Some time ago a discussion happened among my friends about Russian immigrants and their political preferences. The discussion was a result of the recent American political turbulence, specifically the election of Donald Trump. Trump’s ascent to the top of the political Olympus occurred against all expectations.
I am a Russian émigré myself and was interested to learn more about how my former compatriots were reacting to America’s current exciting political life.
I had some preliminary conversations with various acquaintances and lightly followed the Russian language émigré publications and social networks. This made me think that the Russian immigrants tended to be pro-Trump, voting and universally supporting him. The first question I considered was whether this was true, the second one: if so, why? These questions pushed me to research by use of means available to me. The means were very scarce, so the very word "research" feels doubtful. Accordingly, the conclusions do not feel wholly scientific. But anyway.
I decided to put together a questionnaire to understand the mindset of the Russian immigrants who I had access to. Having performed other similar sociological exercises with Russian respondents, it felt unproductive to ask the direct questions of who they had voted for and why and produce meaningful results.
My experience has been that people tended to fence against these questions, deceive and lie. Also, it would have been virtually impossible to get an answer to the second question of why. So, I decided to go in a roundabout way by asking indirect questions. The questions were concerned with their thoughts on emigration, America, the Soviet Union. I received about thirty answers that I classified and analyzed.
First and foremost, my initial conjecture that the Russian or rather Soviet origin in itself may be the cause of certain political inclination toward Republicans in general or Trump in particular is most likely false. To understand what is going on inside the Russian émigré community, I had to undertake certain classification and single out social groups that are defined by certain features. The features can be viewed as indicators of what could be expected from those groups in terms of their political preferences.
I will draw some additional conclusions at the end of this note.
The first grouping
Period of Emigration: Soviet vs Post-Soviet
From my correspondence with various Russian immigrants, I could immediately see the difference between those who emigrated from the Soviet Union before its collapse, escaping the Soviet Power and those who left the country after the collapse to dodge Gorbachev's perestroika and its consequences. Their outlook and political preferences were formed accordingly. The Soviet way of thinking, psychology, etc were imprinted in the psyche of Soviet people, whether consciously or beyond their will. This is why the older generation of Russian immigrants who spent the major part of their lives under the Soviet regime retain their way of thinking. In modern Russian this is called "sovok" (a derogatory diminutive derivative from Soviet).
Age & Generation
The difference in age is also very important and deserves to be named as a second discriminator. The outlook of elderly people substantially differs from that of young persons. Purely physiologically, the young body and mind are more flexible, receptive to new information, adaptable to changes. The younger generation of Russian immigrants is almost free from the burden of the Soviet legacy. Their outlook was formed and keeps forming on a different basis that is made of new modern realities and different values. Even a short while of their life under the new post-Soviet order made them considerably different as compared with their parents. This fact is thought of as important for the understanding of their development in a new country.
By education I mean not a formal diploma on completing a college course, which virtually all my respondents had. It happened that I did not encounter uneducated immigrants. It would be no less instructive to talk to blue collared workers, although for my purpose it would probably take a much bigger effort to achieve a clear understanding of their outlook and aspirations. Anyway, by education I mean not a formal academic degree but rather a conscious perception of the world. I should immediately confess that there were very few such people among my respondents. This is important to notice in drawing meaningful conclusions.
Another important category was the difference between those who came from capitals like Moscow and Saint Petersburg and the immigrants who came from a province. Risking being accused of a snobbish attitude, I assert that the Moscow and Leningrad residents differed from those raised in provincial places. I think this is true for many other countries in the world and definitely for Russia. One should take into account the huge inequality in available information, the sophistication of social life and the quality of formal education from elementary level onward. I do not mean at all that the people in the province are not as smart as the people in the major cities. The point is that the whole lookout of the people formed on a different background. And consequently, immigrants from the big cities are quite different than those from provincial towns.
I'd like to point at an interesting detail that I discovered during my interviews. The Jewish immigrants who made up the lion share of the total Russian immigration prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union unanimously outlined antisemitism as a major driver for their decision to emigrate. At the same time those of them who lived in national outskirts of the Russian empire, say in the Caucasus or Tartar Republic, noted much more tolerant attitude to Jews there than in the capitals. Ukraine is a special case where anti-Semitic sentiment has always been notoriously strong.
I am aware that I could further expand the criteria for these categories. However, even in this limited scope it was possible to determine some conclusions.
Among my respondents, the older generation of immigrants, who were brought up in the Soviet Union, seemed to be much more politically motivated and skewed toward illiberal agenda. I am using terms "liberal" and "liberalism" in the sense currently
broadly used in America.
In the Soviet way of thinking, liberalism is tightly related with the left idea i.e. with socialism. There is a deep resentment of socialism for Russian immigrants, easily understood within the context of history.
The younger generation that has had limited Soviet experience is more tolerant of the liberal idea. This is why younger immigrants show a diverse attitude to Trump and the new anti-liberal turn of world development. It is particularly well seen in the case of our children who were raised in America. I can see that their political views are much more left than ours. Among the younger generation of Russian immigrants, one can see both right and left slant, pro-Tramp and fiercely anti-Trump.
Education is an even a bigger discriminator. For instance, the American academia is known to be slanted toward left. The Russian immigrants have apparently visible presence in it. University professors include hundreds of Russian origin. I know there are both left and right leaning individuals among them. Nevertheless, among those in my small sample, I understood that the majority had liberal views.
Anyway, having looked at my not so representative sample and results of my toy like poll, I have come to a totally different conclusion. Namely, I now suppose that the Russian immigration in its entirety is about the same as the whole American society as far as their political preferences are concerned.
I would like to offer my speculative explanation of the shift toward Trump and his team.
The generations brought up during the Soviet regime were deprived of liberal values and could not share the values of the modern Western civilization. The Russian immigration has no "genetic" defect that would make it impossible for it to be integrated in the western world.
Such integration would require a considerable effort to overcome the heavy Soviet legacy, which could be done by education and time.
American society is clearly politically split with both liberals and illiberal in almost equal proportion. However the comparison is difficult to make. Americans have developed their political preferences under conditions of an open society, whereas Russians have been heavily indoctrinated by the Soviet propaganda and inability to think critically. For instance, they find consolation in the ugly extremities of the leftist ideology, like the ubiquitous stupidities of political correctness.
As it has been noted, Jews are a large part of the Russian immigration. Jews around the world and especially Russian Jewish immigrants are very attentive to Israel and its politics. The liberal/illiberal strife is particularly significant in Israel, where the universal liberal values are confronted by the very issue of survival. I believe that Israel belongs to the Western, liberal civilization, but the particular conditions there dictate the necessity of moving rightward. Victor Shenderovich, a Russian satirical writer, once defined the current political situation as a segment with two extreme points – the left idiocy and the right beastliness. On this scale Israel has to be placed a little closer to the right. The goal of our world is not to be too close to one of the extremities. I am positive the whole liberal idea is needed in order to not allow that.
I have shown these notes to an old friend living in Moscow. He made an interesting comment. Like many other Russians, he is deeply concerned and upset with the current situation in Russia. The turn that Putin's regime made from the way of democratization and liberalism that seemed to be set after the collapse of the Soviet Union brought in great disappointment and loss of hope. There have been innumerate talks about Russia’s position outside of European civilization and its values. They call it a "genetic predetermination". My friend said that my conclusions make him more optimistic by refuting this "genetic" conjecture. I said that speaking of any "genetics" in this context is sheer nonsense. But one needs to remember that Russian society is highly stratified. Various strata of it have different values often mutually inconsistent. The emigrants inevitably tend to develop values that would not be accepted by the majority of Russian society today. And thus, it may be very misleading to apply émigré experience on the whole society.Originally posted at otkaznik1.dreamwidth.org