Last Thursday, Referendum 71 went into effect. With that, Washington became the first state in the nation to establish new rights for gay and lesbian couples by a vote of the people. R-71, which passed in November, affirmed legislation passed earlier this year in Olympia, giving registered domestic partners the same legal status as married couples, but without using the “m” word.
Though the measure won handily, 47 percent of Washington voters opposed it. Many of them, of course, were from the more-conservative eastern half of the state. But even in largely liberal King County, where you would have been hard-pressed to find anti-71 signs, a third of the votes went against.
Two well-known members of the Puget Sound area’s religious right formed the public face of the local opposition: Larry Stickney, head of the Washington Values Alliance, and Ken Hutcherson, a former NFL linebacker and senior pastor at Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland.
But apart from them, opposition to the measure was largely quiet and private. Except among one group: immigrants from Russia and other former Soviet states.
Since 2006, local conservatives have been strengthening ties to the two dozen churches in the Puget Sound area that cater to these immigrant groups. And this year, those congregations became the engine behind the Reject R-71 campaign. The people circulating petitions at area malls to get R-71 onto the ballot, and carrying signs with antigay messages during the campaign, most likely were Russian speakers and relatively new to this country. They weren’t the only group opposing the measure, but they seemed the most willing to make their views known and publicly fight the legislation.
To them, the issue isn’t just about homosexuality. The bigger fear is that the government will start dictating how they practice their religion, in an echo of the oppression they experienced at the hands of communists.
“I think what makes our Slavic churches stand apart from American churches in terms of participation is the past experience with the government,” says Aleksander Naumchik, a home health-care worker and the youth pastor at Light of Hope in Marysville. “Most American churches have no clue about government persecution and dictatorship, but we have gone through that ugliness; we know how it’s like to be told that we can’t practice our faith.” Naumchik, 31, left Ukraine with his family 10 years ago. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, he says, he was harassed, even by schoolteachers, for his faith. The Soviet Union made religious expression illegal, with the sole exception of the Russian Orthodox Church—which wasn’t exactly a warm, welcoming community. “The church was like a political party in the Soviet Union,” Naumchik says. “It was far away from the Bible.”
As it happens, the United States helped set up the clash of ideologies in places like Ukraine. As Oleg Pynda, director of the Ukrainian Community Center in Renton, notes, the late 1800s saw an exodus from Russia to the U.S. After arriving here, those immigrants were converted to various Protestant faiths. Then in the early decades of the 20th century, some of those immigrants returned to Eastern Europe as missionaries. Thousands of people in Pynda’s native Ukraine converted to various Protestant denominations, including Pynda himself, who joined the Assembly of God. (He is now an associate pastor at a Ukrainian Pentecostal church housed in the same building as the Center.)
After World War II, when Ukraine, Latvia, Moldova, and other countries bordering Russia found themselves under Soviet rule, the government clamped down on the churches. Resisters were sent to camps in Siberia or mental institutions, says Naumchik. “We were treated like second-class citizens, like black people in the United States.”
The policy of religious oppression continued until 1987, when, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika policies, Jews and evangelical Christians were allowed to leave the country.
At that time it was still extremely difficult to get into the U.S. In 1989, this country allowed only 16,000 immigrants from the Soviet Union, according to the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Immigration Studies. Attempting to rectify that, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., sponsored legislation in Congress that expanded the definition of religious refugees to include people, from the Soviet Union and other Asian countries, with “a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
The Lautenberg Amendment, as it’s known, specifically cited Jews and evangelical Christians among those likely to feel such fear. With backing from Moscow, the floodgates opened, and hundreds of thousands of Christians and Jews left the former Soviet Union for the U.S.
Washington state became one of the most popular places to settle, says Cal Uomoto, who runs the Seattle office of World Relief, a Christian nonprofit that is one of the biggest religious-refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S.
The Puget Sound area, in particular, had jobs, Pynda says. In Ukraine, Pynda had been working in a factory that supplied aviation parts. So he picked Seattle because of Boeing. He applied for a job and didn’t get it, but he had other family in the area, and later got a job with the Center for MultiCultural Health, which promotes good health in Seattle’s minority communities. So he stayed.
Microsoft and other tech companies were also a big draw, says Alexander Goykhman, a Jewish immigrant from Moldova who runs russianseattle.com, a social networking site for Puget Sound–area Russian speakers. Goykhman worked as a computer programmer for area hotels for 15 years before his site became popular enough to provide a full-time job.
As the new immigrants founded churches, many of which are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, the members pitched in to sponsor even more immigrants. Estimates vary as to how many Russian-speaking immigrants live in Washington, but the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce puts it at over 100,000. Uomoto says that about 90 percent of the immigrants who have come since 1989 are Christians and Jews who arrived under the Lautenberg Amendment.
The community gets little notice, “but it’s the second-largest ethnic group, in terms of language, after Spanish,” says Anna Cherkasov, whose Kirkland company publishes the newspaper Russian World, circulated from Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C.
At the University of Washington Medical Center, Russian translators are the most requested after Spanish, and they are among the top-requested translators at other UW facilities like Harborview, says UW Medicine spokesperson Leila Gray.
The ever-growing presence of Russian-speaking immigrants attracted little controversy until the summer of 2004.
That June, a man named Micah Painter was celebrating Pride Week at the now-defunct downtown gay bar the Timberline. According to court records, he was walking, shirtless, to his car from the bar one night when three men started yelling at him from a truck stopped at a nearby traffic light. Hearing shouts of “faggot,” Painter turned and flipped off the men and the two women with them in the truck, according to court records.
The men in the truck continued to yell, a witness said. Painter turned again toward the truck, imitated masturbating, then walked off. One of the men in the truck, Vadim Samusenko, later told police that Painter was “…trying to, you know, I don’t know how to say this right, but he was trying to put that on us, you know, and we aren’t gay.”
Samusenko, then 20, leapt out of the truck with a vodka bottle in his hand that the group had emptied earlier. “Hey,” he shouted at Painter, according to records. Painter turned back toward Samusenko. “I have one question for you: Are you gay?”
“Hell, yes,” Painter replied.
Samusenko hit the bottle against a nearby wall, leaving a jagged edge at the bottom, then he slashed Painter with it. Two other men in the car, David Kravchenko, 19, and Yevgeniy Savchak, 17, jumped out of the truck as well. As a crowd gathered, the three ran back to the truck and drove off. Painter attempted to walk to a friend’s car, but realizing he needed help, he headed back for the Timberline, where he collapsed in the entrance. At Harborview, emergency-room doctors removed glass from deep gashes in Painter’s back and sewed shut a 10-centimeter gash across his face.
A King County jury convicted all three attackers of malicious assault under a state hate-crime law.
The three were all active in Bellingham’s Slavic Baptist Church, and 49 members of the church signed a letter asking the judge for leniency in sentencing the three men. “They are part of our youth group,” the letter reads. “Together we sang, prayed, and worshipped God at church.”
Another letter from Samusenko’s father addresses Painter specifically: “I believe that [it] is within God’s power to heal that man and my deepest wish [is] that he Micah Painter would find God as his saver,” he wrote.
Naumchik says the Painter attack gives an unfair picture of the Slavic immigrant community. “I don’t know anyone who preaches hate toward homosexuals,” he insists, though he acknowledges that his own church prohibits gay sex. His church also demands that congregants reject other Biblically forbidden practices like cohabitation, which falls under the rubric of adultery, and divorce, which Jesus says in the book of Matthew is allowable only in the case of unfaithfulness.
Naumchik worries that as gays and lesbians are given more rights, churches will be forbidden from condemning it in the pulpit. “We do not want government accusing churches for preaching against lifestyles that are prohibited in the Bible,” he says.
But the Bible isn’t the only factor influencing Slavic-immigrant attitudes towards gays, says Lana Polinger, a Bellevue psychologist who serves as a consultant to King County on the Slavic-immigrant population. Polinger, who herself emigrated from Moldova in 1992, says there are virtually no openly gay people in their home countries. “Homosexuality was a criminal thing in the Soviet Union, people got in jail for that,” Polinger explains. “So the general level of acceptance of homosexual lifestyles in this community is lower than in the United States in general.”
Goykhman, who runs russianseattle.com, is among those Slavs who opposed R-71, but not on religious grounds. “I don’t think it’s natural for people to have that kind of relationship,” he says. Indeed, the fact that more than 800,000 people in one of the most “unchurched” states in the country voted no on R-71 suggests that some, at least, did so for reasons other than religion.
Even more important among Slavic immigrants, Polinger says, is that any government intrusion—with regard to religion or even to taxes for state-sponsored social programs—raises the specter of communism and the oppression people suffered under the Soviet Union. “Many people from that part of the world, they are so fed up with anything that has some socialistic views in it,” she says. “That’s just an inheritance that they bring with them.”
Naturally, though, attitudes can change over generations. Some younger immigrants are embracing the broader acceptance of gays and lesbians that prevails in parts of their adopted country. For instance, the Greater Seattle Business Association, which serves as a kind of gay-and-lesbian chamber of commerce, this year gave one of its annual scholarships to Sergey Smirnov, a native Russian who established the LGBTQ resource center at Bellevue College while finishing a two-year degree there. He is now attending the University of Washington. (Smirnov did not respond to several phone and e-mail messages.)
Political activism is a relatively recent development for Slavic churches. This more-public life began for them three years ago when they connected with the Northwest’s most outspoken antigay campaigner.
Ken Hutcherson, who spent three years in the NFL before a knee injury knocked him out in 1977, has made a name for himself as an opponent of any measures that expand the rights and protections of gays and lesbians. In 2004, he organized an event called “Mayday for Marriage” which drew an estimated 20,000 people to Safeco Field to rally against civil unions for gays and lesbians. In 2005, he threatened to lead a boycott against Microsoft if the company didn’t withdraw its support for a bill in Olympia, inspired in part by the attack on Painter, that proposed to add “sexual orientation” to state antidiscrimination laws.
The next year the antidiscrimination bill passed, and Hutcherson began leading an effort to put a referendum on the ballot to overturn it, failing to get the necessary signatures. At the same time, then–County Executive Ron Sims, himself an ordained Baptist minister, publicly opened the doors of the county courthouse to allow gay and lesbian couples to apply for marriage licenses. In doing so, Sims initiated a legal challenge to the state Defense of Marriage Act.
As the two preachers became more diametrically opposed on issues of gay rights, they agreed to a debate. On March 2, 2006, they traded barbs before a raucous audience at Town Hall.
In the audience at Town Hall that night was the nephew of Alexey Ledyaev, a minister who founded a group in Riga, Latvia, called Watchmen on the Walls. The Watchmen stage massive revival-style meetings to combat what they see as the increasing spread of acceptance of gays and lesbians, even by mainstream churches. The nephew introduced himself to Hutcherson after the debate that night and suggested he and Ledyaev meet. Later that year, Hutcherson flew to Riga to meet with Ledyaev, and he says the two began working together, visiting churches and hosting rallies in Eastern Europe and the U.S.
Ledyaev also put Hutcherson in touch with the voice of the Watchmen in the U.S., Vlad Kusakin, also known as Wade Kusak. Kusakin hosts a talk show in Sacramento, publishes and edits The Speaker, a conservative Russian-language newspaper circulated on the West Coast, and runs a blog.
In January 2007, Kusakin and Hutcherson appeared together at Seattle’s Transformation Center Church. Thanks to that appearance and Kusakin’s connections to Russian-speaking churches in the area that follow his blog or read The Speaker, Hutcherson was able to recruit volunteers to gather signatures for Initiative 963, a second attempt to overturn the anti-discrimination law passed the year before.
That effort also failed, but the partnership continued. In October 2007, Hutcherson brought Kusakin and Ledyaev to Lynnwood for a Watchmen on the Walls conference, at which several hundred people showed up to listen to Hutcherson speak, with an assist from a translator. “I stand on the word of God 100 percent,” Hutcherson declared, the cheers slightly delayed as his words were translated into Russian.
“It has been a really, really great relationship and a strong relationship,” Hutcherson says now by phone.
The churches themselves are reticent to talk about their political activism. Bothell’s Church of the Living God runs a Christian radio talk show, and pastor Alexander Podgorny argued in a recent sermon, posted on the church’s Web site, that President George W. Bush’s rightness with God prevented further damage in the 9/11 attacks. They are willing to talk politics among themselves on the site—which is in Russian. But Podgorny and members of his church declined to be interviewed for this story. In fact, most calls to churches and Slavic immigrants who donated money to the Reject R-71 campaign went unreturned.
But despite a general unwillingness to talk to the press, the political networks created to work for Hutcherson’s Initiative 963 remain entrenched, functioning now on their own. Hutcherson wasn’t especially involved in R-71 after announcing in February that he is battling colon cancer.
Stickney says he launched his campaign against Senate Bill 5688, the measure R-71 sought to overturn, totally unaware of the political force Hutcherson had built. That is, until March 19 of this year, the day the Washington Values Alliance and the Oregon-based Faith and Freedom Network held a rally outside the Capitol in Olympia opposing the legislation. Stickney says that when he arrived, he found hundreds of people he hadn’t expected—all speaking Russian. “We didn’t really know them until that point,” he says. “We didn’t have an organized effort to recruit any of them.”
Stickney won’t give the names of the ministers he worked with, but Alexander Kaprian of the Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church in Spokane says he was one of them. Kaprian says he was more than happy to distribute petitions among his members to get R-71 on the ballot. “We knew that all people who want to support the idea of God’s family is supposed to sign the petition,” he says. “As Christians we thought we all had to participate. Nobody pushed us.”
In addition to participating in more publicized events through the Washington Values Alliance, Slavic churches began organizing events on their own. Naumchik hasn’t met Stickney or even Hutcherson, but members of his church, younger ones in particular, e-mailed back and forth to set up rallies throughout the area. One of the biggest was on Oct. 10 in Lynnwood, where an estimated 200 or more Russian speakers showed up outside Fred Meyer to carry signs declaring “Protect Marriage” and “Keep Seattle Straight.”
People on both sides of the R-71 debate say they were harassed by opponents. Josh Friedes, advocacy director for Equal Rights Washington, who managed the Approve R-71 campaign, says his workers and volunteers reported being pushed or shoved by Russian-speaking adversaries. “We had reports of problems in Spokane and Olympia and Tacoma,” he says. “It is a deeply disturbing development, and it seems to be part of a national and international phenomenon that we are seeing.”
Kaprian claims the same: “They were calling dirty names, throwing garbage,” he says. “We were persecuted by the gay community and it was really shocking to me.”
A video from a Nov. 1 anti-R-71 rally in Everett, posted on YouTube by Reject R-71, includes footage of a man with a megaphone yelling “Stop illegal immigration. Send them back to Russia. They are not Americans.”
The person holding the video camera approaches, and the man with the megaphone turns. He flips off the camera. “Go back to your country,” he tells the camera operator, who protests: “I’m a citizen.”
The man puts the megaphone to his lips: “Go back to Russia.”
With the R-71 fight over, the political climate has quieted. Naumchik says Light of Hope is focusing on mission work—from evangelizing to building and maintaining orphanages in former Soviet countries.
Continuing, though less politically dramatic, fights surround the holiday season. Hutcherson has been railing against decisions in Olympia to prohibit any symbols, religious or otherwise, inside the state Capitol buildings during December, while Church of the Living God posted an article on its Web site arguing that refusing to affirm Christmas as a religious holiday was something the Bolsheviks and Nazis did as they began religious oppression and, eventually, reigns of terror.
Stickney says he is working on fund-raising to make it possible for the Washington Values Alliance to hold more rallies in Olympia for any potential legislation on the subjects of gay rights or abortion.
But hovering over everything is the specter (or hopeful possibility, depending on your perspective) of taking domestic-partnership legislation to its conclusion. “Of course, next on the horizon is marriage,” Naumchik says.
The Approve R-71 campaign repeatedly insisted that the legislation had nothing to do with marriage. But at a breakfast celebrating their victory, everyone said the same thing—R-71 was only a step toward that very goal. “We cannot stop working until we achieve full marriage equality for gays and lesbians in this great nation,” State Senator Ed Murray declared.
Hutcherson says he’s ready for that fight, and wants to see gay marriage put up for a popular vote as soon as possible. “So tell the Senator quit being chicken,” he says. “That’s from Dr. Hutcherson to him.”
It likely won’t happen this year, but Hutcherson says that when the issue does come back, he will activate his Russian-speaking army of politically active believers to fight it. “When we need each other, we’ll call.”
Naumchik will be ready to answer that call. He believes that despite their very active and visible presence, Slavic churches could have done more to stop the passage of R-71. “I don’t think we spoke about it enough,” he says. Later he adds that while most people in his congregation opposed the measure, many older immigrants had never become U.S. citizens; of those who had, few had registered to vote. When the marriage fight begins, he says, he and his fellow church members will be working even harder to make it fail.