When every vote is a question of trust

Everett deli owner Galina Braynina developed a deep suspicion of government and politics growing up in the former Soviet Union.

“I have disliked communists since I was a child and there are many reasons why. The corruption and injustice that was going on seemed ridiculous,” Braynina said. “Watching (Soviet leader Leonid) Brezhnev on the evening news putting yet another medal on his chest was annoying. I’ve had it up to here with that theater.”

Braynina, 56, who emigrated from Ukraine in 1989, says that politics still gives her a headache.

“Politics in any country is filthy but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in democracy. I really do — this country opened up a future for my daughter,” she said in Russian.

Still, work and family always keep her so busy that she has never been fully engaged as a citizen. She plans to vote in Tuesday’s presidential primary but her choices are largely influenced by her family and friends.

During the last years of the Soviet Union and shortly after its breakup, families from Russia and Ukraine emigrated in great numbers to America. Thousands have settled in Snohomish County. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. census bureau, 15,000 people in Snohomish County reported Russian or Ukrainian ancestry in 2006.

In this election season, many of the Russian-speaking community still harbor a distrust of politics rooted in past experience.

“A lot of migrants from communist countries have an allergy to getting involved in politics, and people tend to be very isolated,” said Kathie Friedman, associate professor at the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies.

Friedman said people who were forced emigrants, such as refugees and those seeking asylum, often have political suspicions and remain unaffiliated. “They are not activists. They are the ones who fled; the activists stayed,” she said.

Of course, Friedman said, this isn’t the only reason. “Immigrants usually don’t have very much time to learn English before they are forced into the work force. Their attention is focused on making ends meet, not on politics.”

Friedman said immigrants often have to work two or three jobs and may have trouble adapting to their new life. “It all takes time: The more people become assimilated, the more they get involved. So it’s often children of immigrants who become active citizens.”

One such person is 27-year-old Lynnwood resident Julia Gendelberg, who moved to the United States with her parents in 1992.

Gendelberg said she thinks her vote could make a difference. “I always vote, it’s nice to be able to participate. Although I was very young when I left Moscow, I was still old enough to understand that common people weren’t really allowed to participate. We watched from the sidelines,” she said.

Gendelberg said she remembers her parents and grandparents going to vote … or rather cast a symbolic ballot with only one name on it.

“My parents developed a distrust for politics. It’s just that I came here so young, I don’t have the same reaction. Our past always weighs on us, but I’ve lived more of my life in America and my past is here,” she said.

Gendelberg said she is very aware that her future is also here and a lot is at stake in the next presidential election. “Like many other citizens, I have my suspicions about the last two elections and I’m cynical toward government. The big picture often gets lost in the agendas of the powerful.”

Gendelberg, for whom a strong economy is the most important issue, is a Democrat who supports presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama. “I think he will be able to pull this country out of recession,” she said.

Another member of the local Russian-speaking community, 28-year-old Everett resident Svetlana Ozik, stands on the other end of political spectrum. Ozik is originally from Ukraine and moved to America 18 years ago.

Ozik said she votes Republican and will support a candidate who is able to take a stand against abortion and build a strong economy.

“These are the big issues for me, but the candidate’s personal integrity is what’s most important. Presidency calls for someone to put his or her life down a little bit and take care of this country. Someone who wants to take this country to a new level morally and financially,” she said.

Immigrants from many other countries have settled not only in Snohomish County but throughout the state.

In fact, Washington has the 10th largest foreign-born population in the nation, said Pramila Jayapal, founder and executive director of Hate Free Zone, a statewide immigrant-rights organization.

The nonprofit organization, whose activities are geared around civic engagement in the immigrant community, has registered 21,000 immigrants to vote in the past 18 months. Russian speakers make up a large chunk of that, Jayapal said.

“There is an increasing understanding that the immigrant vote will play an important role in the next election,” Jayapal said. “We try to make sure our elected officials realize that this is a community that has a voice.”

Local officials and party leaders haven’t reached out to Russian and other immigrant communities, Jayapal said.

Mark Hintz, chairman of the Snohomish County Democrats, said the party is run by volunteers and reaching out to people can be a challenge. “We try to encourage all people to participate, but it can be hard to identify what needs to be done if people don’t come forward. It’s a matter of finding ways to talk to people.”

Communication is key for Snohomish County Republicans as well, said Geri Modrell, county party chairwoman. “These groups clearly have a large presence in Snohomish County. We want to communicate with them and it would be nice to have someone on our board to represent them.”

Modrell said it’s important to get every Republican vote out there and Ozik, who is a small-business owner, will surely give hers.

Other members of the Russian-speaking community of Everett — many of whom are deeply religious — would probably vote Republican too if they had more access to voter information in Russian.

Modrell said making information available in other languages is an interesting idea and “a matter of having enough people to help out.

“I would love everyone to join us in the challenge,” Modrell said, but added that her personal opinion is “How do you keep up with news about people running for president if you don’t speak enough English? English is the language of our land. That’s what brought us together.”

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