New Wave of Russian Immigrants Seeks Piece of American Dream


Wearing a light-color linen suit and an immaculately groomed salt-and-pepper beard, standing beside his shiny black Mercedes-Benz, Dr. Efim Tulchinsky looks like a shorter Sean Connery.

“I like the good life,” he says with a wave of his hand. “That’s why I came here.”

The 49-year-old Ukrainian dentist has been in the United States since 1975. He’s one of nearly 45,000 Russian-speaking immigrants--Ukrainians and Armenians included--now living in the Seattle area.

They are drawn by “the myth of sunshine, beautiful women and Cadillacs,” says Georgi Vlaksin, consul general at the Russian Consulate in Seattle.


“But they find out life is tough. You have to fight for survival. The competition is tough.”

Tulchinsky can vouch for that. Like many Soviet Jews who emigrated about that time, he started off with modest, almost nonexistent means, and worked his way to a capitalist Utopia. He has more than fulfilled what many would consider the American dream, with fast cars, a plush home in an affluent suburb and a close-knit family.

But, Tulchinsky says, the price of material comfort is high.

“I work six days a week, often late into the night. I don’t really have the time to enjoy what I’ve accomplished.”


Tulchinsky and his wife, Alla, arrived with their 4-year-old daughter, Mariana, $300 and a few personal belongings. An established dentist in the Ukraine, he had to start at the bottom here as a dental assistant at the University of Washington.

But even that $600-a-month salary was more than anything he could have made back home. Eventually, he took the National Dental Board exams, was relicensed and opened his own practice in 1980 in a northern suburb.

Since Tulchinsky’s arrival have come a new wave of immigrants, the New Russians, highly trained professionals in their late 20s and early 30s who settled here after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 54,494 immigrants from the former Soviet Union came to the United States in 1995--second only to Mexico, with 89,932.

The New Russians are the cream of the post-Soviet crop--software experts, electronic whizzes, doctors, artists and ballet dancers--more worldly, more Westernized, with higher standards of living than their predecessors.

“They are quick to adopt American ways and American life,” says Vlaskin of the Russian Consulate. “They speak the same language, they pray to the same God, they have the same culture [as earlier arrivals], but they’re different.”

The first wave of Russian-speaking immigrants came after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Mostly aristocrats and intellectuals, they laid the groundwork for today’s community of Russian transplants, establishing an enclave of Russian culture and language, Vlaskin says.

The next wave, about the time of World War II, was made up of immigrants fleeing persecution by Germany’s Adolf Hitler and, later, by Soviet leaders.


During the Cold War, the influx slowed to a trickle of Russian Jews and dissidents. Some found their way here in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s after stints in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and other high-profile cities.

New Russian Victoria Karp, 31, of Khabarovsk got her first taste of “the good life” in 1990, as a graduate student in international studies at the University of Washington.

Six years later, Karp is a regional manager at ICM, a large Vladivostok-based seafood company that handles trade between the Russian Far East and Seattle. She enjoys the theater, ballet and weekend getaways.

“The older waves had to overcome much more difficulties. For us, all the doors are opened,” she says from her downtown office with a cityscape view that includes the landmark Space Needle.

“We are more aggressive and driven. The old waves were satisfied with medium-paying jobs. Russians now are not willing to work for $6 an hour.

“The New Russians are different by their tastes, their preferences in music, cars, standards of living--they are yuppies.”

But not everybody is ecstatic about life in America.

Boris Stepanov, 40, from Moscow, has an export business in a modest storefront a few blocks from Karp’s office.


“I never thought I’d end up with a business like this,” he sighs. “I’ve always wanted to be in the media.”

Stepanov, who came to Seattle in 1991 after working in television for 10 years in Russia, says he tried getting jobs at local stations but ran into a brick wall.

Although life here is good for Kamila Mnatsakanova, it’s not perfect.

She moved here four years ago from her native Ukraine and helps run the Metropol, a popular restaurant in upscale, east suburban Bellevue, which has a large community of Russian-speaking immigrants.

“I came here to change my life,” says Mnatsakanova, 32.

“In some way, it was easier surviving in Russia. The education was free, and almost everything was subsidized by the government.

“But in America, there is more prosperity, things are more progressive and, to some extent, there is more freedom.”

The Metropol is a popular watering hole for Russians hankering after homemade pelmeny, stuffed dumplings; piroshky, pastry filled with meat or vegetables; or borscht, red cabbage soup with sour cream.

On weekends, well-fed diners gyrate under a rotating disco ball while a three-piece band cranks out traditional jigs and lounge standards.

“This is the Russian way--to dance and party and eat,” Mnatsakanova says.

For some, religion is a central part of the Russian way.

At St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Seattle’s trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood, services are held Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings.

The faded red-and-gold splendor of the Byzantine-style church is underscored by incense and holy chants. Because it is the only church in the city that holds services solely in Russian, St. Nicholas has a small but staunch congregation made up mostly of first- and second-wavers.

The church used to be the “foundation of the immigrants’ lives,” says San Francisco Bishop Kyrill Dmitrieff, whose diocese includes Seattle. “Everything revolved around church life.”

Now, “the material world is more important . . . there is a vast and colossal difference between Russians now and then.

“The church doesn’t have much of a hold on [the new Russians] because they are not interested,” Kyrill says.