Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story about how a group of Russian religious dissidents became Kenai Peninsula residents and U.S. citizens. Last week, part one described the around-the-world trek these dissidents embarked upon in order to find religious freedom and escape persecution. This week, part two reveals how Kenai Peninsula Community College and a retired brigadier general helped the Russians become naturalized citizens in 1975.
By Clark Fair
The list contained the names of 59 adults. The members of four extended families — the Reutovs, the Martushevs, the Kuzmins and the Basargins — accounted for more than 40 of the names, all from the village of Nikolaevsk, and all of them about to become citizens of the United States.
The date was June 19, 1975, and a special U.S. District Court session in the gymnasium of Chapman School in Anchor Point had become a naturalization ceremony for this band of former Russian dissidents, the oldest of whom had embarked more than 50 years earlier on a round-the-world trek of more than 20,000 miles across three continents.
Seeking religious freedom and escape from the influences of communism, the Russians had fled their original home near Vladivostok to the Manchuria region of China, then to Hong Kong, to Brazil and to Oregon before settling on the Kenai Peninsula in early 1968. For $14,000, they purchased a square mile of state land east of Anchor Point and carved out a home there, and by the time of the naturalization ceremony their village boasted a population of nearly 300 residents.
In the gym that day, the 59 Old Believers and most of the rest of the village residents wore their finest and brightest garments, their “Easter clothes,” according to a Betzi Woodman story in the Anchorage Daily Times. The style of dress was largely reminiscent of life in Russia 300 years earlier, when their ancestors had broken with the Russian Orthodox Church because they opposed Patriarch Nikon’s changes to their ways of worship. These dissidents became known as the Staroviertsi, or “Old Believers,” and thus began a life of secret worship, persecution and a fervent hope of freedom.
They realized that hope in the Anchor Point gym, but they required the assistance first of a retired military man, some dedicated advisers and Kenai Peninsula Community College.
Retired Brigadier General Benjamin B. Talley, a North Fork Road neighbor to the Russians who became their closest friend and most trusted counselor, began helping the residents of the fledgling Nikolaevsk from the moment they began making their home in the wilderness.
At the naturalization ceremony, Talley narrated the story of the Russians’ struggles to
build their new home, and after the ceremony, at a celebration back in the village, Nikolaevsk residents raised a toast of braga and singled out Talley for special recognition.
Then in 1974, Ilarion Polushkin, the mayor of Nikolaevsk, wrote to Clayton Brockel, the director of the college, and requested assistance in obtaining adult education classes in the village, with the goal of teaching willing villagers the requirements of citizenship via the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Since the college had dedicated itself since its inception to providing adult education wherever it was needed on the Kenai Peninsula, Polushkin’s letter led to classes, which began in January 1975, met two evenings each week, and culminated in April. Classes were taught by Bob Moore, who later became the principal of the Nikolaevsk school, and by Joy Strunk (now McMahill).
According to The Kenai Peninsula College History, by Lance Petersen, the educational efforts were also assisted by Joe Lowrie, district director of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in Anchorage. Lowrie, who facilitated the whole project through the college, made sure that Moore and Strunk had sound advice, plus access to textbooks and films in both English and Russian versions.
At first, about 40 Old Believers, including 10 women, were enrolled in the classes, but at times there were as many as 60 present. Although only a few of them spoke any English in the beginning, most of them could by the time of the ceremony, according to the Times story.
After all the decades of running, the years of building a new home and the months of
preparation for citizenship, the Honorable James A. von der Heydt presided over the June 19 ceremony, which included messages of welcome and congratulations from Alaska Congressman Don Young, senators Mike Gravel and Ted Stevens, and President Gerald Ford.
Ford’s message began, “There are certain unforgettable moments in everyone’s life — moments that we treasure as long as we live. I hope that for you this is one of them. It is my pleasure to welcome you most warmly to citizenship in the United States of America.”
Later he added, “The American experiment goes on. You are now a vital part of it.”
Stevens likened the Russians’ struggles to those of early American colonists: “You, like the pilgrims of 1620, have traveled far in your search for religious freedom. I am hopeful that you have at last come to the end of your journey and am confident you will flourish here in Alaska.”
In addition to Talley’s narrative, those assembled heard from Mrs. Milo Fritz, who presented welcome cards and the flag code from the Daughters of the American Revolution, and from representatives of the Homer Elks Lodge who presented each new citizen with an American flag.
James Demetri Sourant of the Anchorage Bar Association, whose parents had been born and educated in Russia, told the Nikolaevsk residents that they shared a common bond since his parents had also immigrated to the United States. He then gave the official welcoming address to the Old Believers in both Russian and English.
Further, Sourant reminded the Old Believers of the moral obligation to be responsible citizens and charged them to be informed and intelligent voters, according to the Times story. He said their self-reliance was necessary “as a personal example to keep the spirit of America alive.”
And Kiril Martushev, according to an article in the Cheechako News, “responded in halting but expressive English” to Sourant’s address: “It is a long time that we have been looking for a place like this in the world where we can live our own life and be free in our belief in God. We have found such a place in the United States and especially in the state of Alaska.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, a group of Old Believers sang three old Russian songs, and then a group of about 15 school children led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Then guests were invited back to the village for a feast to celebrate the accomplishments of citizenship, and the toasting and storytelling stretched well into the night.