Russian Vote Scares Many
by Stephen Schwartz
Many Bay Area ethnic Ukrainians, Russian Jews and others with links to the former Soviet Union are expressing alarm over the victory in Russian parliamentary elections of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, widely feared as imperialist and fascist.
Throughout the Bay Area this weekend, Ukrainians, Poles, Baltic ethnics and Jews attended religious services and offered special prayers for the preservation of peace in Russia.
Zhirinovsky's party scored a shocking success in parliamentary elections on the strength of campaign speeches that he laced with threats to violently suppress Russia's ethnic minorities and make war on newly independent nations such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan. He also called for restoration of Russia's control over Poland and Finland.
"I am frightened for my family in Ukraine," said Olena Bankston, a computer programmer from Novato who joined other Ukrainian Americans from around the Bay Area at Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church on Silliman Street in San Francisco yesterday. "With the tasks of nation-building facing the Ukrainian people, they don't need the extra worries produced by Zhirinovsky's rhetoric," she said.
"Russia has always pressured Ukraine, and now Zhirinovsky threatens to close borders, to seize our territory and to imprison our leaders," said Myron, an elderly Ukrainian American from El Cerrito who did not want his last name used.
At St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, where Polish, Lithuanian and other East European Catholics often come to worship, lay staff member John Sinishta said: "At every Mass this weekend, we offered a petition of prayer to Our Lady of Kazan, patroness of Russia, for peace and avoidance of extremism in the former Soviet Union.
"We are praying for divine intercession so that the Russian leaders will act responsibly and the tragedy in Yugoslavia is not repeated," Sinishta said.
Russian emigres worry that if Zhirinovsky has his way, Russia could become embroiled in bloody conflicts between Orthodox Russians and Muslim, Jewish and Catholic minorities -- much as Yugoslavia erupted in ethnic wars involving Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians.
However, some members of San Francisco's Russian community quietly approve of Zhirinovsky's bombastic promises to "restore Russian glory."
"Many of the newspapers and books (that) people are reading in the Russian language bookstores say the same things as Zhirinovsky, and some of us agree with them," said a recent Russian immigrant, who asked that his name not be used. "We are discussing the same issue here as there: whether Russia will again be powerful."
Some experts feel that Zhirinovsky is not the main concern.
"The problem as I see it isn't so much the growth of such an extreme as the Zhirinovsky party (but is rather) the failure to establish a workable political center," said Robert Conquest, a Hoover Institution senior research fellow who is widely admired by Ukrainians for his scholarship on Soviet repression of their nation. "Russia needs a kind of conservative democratic party, but the attempts to create one have failed."
Although Vice President Al Gore has taken the initiative in strongly condemning Zhirinovsky's views, some Bay Area residents of East European origin have begun organizing efforts to keep pressure on the Clinton administration and other world leaders not to underestimate the Zhirinovsky threat.
"We cannot minimize the danger of Zhirinovsky," said Heino Jogis of Palo Alto, regional director of the Estonian American National Council.
"The borders of Russia and the Baltic states are only lightly guarded," Jogis said. "Estonia has been a major target of vilifying propaganda from Zhirinovsky and others who want to set Russian-speaking residents of the Baltic States against the new independent governments."