REDMOND — A group of Russian-immigrant seniors are sitting in a Chinese restaurant, reminiscing about the Seattle building that reminded them of home.
For these octo- and nonagenarians, the former Russian consulate was a lifeline between their native land and their adopted country. They went there to celebrate Russian and American holidays. They could call and ask questions if they heard any worrying rumors about changes in Russia. They receive a monthly pension from the Russian government, which requires paperwork that used to be notarized at the consulate.
They speak eagerly in Russian about the comfort the consulate provided. But the seniors only need one word to describe what the 16 months have been like since the Russian consulate was closed amid political tension between the two countries:
“It’s like the Cold War,” says Tatiana Tseyger, who grew up in Moscow, while Igor Nozdrin translated. “I lived through those times. I remember it.”
Since Russia’s diplomatic outpost closed, the Seattle area’s Russian community — among the largest in the U.S. — has adapted. They’ve flown across the country to complete paperwork, attended outreach events occasionally held in the area by the Russian embassy, and organized celebrations previously put on by consulate officials.
But beyond the logistical issues is a continued sense of loss. A home base that existed for more than two decades is gone, some say, during a time when worsening relations might be diminished, at least on a small scale, by local representation.
“This symbolized a deterioration of relationships,” said Sergey Gladysh, executive director of the Russian-American Cooperative Initiative, a nonprofit based in Seattle. “We feel like we are left on our own.”
No West Coast outpost
There are nearly 16,000 Russian-born people who live in the Puget Sound region, according to census data. Across Washington state, the number grows to about 26,000, one of the largest populations in the U.S. Russian is the second most common language spoken, after Spanish, among English-language learners in Washington’s public schools.
The Seattle consulate office — which opened with jubilation in 1992, in part because it was the first one formed exclusively by the Russian Republic after the split of the Soviet Union — was on the 25th floor of a downtown building. The consular residence was in the Samuel Hyde House, a mansion at 3726 E. Madison St., that housed diplomats and hosted events.
The Trump administration ordered the Russian outpost to close last year in response to Russia’s alleged involvement in the poisoning of a former spy in Britain. Its proximity to Boeing facilities and the Navy submarine base at Bangor was one reason cited for the closure. Officials also stressed concerns about ongoing espionage; a couple who lived in Seattle with their toddler son was arrested in 2010 following an investigation that found they were deep-cover Russian spies.
Russia retaliated by closing the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. Russia and the U.S. expelled diplomats in the two countries.
With the closure of the San Francisco consulate one year before Seattle’s, there is no outpost on the West Coast. The closest Russian consulate is in Houston, but all the states served by the Seattle consulate, including those with sizable Russian populations like Alaska and California, were moved to the Washington, D.C., office’s jurisdiction.
Most of the people who worked at the Seattle consulate returned to Russia, the Russian Embassy press office said in an emailed statement. A small group moved to the Washington, D.C. consulate, where they continue to work.
Community members share cautionary tales about the challenges caused by the change. A visit to an ailing grandmother in St. Petersburg halted because the grandson couldn’t take off any more days of work to fly to Washington, D.C., for a renewed passport. Visa forms lost in the mail. Documents which could have been notarized at the nearby consulate for $50 that now require a Russian-speaking lawyer who charges $250.
Had Mikhail Savvateev realized before April of last year that his Russian passport was going to expire, all he would have needed to do was stop by the downtown Seattle building. Instead, Savvateev, who is vice president of the Russian-American Cooperative Initiative, had to fly to Washington, D.C. — and spend hundreds of dollars — to complete what before would have required just a short bus ride.
“It’s a hassle,” said Savvateev, who was born in Moscow and grew up on Mercer Island. “It’s easier to be able to go down the street. If something doesn’t work out, it’s a huge issue.”
‘The consulate was a comfort’
The Samuel Hyde House, the now-vacant mansion that housed Russian diplomats, was for many a community centerpiece. It was there that youth could learn more about the homeland of their parents and where veterans who fought on the Eastern Front or survived the siege of Leningrad would be recognized for their service.
“The consulate was a comfort,” said Igor Nozdrin, who works closely with about 50 seniors who receive pension benefits.
Older residents who have trouble with a computer or smartphone used the consulate as an information service, and in its absence, learning about a new event or change is next to impossible for them, said Yelena Mushkatina, geriatric-care manager for Jewish Family Services. She’s seen an increase in anxiety reported among the group.
With the consulate’s closure, “there’s a lack of emotional care as well,” she said.
Tsilya Murshteyn, a World War II concentration camp survivor who moved to Washington state from Belarus 22 years ago, said the group feels “sad and lost.”
Gladysh said he asked the Russian Embassy if his organization could use the building, but an official told him that the State Department prevented anyone from using it. Russia, however, maintains that it owns the property and never consented to “intrusion” by U.S. government officials.
For Tim Yanovskiy, who is a U.S. citizen, the effects of the tension are seen in low morale among members of the Russian and Russian-American community who don’t feel like they are represented.
“The higher-ups in the political world decide things and the majority of the population is just left to the deal with the consequences,” said Yanovskiy, a board chairman of the nonprofit Magistrate of International Russian American Heritage (MIRAH) Foundation. “There’s nothing we can do about that.”
The State Department called on Russia to cease its “destabilizing activities around the world,” and said it had seen no change in the country’s behavior.
“It is up to Russia, not the United States, to take the next step,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We’ve been disappointed at the Russian government’s unwillingness so far to accept responsibility for its actions and acknowledge that it has only itself to blame for its continued, increasing isolation from the West.”
Community members say they’ve held out hope that the consulate will reopen. The State Department said it won’t speculate on that possibility.
“We will continue to impose costs on Russia until it ceases its reckless behavior,” the department said.