What Do Russian-Speaking Americans Think About Recent Russia Headlines? We Asked Them.

“We need to separate the government from people who live in the country."

Over the past year, politicians, pundits, and the media have often conflated the Russian government, its operatives and the Russian people, throwing nuance to the wind. 

It's hard not to hear it when you turn on the news. Politicians have begun using the word "Russian"— as opposed to Russian spy, Russian operative, or Russian agent —  to communicate the latter. And while Special Counsel Robert Mueller's long list of indictments against Russian nationals makes clear that his investigation is the furthest thing from a "witch hunt," it is still strange that in the 24-hour spin cycle, any "Russian links" at all can be seen as incriminating. It's gone so far that Russian citizens who died in a tragic plane accident are now the target of conspiracy theories. 

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Even loose or nonexistent "connections to Russia" have somehow become worthy of debate. Joy Reid, a host on MSNBC, recently pointed out on Twitter that "Donald Trump married one American (his second wife) and two women from what used to be Soviet Yugoslavia: Ivana-Slovakia, Melania-Slovenia." It appears she meant to imply that Trump somehow may have familial ties to the Russian government via his wives. As James Kirchick pointed out in Politico, Reid misrepresented both wives' backgrounds. It should go without saying that Americans who were born in the Eastern bloc are still, statistically speaking, unlikely to be guilty of collusion.

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 29, 2017 : Vladimir Putin, the President of Russian Federation in press conference at the Palace of Versailles in the Battles gallery after a working visit with french President. Shutterstock / Frederic Legrand - COMEO

Distrust of American immigrant communities due to conflicts they played no part in is nothing new. Between 1890 and 1920, "hyphenated American" became a derogatory description for German-American and Irish-American immigrants who called for neutrality during World War I. Japanese-Americans were viewed so cynically during World War II that the American government imprisoned hundreds of thousands of individuals despite their innocence. In the wake of 9/11, Muslims-Americans faced increased discrimination and hate crimes. 

And many Russian-Americans remember the last time they were under scrutiny in the United States.

"It reminds me of when we came to this country and I was in second grade and they all called me a communist and I had no idea what that was," Diana Shteyn, who was born in Ukraine (then a part of the Soviet Union) and now lives in Philadelphia, told me. "They would all say 'The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming'… I didn't understand. My English wasn't so good. But I understood it was Russians against USA."

Now, it seems that Russians are once again the target of some Americans' ire. Anastasia Edel, writing in the New York Review of Books, described being a first generation Russian-American in 2018 as a "nutty experience" in which your identity is now associated with "election interference and troll farms" and you have somehow become "America's Trojan horse."

In 2011, there were close to one million Russian speakers in the United States, and approximately three million people identify themselves on the U.S. Census as Russian-American. Some Russian-American communities are so big — like those in neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia — there are Russian language newspapers that are still printed and distributed across town.

To find out what the last two years have been like, we reached out to a diverse group of Russian speakers who live in the U.S. and asked them to share their stories and their thoughts on recent headlines.

We have redacted last names for some respondents with pending immigration status and those who did not want to be identified.

Yuri Foreman, 37, born in present-day Gomel, Belarus, currently living in Brooklyn, New York

Since Yuri Foreman was a little boy, he had dreamed of becoming a world champion boxer. But the only way to accomplish his goal was to train in the United States. 

In 1991, right before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Foreman's parents immigrated to Israel after their first choice — the United States — didn't pan out. They found a comfortable home in Israel, but Foreman knew that he couldn't stay there forever. Foreman was originally a swimmer, but his mom signed him up for boxing when he was bullied as a child. He fell in love with the sport and realized that he'd need to leave home again if he wanted to accomplish his dream. So he made the leap and moved to New York City by himself.

"Part of the American dream package is you have to survive in the beginning," Foreman told A Plus. "I found a gym the first day I got here and started working in the Garment District for the next four years. It was work part-time and part-time pursuing my American dream, which was going to the gym and training."

On Nov. 14, 2009, Foreman achieved his American dream. Following a 12-round fight, he defeated Daniel Santos in a unanimous decision and became the new World Boxing Association welterweight champion. Foreman, who became known as "the Boxing Rabbi," held the title until June of 2010, when he fought Miguel Cotto. In the seventh round, Foreman slipped on an already injured right knee, tearing his ACL and MCL. What happened next is a legendary moment in boxing history: Foreman got up and kept fighting. He pushed on even after his own trainer threw in the towel, and eventually lost in the ninth round.

"I'm a world champion," Foreman told The New York Times when asked why he kept fighting. "Now a former world champion – and you don't just quit ... A world champion needs to keep on fighting."

Since he's no longer living in Russia, Foreman was hesitant to comment with authority on the country's current state.

"I just remember the 1990s in Russia was a wild life," Foreman said. "People were not getting a base salary, the alcoholism rate went through the roof, and it was really a very dire, dire situation."

But as soon as President Vladimir Putin came into power, Foreman saw things change. "It became much more normal, stable," he remembered. And yet, a lot of Foreman's Russian friends view the Russian government and Putin as evil. He says it's hard for him to make a judgment because he isn't being directly affected by the Russian government. 

Foreman as a young boxer. Yuri Foreman 

"A lot of this stuff in the media — Russian or American — is really a hub of brainwashing activity,"  Foreman said. "I think Putin is pretty good, but clearly he has a lot of crooks around him. You don't know how much he is a crook or he is not. I don't have much of my own opinion of that."

Foreman also thinks people believe what they see on television less and less now. He tries to gather information by reading from different sources on the Internet but is skeptical of most of what he sees. When news organizations cover Russia's involvement in the election, he says they always use the words "probably" and "almost definitely." Even though English is his third language, he says, he knows that those words don't translate to definitive facts. 

The consensus among America's top law enforcement agencies is that the Russian government meddled in the election, although other details are still unconfirmed.

Asked what he wished Americans knew about the Russian people and the Russian-American communities here in the United States, Foreman said that most public polls in Russia show close to 100 percent of Russians saying they want peace with the United States. His hope going forward is that Russia and the United States "join forces."

"Being friends is all good," the Boxing Rabbi said. "Being enemies, fighting each other, it only profits military companies."

David, 27, born and currently living in Philadelphia.

When the Russian Revolution began in 1917, David's great-grandmother was in America on vacation. She received a telegram from Russia informing her that it was no longer safe to come back, so she decided to begin a life in the United States. 

Though it's been more than 100 years since then, his family's connection to Russia hasn't wavered much over the generations. 

In many ways, he stays plugged in through the Russian Orthodox Church, which both creates a Russian community for him in Philadelphia and shapes his daily life here in the United States. 

"Growing up, church was paramount for us," David told A Plus. "My dad used to pull me out of school to go to major holidays. I think with a lot of the Russian Orthodox people that came over before the end of the Soviet Union, a lot of them tend to be more church-oriented in their day-to-day life." 

David insisted even though he is Russian Orthodox, the church is so diverse and so divided that it's hard to speak about it in any general terms. That being said, he's found that many of the people he knows through church tend to have a "weird mix" of politics. 

"Most of the people that were born over here, in my category, tend to be very pro-Putin, pro-establishment," David said. "We identify with the Orthodox side and he [Putin] has done a really good job of bringing that into the limelight again."

Since Putin has come into office, Russia's state media has broadcast far more religious programming. Al-Jazeera reported that Putin and the Orthodox church have exchanged "glowing endorsements and mutual back-slaps" as his relationship with the Orthodox church's spiritual leader Patriarch Kirill has flourished. Some in Russia fear it will lead to a tightening of religious and social constraints.

But Putin's support for the church doesn't mean David approves of everything Putin does. He conceded that "of course" horrible things happen, such as the killing of journalists or political dissidents. His feelings, he told A Plus, are "complicated," adding that he gets different stories from different news sources and even different immigrants who are "fresh off the boat."

"Some of them love him; some of them hate him," he said.

But when it comes to the growing tensions with Russia and the United States, his answer is unequivocal.

"It sucks," David said. "We don't want any conflict there… Do they have the same stance on gay rights and things of that nature? No, of course not. This [Russia] is a very backwards culture. But they have made progress. What's most annoying is that you have to take this hardline stance of this or that — it can be both."

With that in mind, David has been encouraged by President Trump's efforts to ease tensions with Russia, and says he thinks it's great when Trump talks about building an alliance.

"It's a lot easier to influence someone when they're a friend," he said. "You can't point a gun at Russia and demand things from them. It's not going to work." 

Dimitry Ekshtut, 30, born in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Russia, living in New York City.

Bananas.

They're one of the few things Dimitry Ekshtut remembers about immigrating from Russia to the United States as a 5-year-old. It was 1991, and with the economy collapsing in the Soviet Union, Ekshtut's mom bought a few green bananas for him and his brother as a special treat. They'd be ripe by the time they got the States, she told them.

The story became a running joke in the family because Dimitry ate three of the four bananas his mom bought, infuriating his brother. It also lived on in infamy because — looking back — the importance they'd placed on the bananas seemed absurd, given how easy it was to buy more in their new home.

Ekshtut and his wife Erica at their wedding.  Twisted Oaks Studio / www.twistedoaksstudio.com.

Ekshtut's family, like many at the time, came to the United States seeking asylum from anti-Semitism. They were helped by the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS), which is now a Jewish organization that advocates for and helps refugees across the globe. But Ekshtut found a Russian-American community in Philadelphia that made him feel at home. Russian restaurants were a staple of his childhood and teenaged years, which he described as nightclubs-slash-buffets for all ages with a live DJ or performance on stage, lots of gold, mirrors and fake diamond chandeliers. 

Ekshtut says it's "pretty clear" to him that Russia had a heavy involvement in the 2016 election. Recent indictments of 13 Russian nationals and entities by Special Counsel Robert Mueller seem to support that assessment. For his family, though, news of the government's involvement is a degree of separation closer than for most: Ekshtut's mother went to elementary school with Putin. They were in the same grade.

"He is a product of a different time in geopolitics," Ekshtut said. "I don't think he's ever left that Cold War mentality. And, by the way, neither have a lot of Russians."

Ekshtut's mother, second from the right, at an underground Purim party in Leningrad in the former Soviet Union. Dimitry Ekshtut

Ekshtut has a theory which, for him, explains the current political situation: he believes Russia has a "massive" cultural inferiority complex. The Soviet Union, Ekshtut explains, was the height of the Russian experiment. It was a time when, despite all of its faults, the nation had more power and influence on the global stage than it ever had before or since. 

"A lot of those people see in Putin a savior that will restore the glory of Russia's rightful place in world affairs, which through some of these people's lives they had seen," Ekshtut said.

Now, with Russia back in the headlines, Ekshtut has watched with consternation as his own mother digests the news from abroad. He said that after decades without it, his mom recently purchased a satellite television and began watching Russia state news again.

"I think the same way you're seeing a divide among Americans, there's a similar divide among the Russian immigrant community," Ekshtut said. "I have found one of the biggest impediments is Russian satellite television, which beams state propaganda… I know my mom watches a lot more of that recently and I think it's changed her political leanings quite a bit."

Diana Shteyn, 41, born in Odessa, Ukraine and currently living in Philadelphia.

For Diana Shteyn, the last couple of years have been a bit of deja vu. She came to the United States in 1979 in the middle of the Cold War. At that time, Shteyn remembers, there was a tremendous amount of tension and demonizing of people with Russian backgrounds or ties to the Soviet Union.

"It reminds me of when we came to this country and I was in second grade and they all called me a communist and I had no idea what that was," Shteyn said. "It seems like they just found someone to pick on that people are not going to not like, so they'll hop on that bandwagon again."

Despite being born in Odessa, Shteyn says she doesn't consider herself Ukrainian. Instead, she thinks of herself as a Russian-speaking Jew, or a "Jewkrainian," and she says her political views differ from others with ties in Russia. People who left in the 1990s feel much differently about the country than those that immigrated here recently. People who left before the Soviet Union fell have a different perspective than those who are living there now.

"I came from the Soviet Union, so our political views are very different," she said. "We're Russian-speaking Jews. We're all for Putin. My circle was never against him." 

Sunset view of Cathedral of Christ the Savior and Moscow river in Moscow, Russia. Architecture and landmarks of Moscow. Postcard of Moscow. Shutterstock / Catarina Belova

Shteyn said her family left Ukraine because of anti-Semitism and religious persecution. Despite that, once she arrived in America, she settled into an almost exclusively Russian and Ukrainian community with her family. Her children go to Russian daycare, she shops in Russian supermarkets, her handyman is Russian, her doctor and dentist are both Russian, and she even works with a Russian radio station as a concert promoter. Over the years, she saw a lot of overlap between the Russian and Ukrainian communities.

But some of that's changing. When the Ukrainian territory of Crimea was annexed, she said that tensions between Russian and Ukrainians in her neighborhood began to escalate, too. Shteyn said after the annexation, her community became divided. 

"At Russian restaurants now, it's like, 'Oh, I don't want to sit with the Ukrainians,' and it's so weird to see that," Shteyn said. "I grew up here and nobody was ever about Russian vs. Ukrainian. We were all just Russian-speaking people." 

Shteyn is happy to admit that the Russian government has its issues, so long as you don't pretend they're the only ones. Shteyn believes that any country that's advanced technologically is probably interfering in other countries' elections. Her argument is buoyed by a recent Fox News segment, where former CIA director James Woolsey admitted with a laugh that the United States "probably" interferes in other elections.  As for more serious charges, like the killing of political opponents, Shteyn doesn't shy away.

"I totally believe that that happens," she said. "I believe that it happens in all countries... I think that all political powers have some kind of hand in something like that, not just Russia or Ukraine."

She's been happy to see that President Trump is reaching out to Russia, and thinks he has done a better job than former president Obama at forging a relationship with Putin.

"Just because he's Russian, I think people felt that you have to be against him," Shteyn said. "But that's just how I feel… it's hard to say something like that out loud, but that's just my personal opinion."

Elena, 34, born in Moscow, Russia and currently living in Detroit, Michigan.

"I do not like to follow or discuss politics, it brings me down," Elena told me in an email. "It's been awkward sometimes to tell people I am Russian when Russians are so widely vilified. I wish both Russians and Americans traveled more to each other's countries to learn that we are not that different."

Elena worked as a journalist, photographer and editor in Russia, mostly for English-language media. Sometimes, she'd break from her entertainment beat to cover business and news stories, but described that work as "nothing ground-breaking."

Elena was visiting family in the United States when she met the owner of a language services company. The owner became interested in Elena's multilingual skills and recruited her for a job at her company. Without even looking, she stumbled into full-time work and became sponsored on H1-B, a coveted work visa for immigrants in the United States.

"I just wanted to see what America is like, take some portraits here, and go back home in a year," she wrote. "But stayed when I started dating my future husband. Now I am here on a green card."

She described her family as multinational, and said that the best thing about America is "its beautiful and rich diversity." 

The worst? 

"Racism… Most of the people I know there [in Russia] are open-minded and educated. I still love Russia, even though the U.S. feels more like home now."

Since coming to the United States, Elana said she has also kept hearing something disturbing on television and online: that Russians are monsters. She said she's even heard this from Hollywood. It bewildered her. She shared her hope with A Plus that any story about Russian-Americans would "express facts" and not make it seem like Russians "want America's downfall."

"I wish Americans knew that Russians do not wish to destroy their country," she said. "Just like vice versa is probably not true. Despite politicians' actions, people in general are not the hateful, blood-thirsty monsters they might seem to be."

Sergei Dolukhanov, 30, born in Moscow, Russia and currently living in Cranford, New Jersey.

When Sergei Dolukhanov reads American publications, he has a carefully curated process: he'll look through about 10 or 15 sources related to a topic or news story, hoping to be able to piece together the ultimate truth from 10 or 15 "different spins."

"Everyone has their own political agenda in the U.S.," Dolukhanov said. "So it's kind of hard to decipher whats real and what's not, so I try to just look at as many sources as I can."

Sergei and his wife at St. Basils cathedral in Moscow.  Sergei Dolukhanov

It's not just American media he's wary of, though. Dolukhanov, whose parents still have an apartment in Moscow he visits occasionally, says the Russian media is different, but worse.

"Russian media is propaganda straight from the government, whereas American media is a giant ratings competition," Dolukhanov said. "There is a different angle, but it's the same result in a way... you can actually sift through and find the truth in the American media, for the most part, because someone is going to cover it. But in Russian media, you just can't get the facts you need."

Dolukhanov came to the United States when he was just turning three years old. Thanks to a short stint in Russian school and his trips back home, he's managed to stay pretty fluent in Russian. He said he always finds different reasons to go back — he's taken his wife and, most recently, he went for 25 days to move his grandmother out of her apartment.

"Going back is really great because the people in Russia are cool, but it's just like obviously the government is a little psycho," Dolukhanov said. "They were sending me army recruitment letters even to my grandmother's house in early 2010… my grandma got a letter like, 'Hey, we need to get him into the army.'"

With a laugh, Dolukhanov said he opted to continue being a student in the United States. 

He described the Russian government as a "brutal regime" where you "can disappear pretty quickly if things don't go their way," and notes that they often oppress free speech.

Sergei Dolukhanov

"It's hard to say what he [Putin] is thinking or what the Russian government is thinking at all times because they are not really transparent with their agenda," he said. "They are very tight lipped… it's hard to articulate an opinion based on actual facts with them because its just a lot of smoke and mirrors."

Part of the difficulty is not encountering the corruption on a day-to-day basis, Dolukhanov said. The most obvious issue that you'll see on the ground in Russia, he said, is one the United States deals with too: wealth inequality. 

Yana Mulder, 31, born in Ulianovsk, Russia and currently living in Philadelphia.

The first time Yana Mulder came to the United States was 10 years ago. Now that she's working on a green card, she's been surprised at how her home country has become a hot topic in the United States.

"Every time I turn on the TV it's, 'RUSSIA!' 'RUSSIA!' 'RUSSIA!'" Mulder said. "It's my second visit of the U.S., the first time was 10 years ago… I was completely different then and the country here was completely different then." 

Yana Mulder

When she was about to turn 30, Mulder decided to make the move to the United States. The fact that she had made friends here and already had a place to stay made it all easier. She moved to the States on June 10, 2016, and, less than a month later, met the man who would become her husband. 

Mulder is teaching Russian literature while she pursues a career in acting. But back home in Russia, Mulder had experience in tourism, as an artist selling murals, and in journalism. Like many of the Russian-Americans we spoke to, she hated how the government of Russia and its people were often conflated.

"We need to separate the government from people who live in the country," Mulder said. "What they show on television, and I'm talking about television worldwide, should not be taken into consideration by anyone. I'm not just talking about Russian television, I'm talking about the United States coverage, too." 

She explained that when she worked in Russian television news, she covered constitutional issues and human rights. She saw a lot of human rights violations, and said that affected her opinion of Putin, who she does not support. Through colleagues and friends, she also heard about instances where journalists were told what to write or intentionally changed language in an article to make the government look better. But she made it clear that the situation is still complicated, and noted there was a long history of corruption in Russia before Putin. 

Mulder also emphasized that it's on us, the people, to use the internet to get to know each other. In her eyes, there aren't so many differences between Russia and America, and people might be surprised to learn how much Russians and Americans have in common. 

"In modern times we can change the situation and really understand that we need to be more kind with each other and find out more about other cultures," Mulder said. 

Cover image via Shutterstock / Evan El-Amin.

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