Gary Gindler is a frequent guest on Davidzon Radio in Brooklyn, New York. He's a political commentator on a station likened to a Russian-language version of Rush Limbaugh.
And so it was on a spring day in 2014 that Gindler, in his deep Russian voice, started talking about Vladimir Putin and called the leader a "nano-Führer." His distrust and distaste for Russia's president is shared by many in the community.
Gindler immigrated to New York from Ukraine in 1995, a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. His family didn't have much money and faced persecution as Jews.
Today, Gindler abhors policies that to him look like socialism in the US while also hating post-Soviet Putin, who he says suppresses political opposition.
Despite all that, Gindler is now a big supporter of a man who often praises Putin and whose campaign has been accused of colluding with the Russian leader: President Donald Trump.
"One of them is a democratically elected president with all checks and balances upon him," Gindler said of Trump. "Another one is a dictator with unrestricted power over his not citizens — subjects."
In this way Gindler is not unique. During the last election, many of the 800,000 Russian speakers in the US embraced Trump out of disgust for the socialist values that made them flee the Soviet republics. Particularly among the generation of immigrants who came to the US in the 1980s and '90s, the tendency to decry Putin's policies as undemocratic while heralding Trump for his "revolutionary" promises persists. In the April primary, Trump earned 84% of the Republican vote in Brighton Beach, an enclave of Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn nicknamed "Little Odessa."
Gindler dismisses allegations that Putin's Russia helped Trump win. He believes Russia was rooting for Trump but didn't do anything nefarious. It was Trump's promise to crack down on immigration from Muslim countries, decrease taxes, and repeal President Obama's Affordable Care Act that motivated Gindler to support the Republican.
"You shouldn't talk to any Russian-speaking person here in the West and expect any positive words about Putin," said Gindler, a registered independent voter who cast his ballot for Trump in November.
Trump's approval ratings have been sinking in the rest of the population, but among Russian-Americans, support for Trump is still largely going strong even as his administration faces ongoing intense scrutiny over allegations of collaboration with members of the Putin administration.
Samuel Kliger, director of Russian Jewish Community Affairs at the American Jewish Community, said "many are quite satisfied" with Trump's performance and feel it is the Democrats in office who are preventing him from moving the country forward.
Even though both Putin and Trump are conservatives who have waged attacks against the media and have been compared for their "thirst for power" by prominent Russian-American journalists, many of the Russian-speaking Americans who voted for Trump think that the two have nothing in common.
Evgeny Finkel, a political-science professor at the Columbia College of Arts and Sciences, said many of the immigrants who came to the US in the 1980s and '90s embrace Republican values of personal and economic freedom because they wanted to escape "anything that smacks of socialism." Putin, he said, still reminds many of the Soviet ideologies, partly because of the government's culture of cronyism and repression of dissenters.
Support for Trump and a hatred of Putin "can go together because support of Trump in this population is not driven by love of Russia and not even driven so much by Trump’s foreign policy," said Finkel, adding that certain Russian-speaking communities voted Republican for years before Trump came along as a presidential candidate.
But as prominent Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe wrote on her Facebook page, many of the same people who fled anti-Semitism in the former Soviet republics supported a candidate who built his platform on rhetoric and plans many see as discriminatory, such as promises to create Muslim registry.
Whether such views from Russian immigrants are contradictory or not, Jonas Kaplan, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, said it is not uncommon for people to hold conflicting political beliefs, sometimes unconsciously. Even when confronted with contradictory evidence about a candidate, most people will choose to ignore or reconcile views that challenge their worldview rather than grapple with the possibility that they may be wrong.
“When people feel very identified with their political party, it’s very difficult to change your mind because that means changing your relationships with people," said Kaplan, adding that many people build a strong sense of community around politically like-minded people. When you have small groups of people with similar beliefs, fitting in often matters more than being right.
Loyalty to freedom
As such, a continuing loyalty to Trump can continue to move in tandem with a deep dislike for Putin among certain members of the Russian-American community. In fact, many now feel unfairly discriminated against as some assume they're pro-Putin.
“It’s an incorrect assumption that because they are Russian and because they voted for Trump, they also support Putin," said Kliger, who believes that many older people voted for Trump because they "wanted some changes for themselves and for the country" rather than out of support for Russia.
Of course not all Russian immigrants are anti-Putin. Zoya Conover, an art consultant who moved to Atlanta from Moscow in 1999, called both presidents "hardworking" and said that Trump might now have the chance to do for the US what Putin has done for Russia since taking power in 1999.
“He wants Russia for Russians," she said. Putin helped quell middle-class discontent, she said, and created a stronger sense of Russian identity since taking power. She wants to see a stronger alliance between the two countries.
But even as bills aimed to curb protesting are introduced across the US, the more common view among Russian-Americans is that Putin and Trump are opposites.
“People who got freedom here will never tolerate what is going on over there,” said Gindler.
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