The spring of 2017 is maybe nyet the best time to be Russian in Washington.
The drumbeat of news on how the long arm of the Kremlin reached into the American election process last year has become a bit overwhelming for many in the nation’s capital with ties to Russia. Longtime observers note that the allegations of hacking and collusion, and the accompanying barrage of headlines, are unlike anything seen here since before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
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As questions about Russia’s role grow, some here say they are unfairly bearing the brunt of American suspicion. And the spy jokes are getting old.
“When you turn on the TV it’s always Russia, Russia, Russia on every program,” says Igor Efimov, chair of the biomedical engineering department at George Washington University. “This constant everyday thinking that somehow 140 million people are evil is just not appropriate in my opinion.”
Efimov, 53, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Russia in 1992, is a Democrat who voted for Clinton. But he is unhappy that questions about possible collusion in 2016 between Donald Trump’s campaign and Vladimir Putin’s Russia are being used to delegitimize the new president before anything has been proven. And he resents more that all Russians are being painted with the same brush.
“I don’t know what’s behind the allegations, whether or not Russia was involved,” Efimov says. “It could be, but again, I’d like to see the facts first. I am a scientist and I usually base my opinion on facts, not on somebody said so. But if it’s true, which is fully possible, this allegation still doesn’t mean that the whole community is guilty.”
Diplomats and bankers are getting most of the attention in the showdown over Russia. Email hackers too, of course. But in Washington’s Russian and Russian-American community, which is not enormous, there are also teachers and truck drivers, hairdressers and hockey stars. Now, even they are starting to hear questions.
Lily Rozhkova was a journalist in Russia before she moved to the United States in 1999. Most of her friends in Washington are Russian, and the relationship between the two countries has become the first thing they talk about when they all get together.
“We do worry about this,” she says. “We’re just trying to stay optimistic and hope that they just work on the situation and don’t make our worst fears happen.”
Rozhkova, 44, is a green-card holder who works at a real estate office in Virginia. She remembers that when President Barack Obama booted out 35 Russian diplomats and their families in December as a penalty for Russian interference in the election she heard jokes from American friends and colleagues.
“They said, ‘Are you a spy? Do you work with KGB?’ And I told them there’s been no KGB for years,” she said, with a laugh. “They were just making a joke, but that was all.”
As the news churns and allegations grow, however, Rozhkova says the talk is occasionally more serious.
“I would say they are starting to mention Russia more in the past couple of months,” she says. “Before the election, it was more of a joke, but right now the more they hear from TV and media, it’s like this joke, they’re starting to believe it might be true.”
At Mari Vanna, a bustling downtown Washington restaurant favored by Russian expats including Alexander Ovechkin, the star forward for the Washington Capitals, talk about Russia is often in the air. But Tatiana Mis, 27, the restaurant’s manager, says she hasn’t noticed an uptick in apprehension about U.S.-Russia relations.
Sitting next to the bar, where you can choose from 16 flavors of vodka or spend $130 for an ounce of Royal Osetra Black Caviar, Mis, who is from Belarus, points out that the jokes about Russian spies have always been made.
“When I’m talking in Russian on the phone in a grocery store, people will look at me differently,” she says. “But that’s normal. I don’t think they’re saying, ‘Oh she’s spying.’ Everyone’s very nice.”
For Father Victor Potapov, the experience is different. The rector of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Northwest Washington says that “being a Russian American now is almost on par with being a Russian American during the Cold War.”
Potapov, 68, came to the United States in 1950 when he was 2 years old. Growing up in Cleveland, his parents were fervent anti-Communists who always told their son to remind his American friends that there was a big difference between the Soviet regime and the Russian people.
So Potapov was thrilled when the Soviet Union collapsed and a new relationship emerged between the United States and a reborn Russia. Now that relationship is being strained in ways that worry him, at least in the short term. He thinks the issue of election meddling has been overblown and that there has been a lot of misunderstanding about Russia’s role.
“I’m always happy when there’s an American commentator who comes around and says, ‘Wait a minute guys, let’s stop and soberly discuss what’s going on.’ We can’t see a KGB agent behind every bush,” he says. “We’re delighted when there are people out there who write sober articles instead of alarming everybody.”
Potapov’s church is home to 500 families who attend services in Russian and celebrate Russian heritage and traditions. He says he tries to keep politics out of parish life. He knows some in his parish strongly support Putin and Trump and others oppose both men just as vehemently.
“But we all get along,” Potapov said. And that’s what he wants for America and Russia as well. “If only we could get along, what a wonderful world it would be.”
For now though, the effect of all the coverage is making many Russians wary and others are just clamming up altogether.
“The hysteria about Russia in mass media makes people sensitive to this issue and some are not comfortable to publicly talk about it,” says Efimov. “Some fear for their jobs. This is really sad in a democracy.”