Russiagate: A coming of age moment for Soviet immigrants

We never knew what it was like to have the country’s media and political class brand people like us a possible threat. Until now.

Rep. Tim Ryan wants to “Make America Russisch-Frei Again!”

I was talking recently to a Russian acquaintance of mine who lives in the New York area. Years ago, he had studied engineering in Moscow and later transferred to a university here in the states. He told me that not long after moved, he got an unexpected visit from a couple of FBI agents who tried to recruit him. 

They came right to his apartment and seemed to know everything about him. They had a detailed file which, among other things, included every application he had submitted to American universities. They also had a dossier on his old academic advisor back in Moscow containing intel about the research the professor was doing and the contracts he had with the Russian military. They wanted to know what he knew about this military work and then asked him to identify photographs of various equipment and instruments.

He was stunned by their sudden appearance and spooked by their efficiency and competence. He was also smitten with the female agent. “She was gorgeous. I would have told her anything,” he told me. But he didn’t have anything to tell. Back in Moscow he had been a nerdy kid studying engineering. He had no idea about any of the stuff they were asking.

After a while, the FBI agents left. They never contacted him again. But the message was clear: they were watching, and they could pop in at any time again.

His story is not unique. The FBI does this kind of stuff on a regular basis. By some estimates, at least a third of all international students get a similar visit from a friendly pair of agents. And given the national security panic about China and Russia being whipped up right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if that number is a helluva lot higher. Just the other week, the New York Times reported that the FBI has ramped up its surveillance, intimidation and deportation of Chinese academics in America. As FBI director Christopher Wray explained, America’s security apparatus isn’t just worried about the Chinese government. To them, all Chinese are suspect — they pose a “whole-of-society threat.” Even progressive political strategists believe China is an existential threat to America and are helping fan a bipartisan sinophobic campaign that’s ensnared people I know.

With Russia and China convulsing our body politic, my buddy’s “unremarkable” story got me thinking about how easily and naturally xenophobic panics fit into American political culture — and how, until fairly recently, Russian and Soviet immigrants like me had never really felt the brunt of these campaigns.

From my earliest days as Soviet immigrant kid in America, I’ve been primed to see this country as a unique beacon of tolerance — a place where bigotry and racism, if they exist at all, are banished to the far dark edges of society. It was a truism to us that unlike the Soviet Union — which was “closed,” “bigoted,” “paranoid,” and “repressive” — America was “open,” “tolerant” and “accepting.” Later as an adult, I came to understand just much how bigotry and systemic racism and exclusion are engrained in the politics and culture of modern America. Working as a journalist and reporting on the darkest recesses of America, it was impossible not to. But growing up in an insular, fresh-off-the-boat immigrant community in sleepy San Francisco, it was easy to believe in an idealized, whitewashed vision of the country that took us in.

Immigrant life was tough — especially for the adults. People struggled to make ends meet and to fit into a totally new society. There was the usual petty crime and a bit of violence. People hustled to make money — some succeeded, others failed and suffered. Life was hard and integration was difficult. But compared to other immigrant and minority groups, we were a relatively privileged bunch.

We were mostly Jewish and mostly seen as white. And we had a special, glorified place in American political culture: We were victims of Soviet repression and antisemitism, saved by an altruistic America. We were paraded around as a living example of American superiority and a symbol a Soviet barbarism. For most the 20th century, American lawmakers had crafted laws to specifically keep Jews out. We were “rats,” according to Wisconsin Senator Alexander Wiley, who helped craft a 1948 law to prevent victims of the Holocaust from immigrating to America. But with us it was different. Americans protested outside Soviet embassies on our behalf. Lobbyists and lawmakers from Washington DC championed our cause and put together sanctions to secure our release. We were a bipartisan project — supported by the might of the American empire.

Yasha Levine, Judeo-Bolshevik infiltrator. San Francisco, 1999

My immigrant community was privileged in that way. And because of that, we never really worried about mass immigration raids. We weren’t punitively targeted by cops just because of the color of our skin. We weren’t seen as a terrorist threat and targeted for infiltration and entrapment by the FBI. We never turned on the TV to see ourselves dehumanized or branded as a threat from within — as enemies of the American way of life. Looking back on all the petty — and not so petty — crime we got into as kids, I’m amazed by how leniently the cops dealt with us.

We occupied a special spot in the immigrant pyramid. And because of it, we had never been in the crosshairs of a good ol’ traditional American xenophobic panic. The anti-Russian hysteria of the early 20th century and the Red Scare of the Cold War was a distant past that few us even were even aware existed. We never knew what it was like to have the country’s media and political class brand people like you a possible threat. In fact, watching other minority and immigrant groups get demonized only reinforced my community’s feeling of superiority. My fellow Soviet immigrants have never been known for their progressive racial politics — well, when you get down to it, quite a few are generic, down-the-line bigots. And so the general sense was, “We’re not like them. We’re different. And anyway, if some ethnic groups are being targeted, there must a good reason for it. America is a nation of laws, after all. People here aren’t hounded for bigoted political reasons like they are in repressive authoritarian countries.”

But this belief in the infallibility of American institutions started taking a big nose dive right around Donald Trump won the election.

For nearly four years now, Soviet and Russian immigrants have watched America’s liberal political elite shift the blame for their country’s domestic political problems away from themselves and onto a fictitious, inscrutable foreign enemy: a xenophobic campaign that put people like us — “the Russians” — at the center of everything that’s gone wrong in America. We’ve watched as this panic grew from a fear of the Russian government to an all-encompassing, irrational racist conspiracy theory that put a cloud over not just Russian nationals or Russian government officials, but anyone from the lands of the former Soviet union.

Immigrants turned on the TV to see top American security officials, politicians, respected journalists, analysts, and pundits tell national viewers that they were right to be afraid of us: Russians are devious, untrustworthy, wired to hate democracy, and genetically driven to lie and cheat. People like us pose a threat. We are a possible fifth column — whether we know it it or not, and that includes Russian pensioners and infants. In the words of Keith Olbermann, we were “Russian scum.”

In all of this, “Russian” has been a mutable category, flexible enough rope in Russian-Jews, Ukrainian-Jews, ethnic Russians, Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians and all sorts of other ethnicities. Any one of those could fit, depending on the need of the constantly evolving conspiracy theory. In America, this added up to something like three million people.

Putin’s anchor babies, a ticking demographic time bomb that will blow up American democracy.

This bigoted campaign has gone on non-stop for nearly four years — and it’s come from the very top: primed by American security services and pumped out by respectable liberal media institutions. To Soviet immigrants, it’s been disorienting and confusing. It’s the first time since coming to America that we have found ourselves targeted this way.

At first it seemed like a joke. People laughed at it and mocked it. We were sure that this weird bigoted panic would pass. But when it didn’t, when it continued to grow and seep into ever corner of our liberal media, we stopped being sure of what to do. We cycled through various modes: from dismissive to angry to depressed, to repressing it altogether. But talking to people about this, I get the sense that for many of us one feeling has stayed pretty much constant: a growing contempt for America’s hallowed institutions: its press, its politicians, its national security elite.

And that’s the funny thing about this Russia panic. For years, a huge chunk of America’s political class has been screeching that “the Russians” are undermining trust in American institutions. But to many Soviet immigrants here in America, it’s precisely this xenophobic panic that’s been doing the undermining.

Soviet immigrants have always had an implicit belief in the superiority of American institutions. It’s been a religious thing for them. But seeing themselves get swept up and demonized in this way has bred disillusionment and revulsion with American politics on a level I have never seen. In that sense, Russiagate has been a coming of age moment: it has undermined their naive fresh-off-the-boat faith and gave them a personal glimpse into an America that’s paranoid, venal, and unapologetically xenophobic.

Is this coming of age a good thing? Well, I guess it had to happen at some point. But the way this disenchantment has unfolded — driven by America’s liberal ruling class — has pretty much ensured that most Soviet immigrants will come out the other end even more reactionary than they were before. And who knew that was even possible?

Take care,

—Yasha Levine


Yasha Levine is the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet


Read previous: 

  • Respectable Racism: “Today’s anti-Russian xenophobia isn’t coming from the “lower-classes” that liberals love to mock so much, but from very top — the crème de la crème of our media and political class.”

  • RussiaGate wasn’t a media “failure,” it was a success: “If you look at it dispassionately — as if you were analyzing the politics of someplace far away like, say, late Romanov Russia — it’s easy to see how RussiaGate has been a success.”

  • Court Russians and Soviet Emigres: “They escaped state-backed antisemitism and bigotry, yet they now pump out stories that reproduce the same kind of deadly xenophobic fairytales that have long been leveled at Jews.”

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