While polls within Russia indicate overwhelming popular support for President Vladimir Putin’s policies and actions in eastern Ukraine, the hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants living in New York seem divided in their reactions to recent developments.
Lev Borschevskiy, a veteran journalist and active member of the Russian American Community Coalition based in New York, calls Putin’s Ukraine policies “morally indefensible.” Yet he recognizes that there is passionate disagreement about it within his community.
He was shocked last week to witness an altercation in a Russian American nursing home. “One group was pro-Russian, [and the] other was pro-Ukrainian. That was a real fight!”
Borschevskiy says many Russian Americans who support Putin are older, non-English speakers who get their news and information almost exclusively from state-run Russian media via satellite and cable television. “These media use very advanced technology,” he says. “And I see how people are being manipulated.”
Lack of meaningful debate
Alec Brook-Krasny, who represents the Brighton Beach area of the city in the New York State Assembly, emigrated from Moscow in 1989. He condemns what he says is the lack of meaningful democratic debate in Russian society.
Brook-Krasny says opinions among his Russian American constituents tend to be diverse, often breaking down along generational lines.
“If we are talking about people who went to school here, [and] through college, they’d be a part of society where you can debate, where you [can] have different opinions. Those people are Americanized,” says Brook-Krasny.
He adds that older people in Brighton Beach, many of whom grew up in the former Soviet Union, tend to say that a strong leader is the one who crushes the opposition.
‘He is not a monarch’
Olga Zatsepina, president of the Russian American Cultural Heritage Center personally disagrees on the importance of President Putin’s role in forming policy and influencing opinion.
“He is not a monarch, for God’s sake,” she says. “Russia is really a democracy today. So I wouldn’t talk about Putin. I’d talk about the position of the Russian government.”
In her opinion, the annexation of Crimea by Russia following a referendum by Crimea’s Russian-speaking majority was entirely legitimate. “Crimea has been Russian land for centuries,” she says. “We all know that. And it is important that the people of Crimea express their wish to be with Russia.”
Zatsepina says there is no proof, as the U.S. and NATO assert, that Russian troops crossed the border into Crimea prior to that referendum or even that several battalions of Russian troops are stationed in eastern Ukraine now.
She also believes photos and videos that purport to show these things may be falsifications.
‘Half war and half peace’
In either case, Zatsepina is glad the cease-fire agreement between Ukraine and Russian separatists has been adopted. “And I am absolutely sure that this conflict will pass as all conflicts do, and we hope that sooner rather than later we will work cooperatively again.”
Journalist Lev Borschevskiy is less optimistic. He believes the current cease-fire is extremely fragile.
“When thousands of troops are all the time at the border, that’s not a real cease-fire. That’s like when a revolver is at somebody’s head and you say ‘oh, let’s do a peace now.’ Now it is half war and half peace. This is dangerous.”
Last Friday, the United States and the European Union implemented tougher sanctions on Russia for its role in Ukraine. Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, says the cease-fire pact between his government and Russian separatists appears to be solidifying. Meanwhile, Russian Americans, and the world, watch and wait.