The American Jews Who Are Proud to Be Pro-Putin

An alarming number of Jews who fled authoritarian Soviet Russia for America are now admirers of Mr. Putin, a peculiar show of intellectual sclerosis and utter ethical failure

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Russian nesting dolls depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are displayed at a souvenir shop in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Russian nesting dolls depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are displayed at a souvenir shop in St. Petersburg, Russia.Credit: Dmitri Lovetsky, AP

In 1990, I had just turned 16. The Soviet Union was almost ‘Kaddish-ready’ and my entire family was departing the land many of us loved to call our ‘prehistoric homeland’.  Among my Jewish family friends hardly anyone didn’t want to leave and didn’t hate the country; almost all admired the West in general and the U.S. in particular. That was my impression as an adolescent and I missed a lot of nuances. Nevertheless, the general picture was correct.

Since 1970, between 500-700,000 Russian-speaking Jews have settled in the U.S. Roughly a third arrived between 1970-1992 and the rest after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cultural differences between these two groups, though evident in the early years of acclimatization, have almost disappeared.

The vast majority of Russian-speaking Jews now live in the large metropolitan areas: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area. There is no hard data indicating their political inclinations. However, the little formal information available (such as exit polls in districts where they’re demographically strong) and anecdotal evidence suggest the majority tend to vote Republican. They definitely tend to be more conservative than the rest of the secular Jewish American public. 

It’s been many years since I left Russia. In the meantime, phoenix-like, the ‘evil empire’ has resurrected itself from the ashes of history. It is a wounded and a vengeful beast. That is not surprising at all. What is surprising is an alarming number of Russian-origin American Jews have also reincarnated into admirers of - or simply “at peace” with - Mr. Putin and his policies. There are a number of reasons for this peculiar show of intellectual sclerosis and utter ethical failure.

For some of the younger generation, identity politics has played an important part in that reassessment. These days everyone in America (more so on the Left) is proud of their “unique” culture and more importantly - their country of origin. That shifting cultural focus has been particularly challenging for these younger American Jews: They often still speak Russian at home and with many of their friends, but they still feel outsiders in terms of the milieu of U.S. Jewish culture; their cultural frame of reference remains surprisingly Russian.

Hence, it’s not irrational for individuals of this group to develop an intense, patriotic pride in Russia, the country that defeated Nazi Germany, and by extension, pride in Vladimir Putin and his attempts to make it great again. The absence of Soviet-style government anti-Semitism means a key obstacle to this process of attachment has been smoothed over.

They have created a clear historical partition in their minds: the authoritarianism of the USSR bears no relationship with the repressive climate of today’s Russia; political biographies have been similarly abbreviated: Putin is a former KGB officer but bears no explicit association with today’s KGB, and so on.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a military parade in front of St.Basil's Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow, 2005Credit: AP Photo/ Misha Japaridze

President Donald Trump is one more factor in these shifting attitudes. Many Russian-speaking Jews have flocked en masse to support him. His direct tone and ‘toughness’ fell on fertile ground. Many abhor the Democratic Party in general and the radical tendencies of its extreme left wing in particular. They tend to think of liberalism as a modern-day reincarnation of Communism, and of Islam as a modern-day Nazism and the biggest threat facing the world. Grey is not a color they know: you’re either with or against them.

For many of these, Mr. Putin’s ongoing support for Trump positively whitewashes away any faults the Russia leader has in his political baggage. As far as they are concerned, those concerns are simply irrelevant. In common with many former Soviet citizens, they view the events of the present through the prism of World War II. Then, the West aligned itself with Comrade Stalin to defeat the great evil. They view Trump’s developing relationship with Putin as similar to that nurtured by Roosevelt with Stalin: immense challenges demand great compromises. The conundrum posed by the American strike in Syria and the successive diplomatic U.S.: Russia tensions is, they hope, a temporary blip.

After all, Putin is no Stalin or even Brezhnev. He has presided over Russia’s biggest economic expansion in its modern history - and, herein, lies the other reason for Russian Jews’ Putin adulation.

A large number of expat Russians (including Russian-speaking Jews who've left Russia) have directly benefited financially from the Russian boom of the past 15 years. They have set up and expanded businesses whose main offices are located in Russia. For most Americans, the Byzantine system of Russian laws and unwritten customs, let alone language, is beyond comprehension. For former Soviets, it is a pure joy, and an opportunity to apply their culturally-specific ‘social’ skills that are largely dispensable in the West. For them, Hillary Clinton’s view  - that the Kremlin was a key opponent of liberal democracy - was their worst nightmare.

Publicly, some of the Russian-speaking U.S. Jews who are invested in Russia don’t frame their argument for Putin in terms of financial benefits. They prefer to use pseudo-ideological reasoning, bordering on the nihilistic, claiming every political system is terrible and, hence, there’s no difference which one prevails, as long as business is as usual.

Billboard showing a pictures of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Danilovgrad, Montenegro, November 16. 2016. Credit: Stevo Vasiljevic, Reuters

It should be noted that those who chose this form of amoral Putin laundering are a minority; there are quite a few businessmen outside this cohort (some whom I know personally and whose friendship I cherish) who resist temptation and separate business from their political inclinations.

The first sign of this malaise appeared at the time of the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014. Suddenly, many otherwise sensible and intelligent Russian-speaking U.S. Jews recited the worst propaganda broadcast on Russian airwaves: that Russia intervened to fight a ‘fascist coup’ in the Ukraine financed by the U.S., UK and Germany. World War Two came calling again, and Russia saved its people again from the encroaching Nazis. In the year following, the longevity of that keen enthusiasm for Russia’s actions have shown the initial response was not an temporary or accidental mass lapse in judgment. Sadly there are only two reasons to defend the indefensible: confusion or money.

A few American Jews are startled and disappointed by the pro-Putin stance of some of their Russian-speaking coreligionists. Unaware of the reasons, they remember nostalgically the brave days of the exodus of the 1990s when hundreds of Soviet Jews would arrive each week gripping suitcases full of items that were precious to them and others that were useless in their new lives. We all need to realize those suitcases contained not only family memorabilia but also ideas and attitudes that form a cultural baggage that dissuade their owners to truly leave Russia behind.

Lev Stesin lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.