February 22, 2020

Many Russian expats expect ‘strong’ Trump leadership

West Hollywood resident Roman Finarovsky was sitting on a bench recently, watching his fellow seniors play chess and dominoes in Plummer Park. Not long before, he had cast his vote for Donald Trump, and now he was thrilled to find out his candidate had won the presidential election.

“Trump is going to be a strong leader,” the 76-year-old Russian Jew said. “He keeps his word. He will do everything in his power for people.”

As shock spread across the United States following a bitter election season that divided the nation, many Russian expats in the Los Angeles area united in their support of Trump.

Steven Windmueller, a professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles who has been studying American Jewish voting patterns for decades, said that while there’s no real data on the issue, his interactions with the community support this conclusion — as did more than a dozen interviews conducted for this story.

“They expressed to me their belief that the nation needed ‘a strong man’ to deal with the external threats to the country,” Windmueller wrote to the Journal in an email. “Several suggested to me that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Trump would work well together, as they marveled at [Putin’s] leadership, and they were hoping that Mr. Trump would emulate that model within this country. They also believed that Donald Trump would be ‘great’ for Israel!”

There are about 500,000 Russian Jews in the U.S., or roughly 10 percent of the American Jewish population, according to a recent study. Approximately 80,000 Russian Jews reside in Los Angeles.

There are numerous reasons cited by members of the Russian Jewish community for supporting Trump and his policies. Many Russian-speaking Jews welcomed Trump’s anti-immigration promises, despite being immigrants or the descendants of recent immigrants.

“Trump is against undocumented immigrants,” said Boris Reitman, a West Hollywood resident who moved from Ukraine 18 years ago. “His polices will target those who are in the country illegally.”

A deeper look at Soviet history might explain why expats — the majority of them Jewish refugees who fled anti-Semitism between 1970 and 1990 — appear so unsympathetic to other refugees and immigrants, said Robert English, director of the USC School of International Relations.

“They see themselves as sort of naturally Americans,” he said. “They are white people and they are from the big country that occupies a whole continent, a former superpower. They look at Latinos, Asians and Muslims and see people who don’t really belong here.”

Putin also was at the center of why a number of Russian Jews supported Trump — although sometimes for opposite reasons.

In some cases, they liked that the Russian leader endorsed Trump on multiple occasions and that Trump said he would get along with Putin. Others, like Finarovsky, said Trump will do a better job than President Barack Obama in keeping the Russian leader in check.

“Unlike Obama, Trump is not going to let Putin do whatever he wants,” he said. “Putin feels weakness and he uses it against people.

In the past few months, relations between Russia and the United States have deteriorated over accusations that Putin’s administration hacked the U.S. election and took controversial military actions in Syria and Ukraine. Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., said in September at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., that the relationships between two countries reached “the lowest point since the Cold War.”

Other Russian Jews looked to Israel as a reason behind their vote. Igor Lerman, 66, the owner of a bookstore in West Hollywood who moved to the U.S. 24 years ago from Ukraine, said he admires Trump because of his support of the Jewish community.

“Trump promised to move Israel’s capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” he said. “And I respect him for that.”

But not all Russian Jews endorsed Trump. Igor Mikhaylov, an engineer who immigrated to Los Angeles from Ukraine in 1989, said everyone in his family voted for Hillary Clinton.

“Clinton is a strong and experienced leader that puts America’s interests first. She isn’t using the presidency to enrich her own business interests like Trump,” Mikhaylov, 38, said. “Clinton’s secretary of state record speaks of her willingness to stand against Vladimir Putin’s expansionist plans that are dangerous to peace on the European continent and the security of former Soviet republics. Hillary Clinton’s background appeals to me. As an immigrant, it instills hope and exemplifies a quintessential American story of a simple blue-collar family that worked hard to reach the top.”

Some Russian expats refrained from supporting either candidate. Valeriy Yakovlev, a West Hollywood resident who moved from Moscow 11 years ago, said he opted not to vote because neither candidate was worthy.

“Why, out of 300 million people in this country, they didn’t find two decent candidates?” Yakovlev said. “I don’t know.”