In a scene reminiscent of O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco chase, the country watched on Tuesday night as networks showed aerial footage of FBI director James Comey’s motorcade creeping down a Los Angeles freeway towards the airport, hours after learning he had been fired by the president.
The next day, Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak in the Oval Office, with photographs surfacing of the men shaking hands and laughing. While no American press was permitted, the pictures were taken by Russian news agency TASS, who the administration was reportedly duped into letting in the room. In the past few days we’ve learned that Comey had recently asked for more resources for the Russia inquiry.
Firing the man leading the investigation into potential collusion between team Trump and the Russian government has set the political world ablaze. Pundits and scholars are making comparisons to Nixon and wondering whether or not we’re on the brink of a constitutional crisis. As the scandal escalates, some have resorted to Russophobia and fearmongering. Senator Corey Booker referenced Paul Revere and said Americans should be concerned that “the Russians are coming.” Democratic California congressman Ted Lieu implied that being Russian is “scary.”
Amid the uproar, members of a closed Facebook group called “Anti-Trump Soviet Immigrants” have been tempering the chaos with humor. Someone solicited captions for a picture of Trump, Kislyak, and Lavrov, announcing that the “Three Stooges” was already taken. The responses included “the axis,” “the three pigs,” and some choice Russian swear words.
Two days after the 2016 election, Olga Tomchin, a 28-year-old human rights attorney in California, started the group, which has since grown to nearly 4,000 members. Participants vent political frustrations, share jokes, and commiserate about conservative family members, especially when there’s an eruption of Russia news. The links to recent developments and think pieces are critical not only of Republican policies but also of the Russian government and Trump’s potential ties to it. There are Trump memes, Putin memes, Trump-and-Putin-kissing memes, and advice on “how to speak to your Islamophobic aunt.”
The members go by “Soviet immigrants” because not all are ethnically Russian and many were born in places that became independent nations after the fall of the Soviet Union, but the Russian language and experience with Soviet culture are what they all have in common. For Tomchin, that includes an acquaintance with oppressive government.
“I feel like I don’t have the type of American exceptionalism that a lot of my non-immigrant friends do, where they think things like that just can’t happen here,” she said. “Those of us who are Soviet immigrants have less naïveté about how bad things can get.”
Young Soviet-Americans have looked on as “Russia” undeniably becomes a bad word in the press. Rachel Maddow’s program on MSNBC has been hitting record viewership while focusing up to 50% of their coverage on the potential “Russia scandal,” but little of it helps the viewers actually understand the country in question. Some have veered into virulence. The first time it hit me was in January when I saw a video of Keith Olbermann in his new series for GQ, ranting about “Russian scum.” In the months since, I’ve been emailing myself pertinent examples of the neo-Cold War mood, including misleading or mean-spirited tweets and irrelevant reports tracking Russian spending in the U.S.
In addition to FBI and Congressional investigations, news organizations are feverishly digging for any evidence of ties between the president, his associates, and the Kremlin. With Comey out at the FBI, pressure is building for an independent prosecutor. There is yet to be a smoking gun or any action on Trump’s part to lift sanctions or bend policy Putin’s way, but that hasn’t changed the tone or insinuation that Russia is behind many of America’s political woes beyond the last election.
Meanwhile, Russian-Americans are portrayed in one report after another showing overwhelming support for Trump and a general trend of conservatism. The formula often includes Brighton Beach and “babushkas.” Throw in some cyrillic letters and the Russian national anthem, and you’ve got yourself a story!
Progressive Soviet immigrants know that these portrayals don’t tell the whole story. According to the Census there are 2.7 million Russian-Americans (measuring the full “Soviet” population poses a challenge because the Census split up the count into individual nationalities after 1997). The Russian-Speaking Americans’ Research Group found in a survey taken at the end of October 2016 that only 53.3% of Russian-Americans were planning on choosing Trump. (While Brighton Beach overwhelmingly went red, there are no available figures to show how the entire Russian-speaking electorate voted.)
No one is threatening to ban or deport Russian-speaking Americans, and the strictures are primarily directed at Trump and Putin’s close circles. But it’s still an unnerving feeling to be a Russian-American during Cold War II, and it has me wondering whether young Soviet immigrants like me need to play a larger role in bridging the international divide. Both Russia and the U.S. have deep class inequality, anxious attitudes towards immigration, a rural and urban split, and media consumption habits partitioning people into TV or internet generations. The rise in nationalist sentiment in both has benefited Putin and Trump, but the prevailing storyline for the public has been that we exist in separate spheres, cemented into opposing roles. For now, young Russian speakers in the U.S. may have neither the unity nor the appetite to rewrite it.
I’ve actively avoided my own immigrant community for years. I was born in Moscow and moved to the U.S. with my family in 1990, when I was four years old. Growing up, I knew very few Russian speakers besides my relatives and, in a cruel exhibit of childhood immaturity, my older brother and I would communicate strictly in English at home because we knew my mother wouldn’t understand. After my parents separated when I was five, I gained another half of a family, a stepmother and step-siblings, who are all American and an invaluable part of my life.
But emotionally, I will always be tethered to Russia. My physical ties have been restored by the fact that my mother, who is a three-time Olympic champion in figure skating, moved back and is now an elected official in Russia’s lower legislative body, the Duma. My brother and other relatives reside there, as well as the many friends I’ve made while visiting and working in Moscow. Nowadays, I don’t feel torn between the two countries, but rather enriched by my dual culture.
So why did I once evade people who might be able to relate? Maybe they weren’t Russian enough, and I scoffed that they couldn’t speak the language. Or maybe they were too Russian and I disapproved of their inability to assimilate. To this day no one in my circle of friends has a background like mine.
But then Russia became one of the biggest stories in America, and I felt a creeping sadness and fear about a political backdrop in which hostility between the two appears to be a given. My extreme range of emotions the last few months made it impossible not to wonder if anyone else felt the same way. I wanted to reach out to other young Soviet immigrants and those with Soviet ancestry who, like me, grew up with the Cold War being a thing of the past.
I spoke to more than a dozen people in their twenties and thirties, the majority of whom are on the more progressive end of the political spectrum. Most are critical of Putin and believe that a independent investigation into his relationship with Trump is needed, but Russia itself is not their top political priority compared to domestic political ruptures. None of the people I interviewed feel like they have been the targets of xenophobia or discrimination. They were also able to see humor in some demonizing media depictions, given their experiences growing up with Hollywood’s penchant for Russian spies and villains.
During our conversations, it dawned on me that I live in a news bubble, over-analyzing the tone of every headline and tweet. I see these matters as critical to free speech and find it invaluable that journalists like Masha Gessen, Matt Taibbi, and Glenn Greenwald have thoroughly documented much of the neo-Cold War rhetoric, references to dupes and “useful idiots,” and even conspiratorial thinking. This mudslinging has primarily occurred in the political arena, however, and it’s mostly non-Russians who have had their patriotism questioned. While that’s not a justification, the fact that those I interviewed didn’t take it personally was both a relief and necessary reminder to try and do the same.
It hasn’t been easy. For two and a half years I hosted a liberal leaning political commentary show on RT America, a news channel funded by the Russian government and often branded as propaganda. There have been questionable editorial choices made by the channel, like giving airtime to conspiracy theories, and their coverage of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria mirrors the position of the Russian government. The show my team and I aired, however, was an aggregation of news in the U.S. about civil liberties, national security, economic inequality, and criminal justice reform.
It was difficult to have work that we were proud of automatically be stigmatized based not on content, but association. Since I left in 2012, I’ve had prospective employers ask me if I’ve sworn allegiance to Vladimir Putin. (The answer is no.)
Some people I interviewed were surprised that the political tide has shifted and that it’s Republicans who are suddenly less likely to see a political rivalry between the two countries. Most found support for Bashar Al-Assad indefensible, and opinions on Russia’s annexation of Crimea were mixed. All agreed, however, that there is an overall lack of understanding and curiosity among Americans about what actually goes on in Russia.
“I think it’s just this one word, and they don’t really have any conception of what Russia’s like, what Russian people are like, what domestic politics are like there, how much support someone like Putin has,” said Daniel Elder, a 33-year-old writer in Oregon who’s researching his family’s Soviet history. He was born in New York, but has spent time in Russia.
Natalya Orlova-Silverfarb, who was 23 by the time she moved to the U.S. in 1993, is “glad that there are people who think that Putin’s government is evil,” she said. “But there’s definitely a lack of knowledge about Russia or its history or its culture.”
America is still a global superpower, English is the universal language, and American fashion and pop culture permeate every other space. “America,” as Orlova-Silverfarb put it, “is always centered on itself.” None of this helps with understanding international relations. It’s precisely our dominance that dictates so much of Russian foreign policy, mired in resentment and a desperation to reclaim influence. It’s also the bombast of American exceptionalism that’s used by the Russian government to distract from its own bad behavior and draw equivalencies.
The lack of understanding goes both ways. Victor Kovalkov, 28, says he experienced more “Americanophobia” in Russia than Russophobia here in the U.S. “Many Russians don’t like the United States as a concept,” he said. Kovalkov moved to the New York five years after meeting his American husband in Moscow. “It’s just not being exposed to the information and not investing your time into learning more about different countries and the world.” The rhetoric in Russian schools and news sources isn’t exactly America-friendly, either.
Should a free press in the U.S. bear greater responsibility for engaging the public on what lies beyond our borders? Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of International Affairs at the New School, believes too many judgments are already made for news consumers through reporters’ wording. “Instead of saying Putin and his cronies, say ‘Putin and his ministers in power, many of whom used to be KGB officials,’” Khrushcheva pointed out. “You know, give people information that they can turn into something of their own.”
For many progressives, the Trump-Russia “connection” is a means to an end—the end goal being impeachment. For this reason, Olga Tomchin, the founder of the “Anti-Trump Soviet Immigrants,” Facebook group, lets selective media coverage and ignorance about Russia pass. For her, Trump’s election has been an opportunity to meet what she calls her “progressive Soviet family” through the creation of the group and “[reject] the racism and homophobia and Islamophobia of the Trump administration.”
Young Soviet immigrants, like any other demographic, are not a monolith. Helen Leshinsky, a 35-year-old high school teacher in the Bronx, finds a lot of Russian-Americans her age to “be very self-centered and Libertarian-leaning and very blind to the racial and class injustices of this country and this country’s history,” she said. “Anything that speaks of a society or civic duty and responsibility just smacks of Communism to them and they are vehemently against it.”
The objection to anything that resembles Communist policies speaks to the status Soviet immigrants have attained in a capitalist country. In the most basic and cliched understanding of it, many have achieved the American dream. According to the 2015 Census, Russian immigrants are on par with the national average for homeownership, and exceed the averages in levels of education and median household income. As a majority-white population, they face fewer challenges while assimilating than other newcomers.
Some young progressives are upset by how others in their ethnic group support Trump’s policies on immigration and refugees, given that a large chunk of families came to the U.S. to escape discrimination, with estimates of Jewish refugees ranging from 300,000 to 700,000.
“Immigrants from the former Soviet Union who fled from persecution—whose family histories are marred with devastation caused by nationalism and marginalization—falling in line behind Trump is both surprising and upsetting,” said Olga Mastov, a speech-language pathologist who lives in New Jersey.
The Russian-speaking community mirrors any other, with deep political divisions along generational and ideological lines. I’ve had many of the same issues debating politics with my own father, who’s Jewish, lives in Los Angeles, and preferred Trump to Clinton. Members of the “Anti-Trump Soviet Immigrants” Facebook page told me about infighting, splinter groups, hate mail from conservative Russian-speakers, and even threats. This is not an ensemble ready or willing to claim the role of global peace brokers.
I’m not naive enough to believe the U.S. and Russia will be close allies or that decades of distrust can be erased, but as a journalist who follows international politics closely and who travels to Russia often to see friends and family, I lose sleep contemplating the prospects of World War III. Even if Trump and Putin do have financial ties or any other conflicts of interest, it’s hard to imagine that either man will let their ego be bruised. The United States and Russia are still the two most heavily armed nuclear powers in the world. Disagreement on the conflict in Syria could be a catalyst for hostilities, and even a small mistake could trigger military action.
And if Donald Trump were to get impeached or resign, what happens then? Tensions would only be heightened with any other American leader in power. And discounting potential violence, has anyone gamed out the consequences or considered how pitting another generation of Russians and Americans against each other could influence them psychologically?
My dread seems light years away for many other young and progressive Russian-speaking immigrants who are busy finding a kinship amongst themselves and fighting an emotionally distressful battle against Trump and Republican policies. Maybe they aren’t scared enough. Or maybe I needed to find this collective just as much as they did, to temporarily soothe the anxiety.