Across from Independence Hall, a street artist recently was drawing a poster with two men she clearly did not admire, President Trump and Vladimir Putin. They were depicted as trampling on the U.S. flag, and on the Liberty Bell between them was a sign reading, “Sold.” Above the picture the artist had written, “Stop selling us to the Russians, Trump.”
Her message reflects what many people in Philadelphia think about the accusations of collusion in last year’s U.S. election, Many, but not everyone.
The city’s Northeast section is home to a large number of Russian Americans. Along Bustleton Avenue, caviar and pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings) are sold in the supermarkets. Signs in Cyrillic letters advertise shoe stores, pharmacies, and hairdressers. Many here do not share the concerns of the street artist downtown. “Everything will be OK” is the common refrain among saleswomen in local stores when asked about Trump. “He can change the country for the benefit of the people.”
The word Russian for this community is not entirely correct. Many immigrants and their families came from Russia, but even more from Ukraine, or Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and other former Soviet republics. Some began arriving in the 1970s, when Moscow lifted the Iron Curtain a little bit and allowed Jews to emigrate. What connects the immigrants from all the former Soviet republics is their common history and language.
Many of them voted for Trump and continue to support him despite his low approval ratings and the turmoil of his first six months in office. As for the allegations of collusion, many Russian Americans dismiss them as part of a conspiracy, disruptive actions by Democrats and the media.
“Trump was presumed guilty and now they are trying to find proof,” says Diane Glikman, 45, host of a Russian-language program on the internet. She represents a view among many along Bustleton that Trump could succeed politically if only given a chance.
I lived in Moscow for a few years and I also know the views of many immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Germany, my home country. There, conservative views predominate among the immigrants, especially among older citizens. More than a few praise Putin as a strong leader and a counterweight to the West, a person who represents their conservative views.
None of the people I spoke to in Philadelphia praised Putin. Gary Vulakh, 57, who came from Ukraine almost 40 years ago and runs a small jewelry repair shop, calls the Russian leader a “terrorist.” Others said the ongoing Russia hacking investigation makes Putin seem stronger than he is. “He is not so powerful,” says Malvina Yakobi, 57, the editorial director of the Russian-English newspaper Philadelphia News. Few believe the Kremlin could meddle in a U.S. election. “Could they do anything like that?” Vulakh wonders. “Everything is done by the Democrats to impeach Trump.”
The Russians in Philadelphia may not fully support Trump’s friendliness toward Putin, but they still back the U.S. president overall, roughly for four reasons.
First, they wish for good relations between the United States and Russia, which they believe will promote peaceful cohabitation and bring more stability to the world.
Second, many separate Trump’s admiration for Putin from his promises on domestic issues. Russian Americans, Yakobi explains, are “the biggest American patriots.” Having escaped the repressive Soviet Union, U.S. values such as freedom and justice are of the utmost importance. So, naturally, they want their new country to succeed.
Third, they like having a successful businessman in the White House instead of just another politician. They want to see a break from politics as usual and an establishment — what Yakobi calls the “corrupted” administration of President Barack Obama — that they see as ignoring the needs of too many in the country.
Fourth, though many themselves were newcomers to the United States, they like a president who promises to stop uncontrolled and illegal immigration. “We waited five or six years to get citizenship,” says Glikman. They earned their blue passports by learning the language and working hard, even in jobs that were far below their education level. They believe, as Glikman says, that Trump “is not against immigrants when they work hard.”
Though the community often leans Republican at election time — Democrats are seen as too “socialist,” like the government many Russian Americans fled — it is not monolithic in its support for the current president. In some cases, a vote for Trump was more a vote against Hillary Clinton. As Yakobi, who came to the United States from Georgia, says, last November’s election did not leave “a great choice.” And even though the president may be a role model for achieving the American dream, not all are on board. “Even within families, there are very different opinions,” Glikman notes. “The Russian community is split up … like the rest of the country.”