The Peculiar Business of Being Russian-American in Trump’s USA

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Pictures for sale at a souvenir kiosk in Moscow, Russia, July 2017

To be a first-generation Russian-American in the age of Donald Trump is a somewhat nutty experience. As “Russians,” the identity into which we were born, we are now associated less with Dostoevsky and Pasternak, and more with election interference, troll farms, and other subversions of democracy. Yet as “Americans,” our hard-earned new identity, we are the citizens of the very democracy that the “Russians” are believed to have sabotaged. The set-up seems almost purposely literary. In the age of Trump, we are America’s Trojan horse, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov in one person. If the Russians didn’t exist, it would have been a good idea to invent us.

The category “Russian-Americans” is largely a misnomer. Of the roughly three million people reported by the US Census Bureau as Russian-American, less than a third identify as ethnically Russian. The rest are Ukrainians, Armenians, Georgians, and other representatives of former Soviet republics. Many have mixed ethnicities; Russia has long been a multinational empire. If there is one common denominator to this émigré contingency besides the Russian language, it is that most of us came of age in the USSR. Soviet-Americans would be a more accurate term, but it is hard to claim an identity around something that no longer exists.

Soviet-era emigration was a one-way street: leaving was equated with betrayal. Under Stalin, immigration existed only in the form of wartime capture and transportation to German concentration camps. With Khrushchev, things eased up, but only marginally; unsuccessful defection attempts still carried prison terms.

Two legal routes existed: marriage to a foreigner, or Jewish refugee immigration. Neither was foolproof. Newlyweds sometimes waited months or years for their exit visas to be approved by Soviet authorities. And for the covertly anti-Semitic state, Jews became an exchange currency in the battles of the cold war. When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the US imposed a wheat embargo, the Soviet government retaliated by refusing exit visas. For every “lucky” example like that of Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, whose family had applied just a year prior and managed to get out, nine other families would be refused as “unwanted elements” and sentenced to a life in a Soviet-style purgatory, traitors to their country, unemployable, subject to KGB harassment. My husband’s family was one such.

Even those allowed to emigrate had no guarantees. Stanford scholar Grisha Freidin, whose prospects in the USSR were bleak because he could not bring himself to join the Komsomol (the Communist youth organization), remembers worrying that his London-bound Aeroflot plane might be turned around after his neighbor bolted from his seat in response to Grisha’s critical remark about Soviet politics. He also recalls the sense of marvel at being able to speak his mind to a friendly hair stylist from Manhattan as the two looked down at the boundless Atlantic Ocean from the airplane’s window during the London–New York leg of his journey. The writer and cultural critic Alexander Genis, a fellow Soviet émigré of that wave, calls it a “breakthrough into freedom.”

Being Russian in America at the height of the cold war was not a straightforward proposition. Genis, who arrived in 1977 and went on to become a host at Radio Liberty, broadcasting in Russian for the Soviets behind the Iron Curtain, remembers how in the aftermath of the USSR’s downing of a South Korean airliner in 1983, all Russian cab-drivers in New York suddenly became “Bulgarian,” and Russian vodka was poured into gutters as a protest. In the pre-Gorbachev era, to be Russian in America was shameful. Not until the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which demonstrated the hostage nature of the relationship between the Soviet people and their government, did the average American start feeling empathy for “the Russians.” 

As “the evil empire,” as President Reagan called it, slowly disintegrated, exiting became less dramatic. “Refuseniks”—so called not because they had refused anything, but because they had been refused permission to emigrate—were finally let out, leaving with their books and not much else. Thousands of new exit-visa applications were approved. Peace Corp volunteers, foreign diplomats, businessmen, and entrepreneurs married their former cold war adversaries in droves, shuttling them to various levels of Western comfort. A brand new route materialized: study abroad. When a small ad for help with the Test of English as a Foreign Language ran in a Moscow newspaper around 1989, some three thousand people showed up; the TOEFL representative, who had been planning to run the consultations from his three-bedroom apartment, ended up renting a concert hall to accommodate all those willing. This picture replicated itself across countless Soviet towns. I ended up with a postgraduate grant to study in England, where I met my Russian-American husband.


Our eagerness to meet the West seemed mutual. STEM graduates were particularly sought after. Just as the KGB’s grasp on the bearers of “state secrets” weakened, mathematicians, physicists, biologists, chemists, and engineers found themselves courted by American universities.

One was Edward Frenkel, a mathematics student at the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas in Moscow. Frenkel, who was Jewish, hadn’t been accepted to the more prestigious Moscow State University. But in 1989, his senior year, Frenkel’s scientific articles earned him an invitation to teach at Harvard. He took it. “I was nobody in Moscow,” he recalls, “I couldn’t even stay there after graduation because I didn’t have a Moscow resident permit. But in America, I felt welcomed and appreciated.” Frenkel continued his math studies at Harvard, went on to become a professor at Berkeley, wrote an international best seller, and became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “I fit right in in America,” he says. “I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Many Russian “Gen-Xers” who came to America in the 1990s shared that feeling. In a world without the Berlin Wall, at the dawn of the “knowledge economy,” being Russian was suddenly cool. We were familiar enough and exotic enough. Marxist slogans and Brodsky’s poetry coexisted peacefully in our now-wanted brains. We embraced the free world while still remembering how to take apart and reassemble our Kalashnikovs. We were zealous and grateful, an enemy-turned-friend, the spies who loved you. We were democracy’s biggest twentieth-century success story.

Things change. In the first decade of the new millennium, as the cold war and the Soviet Union were becoming a memory to many in the West, Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin, pressed on with his plan of refashioning the democracy whose birth we had witnessed back into autocracy. The free press of Gorbachev’s glasnost era was dispensed with first. Journalists died, along with out-of-favor oligarchs and politicians. Dipping into the familiar rhetoric of division, Putin created enemies—the Chechens, the Georgians, the gays, the liberals, the Ukrainians, all while spinning myths of “Great Russia.”

In 2014, unmarked Russian troops annexed Crimea, breaking the post-World War II taboo on changing European borders and ending the era of “cool Russia” in the West. For many ex-Soviets, until then quietly pursuing our American dreams, Crimea was a rude awakening. Grisha Freidin, by then a world authority on the Soviet writers Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel, and the first translator of The Federalist Papers into Russian, found himself moved to write on topics that had less to do with the history of Russian culture and more with current affairs, especially with Putin’s turn toward social conservatism, use of force, and authoritarian politics. Alexander Genis, the author of numerous books on cultural topics, was also writing more and more about political matters. After Crimea, his Russian audience shrank along the famous 86-14 fault lines, with 86 percent of Russians expressing approval for Putin after the annexation. But 14 percent of Russia’s inhabitants equals the population of Holland, Genis says: “I see my task as making this group larger.”

Those with an intimate understanding of Kremlin thinking, like Russian-American scholar Nina Khrushcheva, the Soviet premier’s granddaughter, found themselves doing a lot of explaining. Nina came in 1991 to study comparative literature at Princeton and stayed. “Just like Americans didn’t understand Yeltsin, they don’t understand Putin,” says Nina, now a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York. For Putin, Khrushcheva believes, the cold war never ended. “When his reset with the West didn’t work, he felt snubbed.” Retaliation was a matter of time.

For the time being, however, Putin remained a problem mainly for the Russian people (and for Ukrainians, Georgians, and Moldavians). In February 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician and a perestroika-era symbol of Russia’s democratic rebirth, was gunned down not far from the Kremlin. That March, the then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told the Daily Mail about “an award and a beautiful letter” he had received from Vladimir Putin. Over the course of the year, he praised Putin’s “leadership,” called him “brilliant,” and said he would “get along” with him. For Russian-Americans like myself, this was the time when Russia “came home.” No surprise that early warnings against Trump’s authoritarianism came from “the Russians”—public figures like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Garry Kasparov, and Masha Gessen. “Holy autocrats,” “Father Tsars,” and “Fathers of All Nations” have ruled our land for centuries, so we can spot the type even when he comes in the guise of “Make America Great Again.” We agonized when our American friends told us Trump could not win. Our memories of totalitarianism were too fresh to discount gut feeling in favor of opinion polls. 


Misha Friedman/Getty Images

Writer and activist Masha Gessen speaking at the US’s first Russian-speaking LGBT Pride March, in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, May 20, 2017

In June 2016, The Washington Post reported that Russian hackers had broken into the servers of the Democratic National Committee and released information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Trump invited Russia to do more. The rest unfolded like a bad dream. On November 8, 2016, just a year short of the Bolshevik Revolution’s centenary, Donald Trump was elected the president of our adoptive country, and Friend-in-Chief of the authoritarian in the land of our birth. Soon after, congressional investigations into Russian election interference began; and in May 2017, former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to lead a Department of Justice investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. One year into Trump’s presidency, he and Russia seem inextricably linked. If Putin tarnished Russia’s post-cold war reputation, Donald Trump has killed it.

Meanwhile, the American part of our Russian-American identity, the one that kept us anchored through our immigration lows, our bouts of nostalgia, and our unspoken culture battles, is no longer stable. “Where am I?” asks Nina Khrushcheva in one of her articles. I think of Nina’s grandfather, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who ended the regime’s most murderous strain by denouncing Stalin’s crimes. Seventy years later, watching the dawn of authoritarianism in one’s adoptive country makes for an excruciating experience. Add to that the villainy ascribed to Russia, of which we are guilty by association, and you end up in a pretty bleak spot. “Everyone knows how to hate Russia,” Khrushcheva says. “We make a convenient enemy.” 

You don’t have to be Khrushchev’s granddaughter to feel the pain from watching Trump’s daily destruction of our deal with America: tolerance, democracy, decency. “Убийственно,” or death-dealing, Grisha Freidin calls it. That it is carried out by the same crude means we had once witnessed back in our totalitarian past, including some uncannily familiar phrases like “enemies of the people” and “treason,” adds déjà vu to the cocktail of bad feelings. The American system of checks and balances, in which we, the newly converted, had unassailable faith, has apparently malfunctioned. A populist demagogue stands at the helm of the largest Western democracy, with what appears to be a little help from his Kremlin fan-base. Talk about a nightmare within a nightmare.

To many Soviet-born Russians, Putin’s interference in the American elections is a foregone conclusion: he had the mentality, the resources, and the reasons to do it. A career KGB officer, Putin has been steadily mobilizing the old spy network and channels of influence developed over decades of cold war by the Russian national-security and dissent-suppression behemoth known successively as the NKVD, the KGB, and today, the FSB. And cyber warfare has been part of Putin’s military doctrine for years. Russia’s defense minister, Sergey Shoygu, recently confirmed what has long been an open secret: Russian “information operations troops” are no longer tasked with defensive missions only, but are pursuing “active measures” abroad.

Equally clear is the ability of Putin’s propagandists to sow confusion and discord in the “target population” through these new channels. The art of propaganda, a joint venture between the KGB and Communist Party practiced on Soviet citizens for decades, has been taken to new highs by Kremlin “political technologists”—an official job title. So “bearded” are some of the tricks—deflection, disinformation, discrediting, and demoralization—that they activated hidden memories in many former Soviet citizens, whose civilian college degrees came with “lieutenant-in-reserve” titles. Writer and linguist Zarina Zabrisky, a graduate of St. Petersburg State University, Vladimir Putin’s alma mater (as Leningrad State University), now teaches propaganda-debunking seminars across the Bay Area, at her own expense.

That Putin would practice those subversion techniques on Americans once seemed unthinkable, but not anymore. When the sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea created a real economic squeeze on Russia’s plutocracy, and the prospect that Hillary Clinton, a known hawk on Russia, would be elected president became imminent, nothing would stop Putin from pursuing “active measures” abroad, in addition to fanning anti-American sentiment at home. It certainly helped that Clinton’s adversary was a man known for his fundraising emails to foreign nationals (including government officials), his fawning admiration for Putin’s leadership style, and his love of deals, many of which were funded by Russian businessmen.

Putin’s gain in the political chaos that has engulfed the American republic in the aftermath of the 2016 elections is undeniable. The sanctions against his inner circle imposed by the Obama administration are still on, but the Trump administration declined to take action on a new list that was due to be enforced in February 2017. Nor has the State Department denounced the Kremlin’s refusal to register Alexey Navalny, the anticorruption presidential candidate who enjoys robust popular support, as a candidate in Vladimir Putin’s so-called elections.

Back in Moscow, the Kremlin’s spin masters recast the resistance of American institutions to Trump’s destructive agenda as “executive paralysis,” a wholesale failure of the democratic model, and yet another reason to advocate for a strongman’s agenda. “Show weakness—and whole country is lost,” sings a photogenic children’s choir assembled by a Russian parliamentarian to support Putin’s reelection campaign. At the end, they throw their fists in the air and shout, in Hilter-Jugend fashion, “Uncle Vova, we’re with you!

Much less clear is whether the Kremlin’s interference, particularly the much-discussed trolling and social media disinformation campaigns, had a material effect on the 2016 election result. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a former Twitter employee, whom I will call Yuri, believes that the Kremlin-orchestrated attempts to infiltrate social media were not that significant. “Organic trolls,” those who tweet disinformation and hate from “Anytown, USA” on their own motivation rather than on a foreign government’s orders, may number only in the thousands but they are ten times more effective than the infamous Russian trolls from Savushkina Street planting hoaxes and conspiracy theories in non-native English.

A refugee who came to America in 1992, Yuri is as far from being a fan of Vladimir Putin as they get. But he is wary of confusing the act of pouring fuel on the fire with the fire itself. In the 2016 electoral race, he says, plenty of other events qualified as crucial interference: Julian Assange’s leaks that were suspiciously partial to the Republican candidate, for instance, or FBI Director James Comey’s announcement about reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton emails. “The more we talk about Russian interference,” Yuri says, “the less focused we are on solving our internal problems. That’s what Putin wants.” 

Edward Frenkel, too, believes that the question is bigger than Russiagate or collusion: Why are so many people in America so enamored with Vladimir Putin and everything he espouses? Russian interference or not, some 63 million voters, heirs to the Constitution and the dream of the Founding Fathers, went to the polls and cast their votes for a man with known anti-immigrant and authoritarian leanings. Surely, even for Putin, though he is now basking in his new super-villain glory, this seems too much of a feat. Those who chanted “Lock her up” at Trump’s rallies, or marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting the slogan “Jews will not replace us” were real people, not robots remotely controlled from Savushkina Street. Which special prosecutor must we bring in to investigate democratic subversion in our midst?

Among those 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump were many ex-Soviets, something that confuses my Russian-American identity even further. It turns out that being able to spot an authoritarian doesn’t mean rejecting him. For some, Trump’s divisive talk was like a long-awaited postcard from an old friend. “Familiar” is an important concept in immigration; it is adjacent to nostalgia. The distance between you and the place to which you once belonged makes personal grievances fade, while the yearning for one’s youth—and for the past—comes into sharper focus.

And what was our Soviet past? “Us” and “them.” Class struggle. Intolerance. Extremes. Concepts like broad-mindedness, gray areas, and pluralism were the domain of the “petty bourgeois,” the “rotten intelligentsia,” and suchlike “losers.” Labeling enemies was ubiquitous, from the kindergarten to the Politburo, as was the belief that someone, somewhere, had taken what was rightfully yours—landowners robbing peasants, manufacturers robbing workers. The elites robbing you. The poison of Trump’s talk is familiar poison. All of us, products of the twentieth century’s bloodiest social experiment, left the USSR charged with an antagonistic worldview, a dangerous maximalism, and ugly chauvinisms of all kinds. Some of us émigrés seem to have misplaced the antidote.

Then there is this matter of “socialism.” American journalists, dispatched to probe into the vagaries of the Russian mind on Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, a heavily Russian enclave dating from the Soviet era, often report that, as recovering collectivists, Russians are against “big government,” and are thus natural allies of Republicans. But “big government” is a Western concept; it simply didn’t exist in the USSR, where the Communist Party controlled an inefficient bureaucracy of Lenin’s “cooks,” plucked out of their kitchens and charged with the task of running the country. When a former Soviet talks about “big government,” he’s repeating what he heard on US conservative radio, a testimony to the effectiveness of modern right-wing propaganda that has managed to equate Democrats with “socialists,” “Marxists,” and “communists.”

Among the many reasons that talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh resonate with Soviet refugees is the inherently antagonistic relationship between the Russian state and its people. In the USSR, notes Grisha Freidin, the state controlled everything, and ordinary citizens had to outwit the authorities in order to scratch out any more of a living for themselves than the meager Soviet quota. To survive and prosper you needed to game the system, use subterfuge, relying only on your kin and close friends.

Trump’s anti-tax, anti-establishment messages played into this nihilistic anti-state mentality summed up as “all politicians are crooks,” and was deliberately projected onto the American system. Few understand or care to understand that this system was built not by a feared autocratic state, but by the people and for the people, through voluntary associations (with the one major exception of slavery). It would be a mistake not to notice that the individual genius, the ability to form productive associations in which the American entrepreneurial spirit thrives, is possible only in a stable political system based on the rule of law—the bedrock on which US society, economy, culture, and the very sense of American nationhood rest.

The truth about Russian-Americans is that despite the seeming commonalities of our initial circumstances, we make fundamentally different choices in our new environment. Some choose to reinforce their original biases. Others embrace a new attitude. The split is palpable. In many Russian get-togethers, it has become routine not to talk about politics, for the same reasons Americans try to avoid the subject at Thanksgiving dinners. “A lot of my old Russian friends are anti-Putin and pro-Trump,” says Alexander Genis. “It’s depressing.” 

It is to counter those bouts of despair that Michael Yudanin, a Russian-American entrepreneur and philosophy student at the University of Georgia, founded his Facebook group “Russian Americans against Trump.” Yudanin immigrated to Israel with his family in 1990 and lived there for twelve years before moving permanently to the US, the country that struck him for its tolerance and its “freedom at all levels.” It pains him to recognize in America the tendencies he once observed in the Russian émigré community in Israel: the same embrace of nationalistic propaganda, the same sliding into divisive, populist rhetoric and intolerance toward “the other.” “We all came out, not of Gogol’s, but of Gulag’s overcoat,” Yudanin says, paraphrasing Dostoevsky.

While it is true that a lack of English makes older ex-Soviets vulnerable to the Kremlin television propaganda that they watch—often, quite ironically, in their “socialist” affordable housing apartments—there are plenty of younger and well-to-do Russian-Americans who embrace Donald Trump. Boris Epshteyn, the man behind Trump’s Holocaust remembrance message that didn’t mention Jews, left the Soviet Union at a tender age with his parents and was educated at the elite Georgetown University. The most high-profile Russian-American politician, Epshteyn is now a political pundit at the Sinclair Corporation, from where he beams Trump’s apologetics in his “Bottom Line with Boris.” He consistently defends Putin and flat-out denies Russian interference in the American elections. But so do Trump and his followers. Something Epshteyn and Trump have in common is opportunism and contempt for democracy.

They say a nation deserves the government it gets. Until 2016, this phrase, borrowed from a French philosopher, was a staple admission of despondency among beleaguered Russian liberals. These days, says Edward Frenkel, America, the country he’d fallen in love with in 1989, should remember it. Frenkel, whose grandfather nearly died in the Gulag, admits to having visceral reaction toward Trump’s daily attacks on American values, yet he refuses to fight darkness with darkness—or excuse himself from responsibility. “This may be our crucial moment, a chance to build a society of something other than rampant individualism. The challenge is huge, but so is the opportunity.”

Perhaps the real bottom line, as Nina Khrushcheva says, is that Americans are much more like Russians than they care to admit. Both live in large, multinational countries. Both are not averse to messianic ideas and a belief in their unique path. The other side’s faults are magnified in the mirror that we hold up to each other. The blacker the colors with which we paint our adversary, the brighter we appear by comparison. To believe that Russia is the reason for, rather than amplifier of, the disturbing tendencies in American society is tempting, because if Russia goes away, so will those tendencies. The danger is that we may be taking our desires for reality.

In the end, “Russiagate” might well be the thing that brings Donald Trump down—we Russians are known for heroic suicide missions. But we Americans must not forget that the underlying issue is neither Putin nor Trump, neither collusion nor obstruction. What we’re dealing with now is the global assault by authoritarianism on democracy. On this new battlefield, complicity is deadly, and so is defeatism. If the largest democratic “safe haven” in the world turns malignant, rejecting its founding principles of liberty and justice for all, no Canada or Norway would be able to accommodate us. The American dream that drew us Russians hither will not last, unless we all, collectively, figure out the way to save it.

An earlier version of this essay misstated the date of the 2016 presidential election. It was November 8, not November 3.

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