“MISHA AND GRISHA ARE WAITING FOR YOU!” reads the ad in the local Russian paper. And indeed they are—a pair of Soviet-born, Russian-speaking auto mechanics with either the good fortune or the awful luck to be living and working in the United States just in time for Cold War Two.
“People are crazy,” Misha Zhuravel is saying in the office of the body shop. It is morning in America—but for a paranoid percentage of the population, and a substantial fraction of Congress, it is Red Dawn redux. “They say Putin is listening to every device. This is crazy—you don’t have to put any devices. Your phone is listening to you 24 hours anyway.”
Spying, snooping, listening, lurking, meddling, corrupting, bugging your Bugatti—from the halls of Congress to Misha (Mike) Zhuravel and Grisha (Greg) Pievsky at the Sudbrook Car Care Center in Pikesville, Md.—the suburb of Baltimore that has the highest percentage of native Russian speakers in the country—America’s three million immigrant and ethnic Russkies are hearing it all, all over again.
“It looks like Senate and Congress are looking to start second Cold War,” says Misha, a wry and roly-poly grease monkey from Minsk who has been in the United States for a quarter of a century. “Putin does not do this. I am not a Trump guy, but I blame it all on the Democrats right now. They are supposed to stay quiet and let Trump do his job. Instead, it is ‘Russia is this and this and this,’ and in Russia it is ‘America is this and this and this.’ It is all propaganda started by Mrs. Clinton because she lost the election.”
The next thing you know, they will stop serving Russian dressing and the Cincinnati Reds will have to change their name again, just as they did in 1953.
“If you’re a Russian-speaking blonde woman, you are supposed to play tennis and you are a spy,” says Svetlana Negrustuyeva, an international-development consultant in Washington, D.C., and a Russian-speaking blonde. “Probably they are joking, but I get that—All. The. Time.”
“Are you a spy?” she is asked.
“I wish,” she replies.
While Congress, the FBI and an independent counsel probe Russia’s role (if any) in the election of Donald Trump—and as Mother Russia becomes once again the bête noire of America’s rickety democracy—the summer of 2017 can be an uncomfortable time to have a name like Negrustuyeva.
“There’s not a single day when there’s no news about Russia, whether it’s actually said by Trump or there’s some kind of hidden agenda from somebody else,” she observes. “At every dinner table, it’s always a discussion now. Before Trump was in power, everybody always asked me about Putin and how horrible he is. But now, nobody really asks because everybody is ashamed or afraid. There is this agony over Putin. I think it’s the beginning of the next phase of the Cold War.
“Russia is an easy target, partially because Russians stand up for their culture. You can’t really have a meaningful discussion because the way American media portrays it, Russia is just bulldozing over everybody, which you could also say about the United States of America, but people just don’t want to admit that.
“My belief is that it’s good to have a balance of powers. It’s not like I get harassed on the streets of Washington, D.C.—I know that we live in a bubble; people would not be so ignorant here—but it has raised a lot of questions. The one Republican friend that I have on Facebook, if I am critical of Trump or the American health care system or the American educational system, he immediately attacks me on Putin. At the NATO meeting when Trump shoved the president of Montenegro out of the way, his reaction was, ‘Well, at least he didn’t take his shirt off and jump on a horse.’
“People before said, ‘You are not an American citizen and you cannot be critical of this wonderful country.’ Well, now I am and I can.”
“We are not exactly living in Brighton Beach,” says Marina Chester, a software developer in Milwaukee whose parents brought her to the U.S. when she was 17. (The Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn in New York City is a hotbed of cold borscht.) “But our daughter was recently elected as the leader of her school’s robotics team, so some of the other kids were saying that the Russians meddled in that election. It was mostly joking. Nothing serious.
“Also, we hear joking about internment camps like they did for the Japanese. But we are American citizens. Our kids are indistinguishable from other American kids. But if you watch TV, it’s like the roundup could happen the next day. How are they going to do it—by religion?”
“If you walk on the street or go in a store, people are not going to tell you to your face, ‘Get out of our country,’” says Alexei Tarasov, a Russia-born oil-patch and immigration attorney with offices in Houston and Oklahoma City and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, which is about as red-state as you can get. “There is no open discrimination, but there is a subtle and I think a very cautious attitude. For example, I think a company would think twice now before they would hire a Russian, and those stereotypes that should have long ago become extinct, such as the association of Russian people with the acronym KGB, an organization that ceased to exist in the early 1990s, are still alive in American society today.
“People would see a young and beautiful Russian woman working in a prestigious position and instantaneously conclude she is employed by Russian intelligence. I don’t say these things from movies, but from real life and real clients.”
Yet real life also has offered Anna Chapman, who was unmasked as a spy in New York in 2010 and who, on her return to the Kremlin along with nine other two-legged moles, was named to the Young Guard of United Russia by Vladimir Putin, not to mention the 35 Russian diplomats who were expelled by Barack Obama in December 2016. When Putin declined to give an equal number of American agents the heave-ho, Donald Trump tweeted, “Great move on delay—I always knew he was very smart!”
Stir in Syria, Edward Snowden, economic sanctions, Obama’s description of Putin as a fellow who sometimes appears “like a bored kid in the back of the classroom,” Hillary Clinton’s perceived meddling in the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow government and last year’s electoral mischief, and it’s no wonder that you have a member of Congress named Ted Lieu from California wearing a “TRUMP PUTIN 2016” T-shirt and tweeting, “Our 11-year-old just asked me if President Trump was part Russian. That would be really funny if it wasn’t so really scary.”
“What I read in the media all the time is that Russia hacked the election,” says Olena Hoffstetter, a high school mathematics teacher in tiny Carrollton, Ill., (population 2,500) whose Russian-language Instagram postings of life in Middle America (under the name Alena_America) have gained 127,000 followers, many of them in the former U.S.S.R. “In our school, we got a letter that said that Russia hacked the school district!” says Hoffstetter. “You know how American people react? They say, ‘Oh those Russians are so smart!’
“It is like when I came to this community. The first couple of years, they would say, ‘I don’t understand her English and that’s why I got a bad grade.’ But when they started to get high grades on the standardized tests, they could no longer use that excuse.
“I am there already five years and the scores are going up. Americans don’t give homework but I give homework. In America, they like to play games with students and I just teach.”
Hoffstetter notes with amusement that, as far as she knows, she is the only Russian who resides within 50 km of Carrollton. Her son Igor, 16, boards at a specialized academy for math and science students closer to Chicago.
“He’s a smart kid,” she says. “But he can’t read or speak Russian. He thinks Russia is the enemy. He posts on Facebook that Russia is the enemy. His attitude is, ‘How could America allow Russia to interfere?’”
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, Hoffstetter says, “is not a terrorist, and he’s not a hero either. He has stayed too long as president but the first eight years, he was good for Russia. Russia needs a strict president, but then he became like a dictator a little bit. I don’t like this situation, but I still respect him. My colleagues voted for Hillary Clinton but I voted for Trump because he is a businessman and I hoped he would take care of the economy. We’re still waiting.”
“It has already started and it is more dangerous than the first Cold War,” says Edward Lozansky, a former dissident who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1976. “ ‘Putin is the Antichrist. Putin is worse than Gadhafi. Putin is worse than Saddam Hussein. Putin is worse than Bin Laden.’ One spark in the Baltics, and this could blow up the world.
“The president is basically paralyzed. Any hint from him on Twitter that we have to repair this relationship, and then it is, ‘You are a stooge. You are Putin’s puppet. You are either directly paid by Putin or you are merely a useful idiot.’
“In the Soviet Union, it was the same. Either the CIA was paying you or you were a schizophrenic and they put you in a mental hospital. Here, they don’t put you in a mental hospital. Yet.”
Among numerous other business and educational interests, Lozansky owns a D.C. watering hole named Russia House, where underachieving Ovechkins and ordinary guzzlers have been coexisting peacefully for years, despite the overheated rhetoric emanating from the Capitol. “No one has been throwing any stones through the windows,” Lozansky says. “No one has been boycotting, even in Washington, and Washington hates Trump.”
The concierges where Lozansky resides used to call him “Mr. Gorbachev” and later “Mr. Yeltsin.” Now, thanks to his lemony pompadour, they call him “Mr. Trump,” and people stop him on the street to ask if he is a relative of the combover-in-chief. But in 2017, being seen as an avatar of Donald Trump often translates into being a patsy of the Evil Empire’s president-for-life.
“On the web, they call me ‘Putin’s stooge.’ They don’t even ask me if I am a spy. They are sure.”
“I remember the Cold War and being called a Russian spy,” says Xenia Woyevodsky, a Washington educator who is helping a group of parents establish a Russian-immersion charter school to be called the Tolstoy Academy for children aged five and up. (Countess Alexandra Tolstaya, daughter of the author of War and Peace, became an American citizen.) “But back then, at least people were educated; there were Russian studies programs, people believed in ‘know thine enemy.’
“Today, I fear the ignorance and the hysteria and the fact that people really don’t know what they’re talking about. Social media is driving this into complete hysteria.”
A dozen men and women, some with toddlers and infants in tow, have come to a D.C. library to learn about Woyevodsky’s hope that the school might serve as a first step toward normalizing the Russian fact in Donald Trump’s United States.
“I speak Russian, and I want my kid to speak Russian” is a common refrain among the parents. One American-born woman says that her son wants to learn the language of Baryshnikov, Dostoyevsky and Sharapova so that he can become an astronaut. A PowerPoint presentation by the proponents of the Tolstoy Academy stresses their hope that it might “encourage a deeper understanding of Russia, its people, history and culture in order to break down stereotypes.”
“I think we’ll pull through this,” says Alexei Tarasov, the Oklahoman. “American society is very inclusive. It’s not like the situation with Jews on the eve of the Second World War in Germany…The news is the main culprit. The Russian individuals who are living in the United States are not ardent followers of the Russian regime and they do not necessarily reflect all the values of the Russian regime. They take pride in their roots and they share that pride with their Russian compatriots, but these people live in America, they have made America their home, they have children who were born here and they are very much a part of American society as any other immigrant.”
“You can’t demonize Putin—he isn’t Stalin,” Woyevodsky pleads. “Yeltsin was a drunk, he brought in Putin, and Putin’s soft power stabilized the country. The country is stable. We’ve got to cool the rhetoric or this is going to end really badly.”
Back in Pikesville, Misha the mechanic agrees. “It will get worse not only for Russians,” he says. “It will get worse for everybody.”
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