Russians drawn to Peaceful Valley enclave

KENDALL, Whatcom County — The hamlet of Peaceful Valley, nestled in the misty foothills of the North Cascades, boasts a higher concentration of people with Russian ancestry than anywhere else in the country, according to the 2000 census.

"I feel comfortable here," said Nadia Lagutochkin, a Russian immigrant who teaches English as a second language at the elementary school, where posters in the hallways spell out common Russian phrases: "ZDRAH-stvooee" for "hello."

She's one of many Russian immigrants who settled in this former logging community during the 1990s, drawn by cheap housing and strong churches. Nearly a quarter of Peaceful Valley's 2,579 residents reported Russian ancestry in the 2000 census.

Like Lagutochkin, many are fundamentalist Christians who fled the stifling influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in their native land. Their status as refugees allowed them to bypass U.S. immigration quotas.

Kendall Elementary School, its pine trim blending into the green hillsides, serves as the community's gathering place. Principal Stephen Merz said about 35 percent of the 600 students speak Russian. An all-Russian Pentecostal Church rents the school's auditorium for Sunday services, which draw about 400 people.

School-bus driver Alex Tikhonov lived in Massachusetts when he first emigrated from Russia but moved to the Peaceful Valley area seven years ago for the church and the closely knit, rural atmosphere.

"I could see that it's hard to grow good kids in big areas like Seattle," said Tikhonov, father of six children ages 6 to 17. Here, 2-½ hours north of Seattle, he can count on his neighbors to let him know if his children get into mischief.

He was also able to afford land and a double-wide mobile home, accomplishing his goal of becoming a homeowner.

The median home value in Peaceful Valley in 2000 was $107,800, below the median for Whatcom County and the state. More than half of the homes in Peaceful Valley, 57 percent, are mobile homes.

"I gotta tell you, I like everything," Tikhonov said. Of course, he said, so many Russian families moving into a rural area did cause tension with the locals: "Little problems, not big problems."

But his fellow bus drivers, who nicknamed him "Axle" because he also worked as a mechanic, make him feel welcome.

"The employees, they just treat me as one family. I feel free," Tikhonov said.

Vacationers from Canada, about 10 miles north, founded the unincorporated Peaceful Valley community as a spot for summer homes. Historically, logging provided jobs for year-round residents. With the downturn in the timber industry in the past 20 years, Peaceful Valley might have faded away if not for the infusion of young Russian families.

The Russians, like the native-born populations, mostly work in Bellingham, a 35-minute drive away, and shop in Bellingham or at the popular Costco just across the Canadian border.

Linda Nathan, who moved to the area three years ago, routinely hears Russian spoken as she walks through her neighborhood or shops. "My husband and I checked out a tape on learning Russian, but we didn't get too far," said Nathan, who's intrigued by her international neighbors.

This isn't the only Peaceful Valley in Washington with a lot of Russians. A Spokane neighborhood by the same name also has a distinctly Slavic accent. More than 5,000 Spokane County residents claimed Russian ancestry in the 2000 census.

"A lot of people want to move here," said Nick Grishko, co-owner of the Kiev Bakery in Spokane. "Everybody is looking for change, looking for something better."