In The Limelight

Yuri Rashkin

A Multifaceted Community Man's Extraordinary Story
and His Thoughts on Russia and Ukraine

 Interview by Teresa Nguyen

March, 2022

"My parents were my role models. To see them get up and leave their country to make a better future for their kids was inspiring...I try to be like them. I always want to help others." ~ Yuri Rashkin
Lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater 
Lecturer at University of Wisconsin - Rock County
Rock County Board Supervisor
Producer/Host – Rashkin Report YouTube Channel
Wisconsin Supreme Court Certified Russian Court Interpreter
Professional Musician/Composer
Community Volunteer and Activist
Previous Work Experience

Former Lecturer - University of Wisconsin-Parkside · Full-time
Former Instructor – University of Wiconsin Colleges
Former Producer/Host - Rashkin Report on 91.7 The Edge, WSUW-FM
Former Music Director for Contemporary Worship - Luther Memorial Church, Delavan
Led the launch of Community Radio WADR
Former Councilman (2008 – 2012) - City of Janesville
Former Owner/President - UBMC / Service First Mortgage
The Early Years

I was born in Moscow, Russia, what was then the USSR. That country doesn’t even exist anymore. I’m the oldest of two. My brother, Misha, is nine years younger. We were fortunate enough to be raised in one of the most privileged neighborhoods in Moscow. When people talk about Muscovites who are living on the hog and don’t know how life is in the rest of Russia, they refer specifically to our old neighborhood!

My mom’s side of the family came to Soviet Russia around 1917 from Ukraine, around the time of the Soviet Revolution. Before that, Jews were not allowed to live in big cities. So, after the revolution, they finally could do that, and many moved to Moscow or left Russia for America.

My dad’s side of the family came from Sevastopol in Crimea, on the Black Sea. They arrived in Moscow around WWII. Moscow was a big city, which attracted people who wanted to make something of themselves. My grandfather had a limp from tuberculosis at the time and, because of that, survived the war. He couldn’t serve in the military.
 
Yuri's mother's family - Ever independent, she colored the photo to make her dress pink.
My parents were active in theater and the arts and met each other at theater college. They were very creative people. My dad, Dmitry, was a professional puppeteer and graduated with a Director of Puppet Theater degree. Every major city in the Soviet Union had puppet theaters. He worked in a performing group with three others and traveled around producing puppet shows. 

There was one booking agency in the city and every show had to be approved. Things were heavily censored, where every production in the arts had to be reviewed and have the “right values” before it could be shown in public. When entertainers from Russia would travel to the west, they’d say, “Wait, you don’t have a censorship committee? You just have people show up?” It was a big change for them.

My mother, Alla, was a pianist and graduated from Moscow Conservatory. However, because she was Jewish, she was not allowed to major in Piano, because there was a discriminatory quota on how many Jews could do so. Instead, she majored in Music Theory, which was allowed. She had always had a passion for musical theater. She found work as a rehearsal pianist for some top tier musical theater actors in Russia.
Yuri as a baby with his father, Dmitry
 
Ironically, my mother was not a very religious Jew. Over there, you’re considered Jewish by your genes. It has nothing to do with religion. It’s funny, because when I returned to Moscow to visit in 2019, I discovered that about five blocks from my old house, right in my neighborhood, was the Moscow Synagogue! I had no idea it was there while growing up. 

Immigrating to the U.S

In her mid-forties, my mother walked away from everything to take her family to the United States. I was around 12 or 13 years old and my brother was only four. He doesn’t speak Russian because of that. I had taken English since 2nd grade, but was a solid C student, because I didn’t think I needed English for anything! It struck me as irrelevant. But the closer we got to leaving, I started paying more attention. I was only in middle school when we left but, somehow, I’ve been able to maintain my Russian language skills, and I am fluent in both Russian and English.

There was no guarantee of income whatsoever, but my mother took the risk to leave. She was driven by the opportunity to get out of the Soviet Union. 
Little Yuri (left) in Russia
Jews in the USSR were finally allowed “reunification” with family and were allowed to leave, which meant Soviet Jews could go to Israel. Many families, like my own, would leave, but then decide to go elsewhere. 

At the time, the Soviet Union didn’t have relations with Israel, so they didn’t crack down on families in this process. Later, it became much harder to do this kind of ‘turn around’. My parents didn’t want to live in Israel, because they didn’t want to live in a combat zone and wanted the best opportunities for their children. That was, and still is, in America. Canada, the U.S. and some other western countries were accepting a quota of Soviet Jews, so we made it to the States.
This was all before the internet so, when we left, it was like we left forever. We had no way to freely communicate with family there. My mother spent hundreds of dollars on long-distance phone calls to family and friends back in Russia.

My mom’s brother had immigrated to America in 1979. He was in Salt Lake City, Utah, for work reasons and set us up with a family invite. We settled in Salt Lake.

When we arrived in Salt Lake, my mom was hired by the University of Utah as an accompanist to their ballet department. She worked there until she passed away in 2002. My dad had the typical immigrant experience and worked washing cars for auction.
Yuri (left) and his family in the mountains of Utah
After that, he was a pizza delivery driver and kept odd jobs. He did puppeteering on the side for extra income, but work for him wasn’t the same as it was in Russia.

My father, Dmitry Rashkin, passed away in 2013, nine years after being diagnosed with cancer.
Yuri visiting his mother's grave
Education and First Job

In high school, I became involved in theater, which really helped my language skills. Everything is written out, so there were no mistakes! In theater I was able to make friends and I was very involved in music. 

Once I left Russia, I was considered very musical, but in Russia, because of the competition in school there, I wasn’t considered as talented. The Mormon culture of Utah is very centered around music, as well. I hung out in the band room and with the music kids and my musical skills were appreciated.

In my senior year of high school, I wrote a ballet. It was performed to a sellout crowd at the University of Utah. Really, because of that, my post-high school aspirations were to write music.
 
I went on to major in Composition at the University of Utah. Because my mother was working there, I received half off tuition, which was great. And I was glad to not have to take any more English courses, as my English still was terrible! All my jobs, while in college, were with people, in service and such. 

After graduation, the only job I could get with my music major was in teaching, and I didn’t want to teach. My dream to go to California and compose for movies didn’t pan out, in part because I didn’t dare to leave my family. I also had a girlfriend then, so I remained in Salt Lake City.

I was told I was good in sales, so applied for a variety of jobs and found one with a mortgage company.
Yuri as a teen in Utah
I learned everything about mortgages, refinancing, purchases, all that kind of stuff. After nine months, they wanted to make me a manager. I sat down and did the numbers and just started my own shop, originating mortgages and helping people refinance. I did that for about eight or nine years.

Coming to Janesville

My mom had passed away and my dad was about to move. My ex-wife’s family was all in Wisconsin and we’d been coming here for years, in summer and at Christmas, and we always loved it here. So, we moved to Janesville in 2004.

Being a mortgage broker, as long as I had a fax machine, internet and phone, I could do business from anywhere. When I got to Janesville, I realized that people in a smaller town in Wisconsin are not going to comb through the yellow pages to find a mortgage broker. They’ll ask around for people they know. Well, I figured the quickest way to get to know people was to get involved.
 
In a United Arts Alliance Meeting
Community Involvement

As soon as I moved here, I got involved in the community and joined Toastmasters Club, Noon Lions and different groups. I really enjoyed it. With the stresses of being a mortgage broker, it was very appealing to be helpful in the community.

After about three years of being here, I was asked to run for City Council. I thought, “This is ridiculous. I’m not from Janesville, not from Wisconsin, not from the United States, even, and my name is Yuri. Who’s gonna’ vote for me?” I didn’t realize at the time, that it was a nice thing for people to say, “You should run for council.” But I ran, anyway, and I got elected! That was in 2008.

Around the same time, the mortgage industry collapsed under the recession. I had to file for bankruptcy and had to file for a divorce. Everything went down. In my public life, serving on the council, I felt very respected in the community. But personally, I was picking up my life in pieces from the floor.

I will say that one of the themes of my life is “reinvention”. I’ve had to reinvent myself on average once every ten years. First, I was a kid learning violin in Russia. Then I became an immigrant to the US. Then I was a mortgage broker, etc.
The fact is, every now and then, you need to reset your skills. But the good thing is, along the way you learn lessons and carry those with you. When I moved my mortgage business from Utah to Wisconsin, I transferred those skills that I had learned over to the new location.

I had become involved in the United Arts Alliance here and served as president of that organization for many years, then started Janesville Community Radio. One of the things I enjoyed was working on the Janesville Area Creativity awards show at the Janesville Performing Arts Center. Someone described me as “glue”, because I bring people together and get things done. It’s fun, let’s do something! Later, I served on the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra board of directors.
I ran for a second term on the City Council and was reelected. I look back on that as kind of an unpaid internship in public service. After that, I ran for State Assembly and lost to Deb Kolste. But I have great respect for Deb and a great relationship with her, so I am happy she served our state.

In 2018, I was elected to Rock County Board of Supervisors and now I’m running for a third term. All three times I’ve been unopposed. The board has 29 people, so there are different dynamics, there are several committees and it’s extremely educational for me. I’m learning so much about the community.
 
On the board, I brought with me the values from serving on other platforms. For example, transparency and accountability are important to me.
Yuri with his Certificate of Commendation from the City of Janesville
Our meetings weren’t being televised or broadcasted. So, I brought in my phone and started livestreaming for two years. Then COVID brought us into the era of Zoom, so now we are broadcasting for all. 

I’m glad to be serving in this capacity. I love it because we are getting a lot of good things done for the county.
Court Interpreter 

In 2010, a friend suggested that because I speak fluent Russian and English, that I get licensed to become a court interpreter. She guided me into this kind of work. I am now fully licensed for both oral and written court interpreting in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. Most of the cases are done via Zoom. Sometimes I have to travel, especially when you get into details and have a live jury, etc.

Master’s Degree to Professor Rashkin 

Meanwhile, I attended classes at UW Whitewater and got a Master’s Degree in Mass Communication. I was grateful to jump into it and took Public Relations courses. In 2014 I started teaching at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, where I currently teach a course in Public Relations.

I teach at three campuses. I’m teaching at UW- Whitewater, at UW - Rock County and at Beloit Memorial, teaching an AP level Communications class.
 
Ready to read the names of UW Whitewater graduates
It’s easier to teach at the college level, in my opinion. I see them a couple times a week, instead of every day. It’s interesting to teach high school, though, because of the diversity and dynamics of the students. Once they’re in college, they kind of separate into their majors.

Yuri the Musician

I started playing violin when I was around 6 years old. That was my main instrument until I was about 12. I was then told I wasn’t in the top tier at my music academy, which was a top-notch school for little musical prodigies. I switched to upright bass and studied with a high-level bass player, one of Russia’s top bass instructors. Then we immigrated to the United States.
 
Throughout that time, I took general piano in one of my classes, because that’s what every classical musician should know.

In the US, I took electric bass lessons and started playing in bands and doing jazz, etc. Eventually, I got an upright bass again.

I had always been able to pick out melodies on the piano. It’s made me a little unique in the classical musician circles because most of the other musicians I know need to be able to read their music.

Then, as a teenager, when I was involved in the theater group and they needed music, I got organized with my composing.
As a child practicing piano 
In his youth conquering upright bass
A theater company founder’s dad was a professor, who worked with my mom, and he commissioned me to write the ballet. I compose primarily on piano.

When we arrived in the US, I continued with music through college. It was hard to think of myself as majoring in business or something like that. By then, I was kind of “locked in” to music, especially with my background and experiences up to that point.
In college, I also wrote a musical for my dad for a puppet show. He did the fairy tale, “Snow Queen” and I wrote a bunch of songs for him. I have a CD and all the lyrics and such still. Someday, I’d like to bring that back to life.

Through the years in Rock County, I’ve incorporated music into various projects, recorded some original CDs and played on other people’s recordings. Additionally, I’ve recorded music for the “Tales of…” series of productions at the Janesville Performing Arts Center. We have another one coming up in 2023. I’ve also participated in the JPAC comedy improv group, which was loads of fun.

Nearly a decade ago, in 2013, I co-wrote, with Teresa Nguyen, the music for a Drywater Productions film in the Madison 48 Hour Film Festival. To our delight, we won “Best Musical Score” for that, which I kind of consider my “Oscar”!  That was fun. I certainly don’t feel I’m lacking recognition. 
At the Janesville Performing Arts Center
Around Rock County I’ve been happy to perform for various charities. It feels good to give back. In the band gigs, the music has ranged from jazz to rock to blues…so many genres! My earliest band was in college was with a ska band called Rhythm Fish, which later became Sturgeon General, and later a band called Yuri’s World. These were all in Salt Lake City. 
Playing violin at JPAC
On keys with the band Emerald City in downtown Janesville
Photo by Joe Jimenez
While studying as a grad student and serving on the Janesville City Council, I needed some extra income so called up some nursing homes and began playing regular piano gigs for the seniors. I’ve done that on a regular basis now, except during the COVID pandemic.
Eventually, I started playing in local bands, doing gigs around town.

I performed with Bop Ritual, a cover band, with members Chris Kaebisch, Theresa (Carroll) Gordon, Kelly Schauf, Don Cisewski, Adam Tollefson and others. I loved the different, fuller sound the horns brought to the group. Then I played with Emerald City, with Glenn Fischer and Teresa Nguyen. I also played with a bluegrass band where people would just get up and dance. I loved the variety of sound and music that each band created. It’s been nice playing in local bands, because I got to interact with people who I might not have met, otherwise. I’ve sat in for a few other bands as a sub, as well. 
 
Performing at The Women's Club in Janesville
About 7 years ago, I started playing along with silent films, organizing events to watch them. A friend of my family in Russia was the musician who was hired to play along with some, mostly educational, silent movies. I was really impressed with that, the idea that you could play anything and make it your own.

So, here in Janesville, I started doing silent films. I’d find a Charlie Chaplin movie and play along. It’s a laid-back kind of entertainment. It’s fun and people started to know me as “The Silent Movie Guy”. I still do the silent films for various places and occasions.

Today, I do mostly solo performances.

Social Media Platforms

People say you need power. Power is bunk. But what you can do instead is be an influencer. I think it’s more useful.
I started Janesville Community Page, then Beloit Community Page and Rock County Traffic, but I’m not particularly involved with them, because I believe in teamwork and hand them off to other admins.

Now I’m busy with the Rashkin Report, which is a YouTube channel to share insights into Russia. It’s still a hobby because it’s not making enough to call it a job. YouTube streaming pays in two ways. One is via the sheer number of views and the other is through the Patreon account, where people can support a creative artist. It doesn’t pay much, but I enjoy it.

Recently, I made a decision that I will continue to do the things I enjoy, those things I’m passionate about, regardless. Why would I want to stop doing things I enjoy? 
One of the first Ted Talks that I showed my students was about stress. If you think stress is terrible for you, then it’s terrible for you. If you don’t think it’s terrible for you, then it won’t have an affect on your health. It’s like adrenaline. I’m an adrenaline junkie, like when I’m in a stressful courtroom situation and have to be on my game, I feel like it’s a positive thing, and I’m making a positive difference.

I started the Rashkin Report hoping to help English speaking people see what’s going on in Russia, but there wasn’t much of an audience. Then I switched to doing this in Russian and found a good following. It’s been a matter of paying attention to what’s happening. Sometimes it’s about American politics, but now, of course, it’s all about Ukraine, Putin and the war.
Yuri posted this on social media after Russia attacked Ukraine
Russia and the War in Ukraine

Most of my Rashkin Report viewing audience on YouTube is in Russia and in Ukraine! I feel like I’m volunteering for the US State Department! I partner with another guy, Igor Aizenberg, a professor at Manhattan College. He’s originally from Ukraine. He writes political articles and I share them or I read speeches given by politicians.

I feel very safe talking about Russia from Wisconsin. Actually, I felt less safe when Trump was in power, because the Kremlin’s reach was much closer. Doing the Rashkin Report is a very therapeutic thing. If I stay silent, it would eat me up inside.

Most recently, I’ve been reporting on how Russia has been threatening launching nuclear weapons. They are aiming them at Europe, which would be catastrophic and would really start a World War III. This is all the result of Putin, who is a guy who totally lost all sense of what is going on in the world, because he’s been in power for over 20 years. He basically bought into his own hype. He paid for his own propaganda machine, they told him how great he was, because he paid them to. And he believed it.
 
Yuri on a trip to Russia in 2019
He believes he has a great military that can do great things. He thought his troops would be greeted as “liberators”. But, the majority of the people of Ukraine don’t want anything to do with Russia. The Russian military is a terribly unprepared military that is being killed in this war. In the first few days, over 5000 have been slaughtered, so they’re like cannon fodder. People are starting to turn to me and share information about what’s going on.

As of today, Facebook and Twitter are shut down in Russia, but YouTube still works, so people are tuning in. There’s a debate about what’s going on. In Russia, the propaganda is that it’s an “operation”, but the rest of the world knows it’s a war. If they’re watching Russian TV, they’re not seeing the truth. Many of them don’t speak English, this is why I’m doing the Rashkin Report in Russian.

Russia suffered so greatly from the Nazis, during WWII. But, in a terrible twist, Putin has adopted their tactics. He calls Zelenskyy a Nazi, but that’s just projection. Zelenskyy is a Jew, whose platform was anti-corruption, whose grandfather fought the Nazis and whose great-grandfather and great uncles were murdered in the Holocaust. Zelenskyy is a former television comedian, and was elected because he was different and popular. But, under this crisis, he’s doing exactly the right thing. He’s being amazing right now, unifying the people.
It’s really crazy of Putin to do this. The moment he crossed that border of Ukraine, he started to lose. He is creating a humanitarian crisis. The world is against this war and he won’t win. He, and even the world, underestimated the will of the Ukrainian people! They are taking the weapons and taking up the fight! And there are people, refugees, who are going BACK to Russia to fight. It’s amazing.

I traveled back to Russia in 2019 and was going to try and organize a tour to go back in 2020. Anna Marie Lux wrote an article for the Gazette about it and said something to the effect that I was “building bridges” between cultures. That’s kind of true. Call me “glue” or a “bridge builder”, I’m just trying to connect people and help them understand what’s going on, to think on it and maybe to act on it.
I wouldn’t go back now, even if the war ended. I’ve tried to discourage my friends from going there. I wouldn’t feel safe. There aren’t strong moral ethics in Russia, so it’s a little scary. It’s a fascist regime. 

Role Models

There are a lot of people I respect. But my parents were my role models. To see them get up and leave their country to make a better future for their kids was inspiring. My dad was a kind and decent person. When he passed away and people talked about how kind and wonderful he was, that had an impact on me.

And my mother was outspoken, she may have lost a few friendships over that, but she was strong in her convictions. I try to be like them. I always want to help others, but that’s not a very Russian trait, so people who have made assumptions are often surprised by that.

We can do more when we work together. If I did things by myself, it’s exhausting. That’s why I like to collaborate and find team members in whatever I do. It’s all about bringing people and ideas together.
 
Yuri's parents, Alla and Dmitry Rashkin
Family
Yuri and Kristin
Yuri with his daughters
Yuri with Kristin and her sons
Family

I have two wonderful daughters and two wonderful stepsons and I am fortunate enough to have people in my life who love me. I’ve been with Kristin for eight years now. I’ve learned a lot of lessons from my relationships. I feel blessed.
Reflecting on Rock County

I’m fascinated by the dynamics between Janesville and Beloit. Each community contributes something different. But we could work on that relationship. If we need to compete, how about we compete with Rockford, instead of with each other. It’s a little counterproductive if there’s too much negativity from both sides. 

Our county went through a tough time when GM closed. There’s no going around that. It was a life changing experience for the whole county. It took a few years, but we came back stronger than ever. At this point, I feel that the main thing Rock County desperately needs is more activities for children, whether a children’s museum or other things. With my youngest daughter, I either go to Rockford or to Madison to the children’s museums there. Those are her two favorite places.
 
Of course, Rock County still has its challenges, both in Beloit and Janesville, but it’s really picking up. The downtowns in both cities are really developing amazingly. What I’ve seen over the last few years is that the people with the means to give have come together and have really taken on the responsibility to make a difference in the community. And we are better for it!

It’s weird, because Salt Lake City is so much bigger than Janesville, but with music and with my community involvement, I really found myself here. But I couldn’t find myself there.

Personally, I feel like a useful member of our Rock County community. It’s been an amazing place for me and my family. 
Yuri hands Mick and Jane Blain Gilbertson their Arts Hall of Fame Award

Listen to Yuri's original music on YouTube here:

Yuri talks about growing up in Russia: