What Philly's Russians think of Trump and Putin

Customers leave Petrovsky Market on Friday morning, March 3, 2017.

Vera Maydel, for decades a part of Philadelphia’s Russian community, has a question about the swirl of allegations and disclosures surrounding President Trump’s ties to her homeland:

Why all the fuss?

Surely no one truly believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin helped turn the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

“Stupid people think that,” said Maydel, 62, waiting on customers at the Euro Home Expo, a few doors down from the Petrovsky Market on Bustleton Avenue.

Even if there were discussions between the incoming administration and Russian officials, she asked, what of it?

“He’s the president!” Maydel said. “That should be it.”

In the Philadelphia region, the former Soviet population has been growing for years, turning some neighborhoods into good places to find a nice khachapuri, the traditional Georgian cheese bread.

Today that community has never been more in focus, as reported contacts between aides to Trump and Putin become the subject of federal investigations and critical daily news coverage.

The FBI is checking into possible Russian interference in the election, and probing possible links between Trump and Putin associates. The House and Senate intelligence committees are conducting their own inquiries.

To some here it sounds like so much partisan, political bombast — and to others like evidence of nefarious dealings.

Camera icon david swanson / Staff Photographer
Julie Kirillova, 53, who emigrated from Russia in 1994, fears her adopted country is slipping toward a familiar authoritarianism.
 

Julie Kirillova, a nurse who lives in Bala Cynwyd, is suspicious.

“We want to see Mr. Trump's tax returns, to make sure he doesn't have dealings with Russia," she said.

Kirillova, 53, who emigrated from Russia in 1994, fears her adopted country is slipping toward a familiar authoritarianism.

“Where should we run now?” she asked. “We run from Russia, from Mr. Putin. Where should we run now?”

Former Soviet citizens and their families have settled in Montgomery County, Bucks County, and Center City, changing the makeup of towns like Bristol, Bensalem, and Cherry Hill. They’ve concentrated in two neighborhoods in far Northeast Philadelphia, Somerton and Bustleton.

There, sidewalk racks hold stacks of free Russian-language newspapers, and the meaty Russian Yellow Pages is the go-to source to find lawyers, accountants, florists, bakers, or bankers who speak the language.

Yet the word Russian is an imperfect description. Many people identify more closely with the cultures and traditions of places like Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, which became independent upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Interviews showed splits in opinions on the importance of alleged Trump-Russia ties, generally between older, more conservative immigrants and those who are younger, newer to the country, and often more liberal.

“I’m devastated by the pro-Trump Russian community’s stand,” said Vera Golubkova, 34, who lives in Flemington, N.J., where she connects to ex-pat communities in Philadelphia and New York. “A lot of people mentally never left the Soviet Union.”

She was 19 when she arrived from Russia in 2003, shortly after Putin took power. She watched as he dismantled the leadership of independent newspapers and TV stations — and now as Trump calls journalists the “enemy of the American people.”

“I’m having deja vu,” said Golubkova, a clinical physiologist. “All the rhetoric, all the phrases are so familiar.”

Philadelphia is home to an estimated 26,000 Russian speakers, many of them the children of immigrants. The 14,555 foreign-born residents of former Soviet countries make up less than 1 percent of the city population, but exert greater impact in the Northeast. In four Somerton census tracts, immigrants from Soviet lands compose more than 20 percent of the population. In one tract, it’s 34 percent.

Many were drawn to the tip of the city by family ties or job opportunities or, as Jews, by the promise of religious freedoms. In some ways, it’s an unlikely setting, a place long immune to change. Until the 1950s, the Far Northeast was mostly fields and cow pastures. The postwar baby boom and construction of new, suburban-style housing attracted better-off white families, who were soon supported by new schools, churches, and shopping centers.

Today Somerton and Bustleton remain largely residential, still mostly white but also hosting immigrants from India, Pakistan, Israel, and the Philippines. People who want Vietnamese pho soup or a Syrian hookah lounge can find it.

On Bustleton Avenue, the Lumar Shopping Center serves Russian speakers, as does the Presidential Plaza Shopping Center, where Entertainment from Russia sits near Euro Home Expo. Amid an inventory of curtains, rings, and rods, Maydel explained that when she arrived 30 years ago from Soviet-controlled Belarus, she thought she was coming to paradise.

And she was wrong. The politicians talked endlessly but did little. Only now, she said, is a strong president taking firm action — to bar dangerous immigrants, to build a wall at the Mexican border, to fight ISIS overseas.

“Everything he does, I like it,” she said.

A common refrain in the Northeast is that Trump will work to improve the country because he doesn't need to turn the government into his personal piggy bank.

“This is a president who doesn’t need the job,” said Walter Katz, 62, who works at a clothing shop. “He’s rich. He is powerful. What does he need this job for?”

Katz came here in 1977, with $400 and 400 words of English. His own American dream ended in 1987, when a gunman walked into his Center City jewelry store, shot and killed a coworker, then shot him in face. Since then, Katz has used a pseudonym when talking to strangers, worried that the gunman may come after him.

He doesn’t believe Putin influenced the election. But that doesn’t mean the nation or the president shouldn’t be wary of Putin.

“Trump is dealing with a professional spy. Never forget that,” Katz said. “For some reason, people who are his opponents die.”

Camera icon brianna spause / Staff Photographer
Editorial director Malvina Yakobi (left) and editor-in-chief Olga Ratnovsky review the latest issue of Philadelphia News, a popular Russian newspaper and website. 

Even some of those who follow news revelations about Trump’s possible Russian links see him as a tough leader who’ll keep the country safe.

“I like his ideas,” said Malvina Yakobi, editorial director of a popular Russian newspaper, Philadelphia News. “We voted against Clinton — the corruption. Enough is enough.”

Trump says he hasn’t called Russia in 10 years, and there’s no need for a special prosecutor to investigate. At the same time he’s attacked journalists’ reports on possible Russian meddling as fake news.

Elina Kogan believes it's real.

She came to the United States shortly after the 9/11 attacks, having first immigrated to Israel as a Russian refugee from Ukraine. Now 43, she runs iBrainGym, a children’s math-learning company in Marlton.

She’s sure that Putin and Russian agencies interfered in the election, that information on Trump’s dealings with Russia is being hidden, and that it all spells trouble for America.

“My hope is the American institutions will work to stop him," she said. "This is why we came to this country, because the system will stop him.”