Despite Misgivings, Russians in America Will Vote Trump

A stroll through Brighton Beach shows that U.S. Russian-speakers are a lot like other white Americans: They fear high taxes that will ultimately benefit other groups.

Brighton Beach, the heart of Russian America.
Natan Dvir

The claims that Moscow is interfering in the U.S. democratic process are causing an uproar in the American media, but the buzz isn’t exactly buffeting Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the heart of the country’s Russian-speaking community.

Many people on the boardwalk and in the restaurants here have no idea about the hacking into the Democratic Party’s computers and the accusations that the Kremlin did it.

But unlike the stereotype, Russian-speakers in Brighton Beach don’t mention a yearning for a strong leader or doubt a woman’s ability to lead the arsenal of democracy. Instead, they say they’re worried about their financial security and that the Democrats’ welfare policies will mean high taxes that will be invested in other groups.

In an August poll, 50 percent of Americans said they believed that Russia was interfering in the U.S. election campaign, so the Brighton Beachers’ lack of interest may seem surprising. Olga Pirsov, sitting with her friend in the Tatiana Grill, a restaurant famous further afield thanks to a reality series on Russian Americans, says the claims about Kremlin meddling are “only rumors.”

“They say it was Russians who hacked the Democratic Party? Okay, there are bad people among the Americans too,” she says. “And in general, do I have to be responsible for what they did because I’m Russian?”

She sees nothing wrong with the bromance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. “I accept that,” she says. “I’m in favor of peace with other countries around the world; with Russia too.”

Over on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, Tatiana and Sergei Tosorian, who have been married for 45 years, reject the claims that it was Russians who hacked into the Democrats.

“You know, our son could also break into any website when he was young,” laughs Tatiana.

Sergei, a mathematics professor, says he’ll vote for Trump because the Republican’s wealth is a guarantee he’ll aim to protect American interests. “Trump made millions on his own, from which we can conclude that he understands economics. At least he won’t want to do anything that will cause him to lose his assets,” Sergei says.

Tatiana is even more cynical about the democratic process. “As they used to say in Armenia, someone who has served two terms, elect him for the third time,” she says. “Why? Because he’s already had time to steal enough, compared to someone who’ll only now get access to the coffers. Trump is already a millionaire, so now he’ll take care of his country.”

A rare Clinton fan

Prof. Gennady Estraikh, who teaches Yiddish at New York University, is apparently among the few Brighton Beach residents voting for Hillary Clinton. “Many of my acquaintances who teach in Boston are voting for Clinton, but here in Brighton Beach it’s different,” he says.

Estraikh says the support for Trump can be explained by a “Soviet mentality.” “As writer Sholem Aleichem said, you can take the Jew out of the shtetl, but you can’t take the shtetl out of the Jew,” he says. “And the same is true for the Soviet Union.”

Either way, the support for Trump is preventing Russian Clintonites from discussing the election with their friends. “I know that the majority here is in favor of Trump, so I don’t even try to argue with them,” Estraikh says.

To help Russians who feel isolated, the members of the Facebook group Russian Americans Against Trump condemn what they consider his racism and xenophobia.

“It’s a psychological service for the Russian community,” laughs the founder of the group, 43-year-old software developer Michael Yudanin. “Among the Russian community here, support for Trump is almost total, and the members of the group that opposes him wonder how that happened,” he says. “They feel they’re outside the community.”

Wall art in Vilnius, Lithuania of Trump (right) kissing Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Ints Kalnins, Reuters

Yudanin believes that Russian media outlets, based in both Russia and the United States, are responsible. Like many in his Facebook group, he’s worried about Moscow intervening in the election, not to mention the fact that so many Russian Americans seem unfamiliar with the issue.

“People simply don’t want to know about it; after all, they can easily find information about it,” he says.

Nor does he understand how Russian immigrants still support Trump after his declarations about immigrants and foreigners, which should worry America's Russian-speaking Jews, who make up 70 to 90 percent of Russian immigrants.

Yudanin mentions the Moscow-born American journalist Julia Ioffe, the target of anti-Semitic curses and threats from Trump supporters after she penned a profile on Trump’s wife Melania.

“Most of the Russian speakers in the United States are Jews, but the story of Julia Ioffe is almost unknown here,” he says.

Baryshnikov speaks out

A number of Russian celebrities living in the United States have warned against voting for Trump; they fear that his authoritarian tendencies could change the country beyond recognition.

Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov told CNN that Trump’s victory would be a “gift to Putin.” Ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected from the Soviet Union when he was 26, released a video in which he urges people to vote for Clinton.

“I’m hearing rhetoric that reminds me of the Soviet Union of my youth . Hundreds of thousands of people like me have fled from countries led by dangerous totalitarian opportunists like Donald Trump.”

But the notables don’t have much of an effect on the denizens of Brighton Beach. Even those who fled the Soviet Union, many of whom hate Putin, will vote for Trump, even when they think he’s “an idiot,” “is crazy” and “humiliates women.”

Still, there are those worries that the Democrats’ tax policies will trickle down to others.

“Of course it would be preferable if there were a different candidate,” says 84-year-old Yevgeny Rabinovich, who immigrated 20 years ago from Belarus. In the 2012 election he voted for Barack Obama and was disappointed.

“Before his health reform I paid more, but I received better service. Obamacare is expensive, and suddenly without warning the price of health insurance increased by hundreds of dollars per month. Clinton will continue his policy.”

“People have more burning issues than the Russian intervention in the election mainly bread,” says Ekaterina Lefenkova, 42, who works as a home health aide. “We’re all afraid of losing our jobs. Trump promises to restore jobs, and who here in the neighborhood won’t support that?” she says.

“The immigrants living in Brighton Beach worked very hard when they came, and now they pay high taxes that disappear into the welfare system. People who have worked hard all their lives respect Trump, who worked and built himself up,” she adds.

“He doesn’t speak diplomatically, and the way he talks about women is terrible. But what about Clinton? She respects women, she speaks nicely, but what does she really think and what’s she offering? I don’t understand what’s going through her mind and who stands behind her.”