Thesis turns into book about forgotten Russian neighbors

November 20, 1994
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Susan Hardwick was determined, after many a false start, to get her Ph.D. by the time she was 40.

She was about a year late.

``I was a re-entry student with three kids when I joined the geography Ph.D. program in 1977,'' she said. ``I dropped out after two years.'' She came back in l982 and finally, finally got her doctorate in 1986 when she was 41.

``I was the first woman at UC Davis to get Ph.D. from the geography department,'' she said. ``It was a real war but I won.''

She credits Professor Dennis Dingemans for helping her along the way and for directing her thesis, which turned out to be an unqualified success and helped her get a job at Cal State Chico also in 1986. Hardwick is now a full professor at Chico and she has published a book.

``This book really made it happen,'' said Hardwick, referring to ``Russian Refuge: Religion, Migration and Settlement on the North American Pacific Rim'' (University of Chicago) which is an expanded, updated version of her thesis.

``Russian Refuge'' is an academic book, released this year, worth reading because it teaches us much about our neighbors in West Sacramento. Hardwick says West Sacramento has figured prominently in the settlement of Russian immigrants ever since the land around West Sacramento was drained and made available for agriculture in 1912-13. Ads, in Russian, were placed in San Francisco newspapers urging immigrants to move to the valley.

While Jewish Russians tend to go to urban areas like the Bay Ares and Los Angeles, Christian Russians have tended to settle in more rural areas.

In the past six or so years,since 1988 when Gorbachev allowed victims of religious persecution to leave, Baptist and Pentecostal Russians have been moving primarily to places like West Sacramento.

Hardwick says more than 12,000 Russians live in West Sacramento; many have come sincel988and most are still there. They attend either the Russian

Orthodox Church or the Russian Baptist Church, which are located across the street from each other in what used to be the town of Bryte.

Hardwick describes herself as a cultural geographer, a geographer who studies the relationships of people to places.

She has befriended and studied Russian immigrant families for 15 years. She made two trips to the former Soviet Union and met some of the families she wrote about both in Russia before their move and later in West Sacramento.

``Russians are very hard to interview,'' she says. ``They don't know the language and they are frightened. It took me 15 years to gain their trust.''

How are the immigrants adjusting?

``They're not settling in very well at all,'' said Hardwick. ``I'm concerned. There's a real gender difference with women doing well. The men are on welfare while the women have gone to city college,'' she added.

Hardwick would like her next research project to investigate these gender differences.

``The men feel really let down when they arrive here,'' she said. ``They expect everything to be perfect...and yet they never bothered to learn English because they never thought they'd get out. And of course, they're used to having the state take care of them.''

Hardwick said things start to get better in the fourth or fifth year of an immigrant's new life, but by that time family dynamics have usually changed because the wives and children have learned English.

``The men are less powerful than before,'' she said.

I asked how people in Davis could support this community. I asked, for instance, if there was a Russian restaurant in West Sacramento.

``No,'' she said, ``they are not entrepreneurial people.''

But she agreed that people in Davis should know their neighbors and said any of the local Russian churches would welcome visitors to services.

``I love the Russians,'' she said. ``They are so reserved.''

Hardwick also said she was deeply saddened about the changes in the way geography is viewed at UC Davis. While geography will continue to be taught at UCD, it will likely not have department status very much longer, a move that clearly marginalizes the study.

``Geography has never been more important in the nations's schools,'' she said. ``The globe is shrinking.''

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