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Q&A: Ukraine Crisis Hits Home for Diaspora Community in California

Ed. Note: Ruslan Gurzhiy is the founder of Slavic Sacramento, an online daily news site primarily serving the more than 50,000 Russian-speaking residents in Sacramento. A native of Belarus, Gurzhiy launched the publication in 2014 to provide news and information to a community siloed by language and culture. He says rising tensions with Moscow over Ukraine have led to deep divisions within the community, which is nearly equally divided between Russians and Ukrainians. He spoke with EMS Contributing Editor Peter Schurmann. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Can you tell us a little about your media outlet? 

I founded Slavic Sacramento in 2014, not long after I came back from a visit to Ukraine, with the goal of providing local news to the Russian and Ukrainian speaking community in Sacramento and across the West Coast.

What inspired you to launch Slavic Sacramento? 

We have a large diaspora community here in Sacramento, and these people need news in their own language, about themselves. The local media here, by and large, does not understand the community, they don’t even come close. Our community is hidden. We work, we go to church, and we don’t often involve ourselves in politics unless there is an issue the community feels strongly about. Many in our community come from former Soviet countries – there were 14 republics that made up the former Soviet Union – where trust in government and the media doesn’t exist. That same mistrust is carried over to here, and so the only people they trust are those in their inner circles; friends, family, church pastors. So, I started this media to provide the community with information they can trust, information not from Moscow or Kiev , but from local sources, so people can understand what is going on around them.

Trust in the media is a rare commodity these days. How do you build that trust with your audience? 

This is really hard. I remember when COVID started, a lot of people did not believe it. The government lies, they said, the hospitals lie. And meanwhile, there was a lot of misinformation coming from news broadcasts out of Moscow. Then we ended up with one of the biggest outbreaks in the country, in a Slavic church here in Sacramento. The head pastor was hospitalized for 30 days. Several pastors died… dozens were infected. Thanks to local and state government efforts to help us translate information about the pandemic, people are beginning to be more informed. But in general, you try to be as precise as possible, and you show them facts in real time.

The home page of Slavic Sacramento.

What has been the reaction to rising tensions between the US, European Union, and Russia over the military standoff in Ukraine? 

There are approximately 50,000 Russian speakers in Sacramento . About half are from Russia, another half are from Ukraine, and there is a small portion from other former Soviet countries. The Ukrainians here are very worried. They send aid… I know several people who went to Ukraine to fight for the country. They are pro-Ukrainian and pro-NATO. The other half, which is Russian, are more sympathetic to the view from Moscow. They understand the need for Russia to defend against NATO expansion. They see Russia trying to get back on its feet after the turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Western countries trying to push the country back down. This is how many Russians think. And that divide is spilling over into the community. I’ve heard of families breaking up over this, and the Sacramento County Sheriff recently mentioned something about fights breaking out in the community. And this goes back years, even to 2015, when a Belarusian in Palo Alto was allegedly killed for having pro-Putin sentiments.

Is there something media here is missing in its coverage of the escalating crisis?  

With respect to Ukraine, US coverage has been almost totally silent about the corruption in that country. People have accused me of being unpatriotic when I say this, but I tell them I am half Ukrainian. The corruption in Ukraine is even worse than what you will find in Moscow. Weapons sent to the country can just as likely end up being sold to Russia, which will turn and use them in a future invasion. Putin takes advantage of that corruption to strengthen his position. When it comes to corruption, Ukraine is its own worst enemy, and many Americans don’t seem to understand this.

Can you say a little about the flag behind you? What does it represent? 

I am a refugee from Belarus. Before the Soviet Union was founded, this was our official flag for about a year or two. The Soviet Union occupied my country at the same time it occupied Ukraine. What we are seeing today, with the military buildup in Ukraine, are like the aftershocks of that initial quake.

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