‘I am American right now’: Russian immigrants divided over rising hostilities with their native country

|     Colby Itkowitz     |

WITH revelations that Russian operatives purchased thousands of Facebook ads that exploited social divides in the United States during the 2016 presidential campaign, hostility between the two countries is deepening. For Russian-Americans, the renewed acrimony between their native country and their adoptive home is stirring memories of a time when Russia was enemy No 1.

Their fears have merit: A CNN poll in August found that 89 per cent of Americans see Russia as a threat, a proportion almost as large as during the height of the Cold War in 1983, when 96 per cent feared Russia.

We travelled to West Hollywood, the unlikely home of one of the largest Russian-speaking communities in the United States, to talk to recent arrivals and longtime residents about how the political climate has affected their identity as both Russians and Americans. These are some of the responses.

Dima Malanitchev, 54

An Emmy-winning art director for “The Simpsons”, Malanitchev immigrated from Moscow in 1994 for a work opportunity.

“When Barack Obama was elected and I cast my vote, I didn’t consider myself as a Russian-American. That was an American thing for me, and I was really proud of that… Now, with the results of the last election, it pushes you back to your origins. It made me pull back from the government and establishment because I have nothing in common with the way those people see the world or think.”

Alex Gurfinkel, 27

Born in Ukraine under the Soviet Union, Gurfinkel immigrated with his family when he was three years old in 1990.

“When I think of Soviet Russia I think of gloom, constant state of gray, fear that the walls are listening. I think that a lot of those old perceptions are to some degree instilled in some youth who have grown up in America.”

Cyril Zima, 33

A film director from Moscow, Zima immigrated in 2015 to launch his career in the United States.

“You say ‘American Dream,’ and we have opposite called ‘Russian soul.’ . . . Russian culture is all about misery, to understand that something is always wrong to you and it’s the part that makes you beautiful.”

Raisa Aguf

A Russian Jew, Aguf escaped persecution in Latvia and came to America in 1980.

“I watch Russian TV from Moscow, but I don’t know what’s right, what’s wrong. I love America very much – I am American right now, I am not Russian. I remember my culture, but I like America. (Russia) blames America for everything. The Americans, the actual people, have nothing to do with Russia.”

Nina Pankratz, 51

Pankratz, a theatrical actress, left Moscow in 1994 to follow her rock musician husband to Nashville. They later settled in Los Angeles.

“America wants to tell everyone what to do, but they can’t do that with Russia. You tell them what to do and they’ll do the opposite. It’s so interesting, during Communism, when you were flying to America, they would say America was so relaxed, and Russia, it was KGB guys were very strict. And now it’s the opposite.”

Nikita Pankratz, 21

Pankratz is Nina’s son and was born in Nashville, but he identifies as Russian.

“It’s something special in the sense that I have an idea of where my ancestry came from and why I act a certain way, because I can undoubtedly see a difference between Russians and Americans. Russians are more human, Americans are, ‘No, we can’t.’ It’s by the book. … I think (Americans) are a little paranoid.” – The Washington Post