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Russian Americans divided over Trump, fear another Cold War

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 20/10/2017 Colby Itkowitz

a woman smiling and posing for a picture: Anastasia Kurteeva, left, who lives with her girlfriend Maria Shtabskaya in West Hollywood, worries about a new Cold War. © Brinson+Banks/For The Washington Post Anastasia Kurteeva, left, who lives with her girlfriend Maria Shtabskaya in West Hollywood, worries about a new Cold War. WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Anastasia Kurteeva worries about a new Cold War.

She’s afraid that escalating tensions between the United States and Russia will make it harder for people to travel freely between the countries, harder for her parents in Moscow to visit.

The U.S. government’s decision in August to temporarily suspend nonimmigrant travel visas from Russia in retaliation for cutting U.S. diplomatic personnel confirmed her fears. Hostility between the countries has only grown since then, with revelations that Russian operatives purchased thousands of Facebook ads exploiting social divides in the United States during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

“I heard stories about the Cold War and how scary it was for both sides to be in that kind of war,” said Kurteeva, who immigrated to the United States in 2002. “Russian Americans are in the worst situation, because you’re in between two countries and you have ties to both of them.”

For Russian Americans, renewed acrimony between their native country and their adoptive home is stirring memories of a time when Russia was enemy No. 1 in the United States. Their fears have merit: A CNN poll in August found that 89 percent of Americans see Russia as a threat, a proportion almost as large as during the height of the Cold War in 1983, when 96 percent feared Russia.

That political climate has revealed a generational divide in America’s community of Russian immigrants, between an older wave of Jewish refugees who fled the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War and a younger cohort who, like Kurteeva, arrived with high expectations for a richer life and no memory of the international strife.

In this city of trendy clubs and restaurants known primarily for its gay community, an enclave of older Russian immigrants — largely supporters of President Trump — say the accusations of collusion between the president and Russia have no merit and remind them of the political corruption of their homeland. But among younger Russians, Trump is a stain on their American Dream, a replica of the authoritarian persona they detest in Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

Kurteeva, who became a U.S. citizen in 2012, is a lot like the city she lives in, straddling dual identities. She lives in the gay neighborhood of West Hollywood, with her girlfriend, Maria Shtabskaya, who also is Russian.

On a late August afternoon, the model-tall 33-year-old slid into a booth next to Shtabskaya at a dimly lit, upscale restaurant near Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive. Kurteeva is freer with her critiques of the Russian government than Shtabskaya, who is more concerned with presenting a favorable view of Russians. When Kurteeva mentions Putin and her worries that he’ll stop Russians from traveling to the United States, Shtabskaya hits her leg under the table.

Kurteeva expresses similar skepticism toward Trump, her politics firmly aligned with her life in the United States.

“When the election came out, it’s like, who do you associate with more, as a gay person or as a Russian?” she said. “I’m more concerned about gay issues than the Russian-American relationship.”

A generational divide

On one summer evening, several dozen Russian-speaking residents gathered for a neighborhood party at Plummer Park, a popular hangout for West Hollywood’s Russians. Russian pop music blared from a small portable speaker and pirozhki, a small oval Russian pie, was served up alongside pizza boxes. Nearby is a monument to Soviet Army soldiers who died during World War II, where men gather daily to play chess and reminisce.

They speak almost exclusively in Russian and shop primarily in Russian-owned stores. Because many don’t speak English, they watch state-run television from Moscow.

They tend to be Republican and sympathetic to Trump, specks of red in an overwhelmingly blue neighborhood. Democratic policies remind them of the socialism they escaped.

Raisa Aguf, a redhead with an equally fiery personality, donned a red apron and served up the casual fare. She moved here from Latvia in 1980 when it was still under Soviet rule. She started the first Russian travel agency in West Hollywood, and she’s a longtime member of the Russian Advisory Board, a group created by the city council to address the needs of the immigrant community.

Aguf, a senior who declined to give her age, said she loves the United States. But based on what she sees on Russian television news about the investigations into meddling in the election and collusion with Trump, it’s hard to know “what’s right, what’s wrong.”

Regardless, she supports Trump’s politics and thinks he’s getting a raw deal.

“I voted for him, and I believe he could do [the job] if people let him,” she said.

person smiling for the camera: Raisa Aguf, who moved here from Latvia in 1980, supports Trump and thinks he’s getting a raw deal. © Brinson+Banks/For The Washington Post Raisa Aguf, who moved here from Latvia in 1980, supports Trump and thinks he’s getting a raw deal. For many former Soviet Jews, the allegations of collusion remind them of the life they left behind, where a casual meeting could lead to accusations of political crimes. Andrew Korobkov, a professor of Russian studies at Mid-Tennessee University, says that the endless focus on Russians ultimately empowers Putin.

“It goes way beyond the McCarthyism, the amount of time devoted to Russia, the level of viciousness,” Korobkov said. “I think the only person who enjoys the current hysteria is Putin, because he was made a superhero in the U.S. media and his powers are mostly exaggerated.”

Among a younger cohort of Russian immigrants, there is disappointment that Trump won the election. Farhad Yusupov, the current chairman of the Russian Advisory Board and one of the few members who is not older or Jewish, called Trump “a puppet.”

He has no doubt that the Russians tampered with the U.S. election, and he was devastated by its outcome.

“Those older people at home, they watch Russian TV. Some — believe it or not — like Putin. Some of them like Trump,” said Yusupov, 48. “Most of my friends are Russian, but most of my friends are more liberal. Our first years in America, our favorite show was ‘Seinfeld,’ and that’s what molded us.”

Battling stereotypes

One day, Nina Pankratz bumped into a neighbor in her apartment building. He was having computer problems and asked her, “Do you know any good Russian hackers?”

A professional theatrical actress in Moscow, Pankratz has struggled to find work since she moved to the United States in 1994. The closest she has come to a big break was last year when she had six callbacks for the Russian spy drama “The Americans.” She worries she’s too “smiley” to play the archetypal Russian.

It’s why her agent tells his Russian clients to lose their accents for any chance at a diversity of roles. Russians are Hollywood’s remaining acceptable typecasted villain — no one is offended by a Russian bad guy.

Pankratz describes herself as apolitical, but the intense focus on Russians as sleuths can be annoying, she said. She is nostalgic for her home country: She criticizes the rigidity of American rules and laws, fears getting pulled over by a U.S. police officer and wonders why her 21-year-old son is expected to be so serious about his future instead of enjoying his youth.

More concerning, she knows all too well how family members in both countries could suffer from intensifying tensions between the United States and Russia.

Pankratz moved to Nashville to follow her husband, a frontman for a 1980s Christian rock band called Ruscha. She was eight months pregnant, knew barely any English and was terribly homesick.

Though the Cold War had thawed, relations between the United States and Russia were still tenuous. When her mother planned a visit to meet her new grandson, she waited in the cold for hours outside the U.S. consulate for her visa only to be denied without explanation, Pankratz said.

She never saw her mother again. Two months later, her mother died of a heart attack. A broken heart, Pankratz believes.

Now Pankratz lives in Los Angeles, and on a recent evening here, she gathered some fellow Russian friends to celebrate her 51st birthday on her apartment building balcony, with sweeping views of palm trees against a dazzling pink-and-orange sunset.

They sipped Putinka vodka — a Russian brand inspired by Putin — and ate red beets with herring. They spoke almost exclusively in Russian.

Her friend Cyril Zima, a 33-year-old filmmaker who moved from Moscow several years ago, said that the stereotypes about Russians are distorted, but it’s no different than stereotypes of Americans as fat, gun-slinging cowboys who eat cheeseburgers.

For Kurteeva, America is her home. But, she said, the media often mistakenly presents the conflict with Russia in black and white terms.

“It’s not all Russians are bad and all Americans are good,” Kurteeva said. “I think the U.S. has as many intelligence spies as Russia.”

Shtabskaya scrunched her face.

“I have no comments for that,” she said.

“I still think there’s a long way to go to understand each other,” Shtabskaya said. “There’s already too much negativity.”

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