American dream turns nightmare

Kin, friends, cabbies draw closer after one of their own is slain

Eleven months after he came to Portland for freedom and opportunity, Ukrainian cabbie Grigory Rogozhnikov was shot in the head and left for dead in a remote industrial lot.

A short time after his death, Rogozhnikov's family, friends and fellow parishioners huddle tightly into a small church to sing and pray. It is their regular weekly gathering, but the ceremony carries extra significance after the sudden loss.

Indeed, the violent nature of Rogozhnikov's death has tested the faith of much of Portland's Slavic community, the fastest-growing immigrant group in the city.

But faith is what brought them here, says Vladimir Povlov, pastor at the Church of God Seventh Day in Northeast Portland. Faith and freedom. The murder 'brings us closer together,' Povlov says. 'It makes our faith stronger.'

Besides, Povlov adds, it will take more than one random act of violence to reverse the Christian migration from the former Soviet Union to Portland. 'Many more people are coming,' he says. 'And no one is leaving.'

Rogozhnikov was a Seventh-day Adventist. Like others in his congregation, he believed that driving is forbidden on the Saturday Sabbath. So every Saturday, the taxi driver and his family would walk from their humble apartment on Northeast 103rd Place to their humble church at Northeast 111th Avenue and Sacramento Street.

Hundreds of others do the same each week, all on foot Ñ elderly women wearing head scarves and clean-cut young men with black shoes and leather jackets Ñ walking sidewalks rarely walked, to a cream-tiled building that looks more like a home than a church.

Some walk blocks, others miles.

The Russian-speaking congregation that gathers here each Saturday afternoon has been renting the building for services for five years. Previously, they met at one another's homes to worship.

Now they barely fit into the building. They have purchased property nearby where they hope to build a larger church.

The same thing is happening all over Portland. During the last 10 years, the city has experienced a population explosion of people from the former Soviet Union. The vast majority of the immigrants are Evangelical Christians: Pentecostals, Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists.

In the 2000 census, more than 45,000 people from the Portland-Vancouver area described their ancestry as Eastern European, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Slavic or Ukrainian. The census also found that more than 22,000 people in the metropolitan area speak Russian or Ukrainian at home.

By comparison, just 7,316 people from greater Portland described their heritage as Russian, Lithuanian or Ukrainian in the 1990 census.

'Chain migration' begins

The influx began in 1988, when pastor Ben Shevchenko of the Russian Gospel Church in Woodburn got a call he'd been awaiting for 12 years.

The Soviet government under former President Mikhail Gorbachev had finally approved the departure of one of the families that Shevchenko's church had offered to sponsor. A short time later, Pentecostals in the Soviet Union gained refugee status.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated three years later, refugees flooded to the Portland area.

'Our church was the only Russian Evangelical church in all of Oregon at that time,' Shevchenko recalls. 'So in the beginning, they all came to us. Then as our church became filled, people slowly began to move away and form their own churches. Thousands came. We never dreamed of such an exodus.'

Shevchenko estimates that there now are about 25 Evangelical Russian and Ukrainian churches in the Portland area. The larger congregations have 2,000 members or more.

The churches serve as community service centers as well as places of worship. Church leaders and members help newcomers find health care, housing and work. They set people up with English language courses. They even arrange organized shipments to the former Soviet Union so that people can send goods back to the old country safely.

Irina Sharkova, an assistant professor at Portland State University's Population Research Center, says she is quite certain the influx will continue.

'There's a phrase in demography known as chain migration, where friends and relatives come to join those who migrated earlier,' she says. 'The numbers increase exponentially. That's exactly what's happening in Portland.'

Sharkova says Portland's Slavic community has prospered in part by employing the same communal bartering network that helped people to survive the massive shortages of the Soviet era.

Years of stocking up on hard-to-find items for themselves, neighbors and friends taught people to be team players and not to forget those who have helped them Ñ such as relatives back in Russia and Ukraine who would like to come to America.

In her 11 years in Portland, Sharkova has seen the Slavic community blossom. She now can travel to Southeast Foster Road, where Russian shops and restaurants make up a business center for the community, and buy jars of Viola processed cheese spread, a rare comfort food from Soviet days. And her favorite musician, Boris Grebenshchikov, whom she calls 'the Bob Dylan of Russia,' came to Portland not once but twice last year.

Tightknit community gives support

Grigory Rogozhnikov supported his 28-year-old wife, Svetlana, and their 5-year-old son, Dimitry, by driving a Broadway Cab taxi that he shared with another Ukrainian immigrant.

He had worked for Broadway for eight months at the time of his death. His colleagues at work and his friends at church describe him as humble, generous and hardworking, a devoted family man who took care of others before worrying about himself.

Driving a cab is a common occupation for Portland's recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and has long been a draw for many immigrants in many cities. Driving a cab Ñ that you own Ñ is one of the quickest ways to become your own boss, as an independent contractor.

That kind of economic opportunity and freedom, often taken for granted in America, is magical to someone who grew up under an oppressive regime that collapsed amid a wave of corruption.

Richard Morris, a retired University of Oregon professor of cultural anthropology, explains: 'When the Soviet Union disintegrated, a few people at the top stole all the money and left everyone else pretty much impoverished. Fifty percent of the population back there is under the poverty level, by their standards. Believe me, most people would love to get out of there and become American citizens.'

Raye Miles, general manager for Broadway Cab, says immigrants from the former Soviet Union make up more than 20 percent of the company's drivers. She attributes their success to a hunger for opportunity and their ability to work cooperatively.

'They have people who are willing to take them under their wings and show them the ropes. É They are an incredibly strongly knit community. That was apparent at Grigory's funeral. It's admirable, enviable even.'

Suspect could face death

Early in the morning on Sunday, Feb. 16, Rogozhnikov was brutally killed.

Police have since arrested a 62-year-old man who had been booked earlier that night on drunken driving charges, then released from custody.

The suspect, Stephen Barr, is facing charges of aggravated murder with a firearm, felony murder with a firearm, murder with a firearm, first-degree robbery with a firearm, being a felon in possession of a firearm and three counts of unauthorized use of a vehicle with a firearm.

If convicted, Barr could face execution.

Back at Rogozhnikov's church, Pastor Povlov's sermon carries on for more than three hours, but not one seat is empty. His Russian phrases drift out of the church and into the working-class neighborhood around it.

In the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, the belief is that one day Jesus will return to resurrect the righteous. Death thus becomes a form of unconsciousness that is not considered permanent.

Toward the end of the ceremony, Povlov calls on those gathered to stand up and speak if they wish. Rogozhnikov's brother, Vladimir, rises to ask for prayers for Grigory Ñ for his wife and son in Portland and his parents and sisters in Ukraine.

The moment of silence that follows lingers for a long time. And then the voices of the choir return.

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..