Sacramento's Ukrainians Came Seeking Religious Freedom, Better Life

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev opened the doors to a wave of evangelical emigration in the late 1980s, thousands of Ukrainians and Russians started making their way to California's capital.

They've been coming ever since, a group now nearing 75,000 people in the northern California city. That community was rocked Monday, when, authorities said, 27-year-old Nikolay Soltys allegedly killed five people in a spree that covered two Sacramento-area suburbs.

"He's making a black mark on our community," said Eugene Kovalenko, who moved to Sacramento in 1995.

Following a mass migration that gathered steam through much of the 1990s, the newcomers have established a major presence in neighborhoods beyond a downtown of government buildings. The immigrant groups boast two television 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, about a two hour's drive from Mendocino County's Fort Ross, a coastal Russian fort established in 1812, boasted its first Russian Yellow Pages. The books, featuring 300 advertisers, are about the size of a Readers Digest.

Like many immigrant groups, the lives of the older people revolve around traditional churches, in this case Baptist and Pentecostal, while teen-agers learn English and the new ways they see on television.

For all, Monday's killings rippled through the community.

"I just don't have any words to express for that," said Roman Romaso, an 11-year resident and director of the Slavic Community Center. Romaso works with Ukrainian children to "avoid such sad stories like what happened today."

The city's Ukrainians, a mixture of farming and city people in their native land, are scattered across several suburban communities of Sacramento. But the greatest concentrations are found on the city's north side.

There, a store named Arbat tends to many of them along busy Watt Avenue. Residents buy delicatessen items and chocolates in their native tongues.

In the Rio Linda Union Elementary School District, 15 percent of the district's limited-English-speaking students are Ukrainian, says district spokeswoman Heidi Van Zant.

These immigrant Ukrainians and Russians trace their arrival in Sacramento to a short-wave radio broadcaster, Paul Demetrious, who bounced his religious signal across the Pacific Ocean during the Cold War. For decades, people held to their religious beliefs and practices despite official Soviet atheist doctrine.

"That's why people came," Romaso said. He says they knew of Sacramento long before they had ever seen the city.

Maynard Skinner, former mayor of Davis, a nearby town that has a sister city near Kiev in Ukraine, recalls that the "churches, the Pentecostal and Southern Baptist churches in the greater Sacramento areas, started bringing those people over. They found them jobs and places to stay."

Altogether, approximately 150,000 Russians and Ukrainian immigrants have settled in Sacramento, Portland and Seattle.

Among them is Irena Shilovskiy, who came from the Ukraine through Chicago with seven brothers and sisters. A bilingual assistant now at a Sacramento-area elementary school, she recalls that her father spent five years in a Soviet prison for being Christian. Shilovskiy's husband works for a Ukrainian broadcast operation in Sacramento.