his aunt and uncle.

By all accounts, Soltys was on the losing side of life.

He was rejected by the Ukrainian army because of mental instability. Neighbors say he moved to Sacramento from Binghamton, N.Y., about a year ago and was admitted to a church on probation. Church officials said he could not prove he had left his previous church in good standing.

His wife had only recently joined him from the Ukraine.

Police found Soltys' car late Monday, but there was no sign of him or his 3-year-old son, Sergey. Police said Soltys, an unemployed shoemaker living on welfare, went on the killing spree the same morning he was to start college and his wife was to begin a new job.

Roman Romaso, an 11-year resident and director of the Slavic Community Center, could not find the words to describe the horror sweeping through the immigrant community. He said he works with Ukrainian children to "avoid such sad stories."