20 years under Putin: a timeline

Unlike many other U.S. diasporas, Russian Americans have never had a serious political voice. No Russian-speaking member has ever been elected to Congress, and presidential campaigns have never paid much attention to “Russian” voters – despite the fact that, even according to the official estimates, there are more than 3 million U.S. citizens of Russian origin. IMR Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza discusses the possibility of “Russian America” developing its own political identity.




The recent overseas tour by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney pursued not only diplomatic, but also very practical campaign goals. The choice of countries was not random: Romney’s visit to Israel and Poland, apart from emphasizing support for America’s traditional allies, aimed at the key swing states of Florida and Michigan which could well decide the outcome of this year’s election (between them, the two states have 45 of 538 votes in the electoral college). The explanation lies in statistics: 3.4 percent of Florida’s population is Jewish, while 9.6 percent of Michigan residents are Polish Americans. For these voters, U.S. relations with Israel and Poland, while not decisive factors, are nevertheless extremely important. The endorsement of Romney by legendary Polish anticommunist leader Lech Wałęsa will no doubt add to his support among Polish American voters.

There is nothing new in Romney’s tactics: candidates in U.S. elections have traditionally appealed to specific groups, including the national diasporas. These groups, in turn, often have their own representation in Washington: for instance, Lithuanian Americans (who constitute 0.2 percent of the U.S. population) are represented on Capitol Hill by Sen. Richard Durbin and Rep. John Shumkus; while Greek Americans (0.4 percent) count among their ranks Sen. Olympia Snowe and Rep. Paul Sarbanes. The Cuban American community (0.6 percent) can boast such influential lawmakers as Havana-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as Sens. Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio. Meanwhile, the large and influential Irish American and Italian American communities are historically well represented in the corridors of power.

Russian Americans who, according to the official estimates, constitute 1 percent of the U.S. population (more than 3 million people) have never been considered electorally significant. There is not a single national political figure among the many Russian immigrants—from Josef Brodsky and Mikhail Baryshkinov to Igor Sikorsky and Vladimir Zvorykin—who have made such important contributions to America. This, to a large extent, was the choice of Russian immigrants themselves, and the reasons lay not as much in politics, as in self-identification. Many chose to assimilate and not pass on their cultural and linguistic tradition to their children, thus losing their Russian-ness; Russian Jews were integrated into English-speaking Jewish communities; and even those who continued to think of themselves as Russian Americans did not feel part of a unified diaspora. (For other communities, the feeling of national belonging is very important: thus, Democrat Richard Durbin and Republican John Shumkus who disagree with each other on almost every domestic political issue, stand shoulder-to-shoulder when it comes to supporting Lithuania and U.S.-Lithuanian partnership).

Yet the situation is beginning to change—above all, in areas of high concentration of Russian-speaking residents. The New York press increasingly refers to the neighborhoods of southern Brooklyn, which are part of the Ninth Congressional District as Little Russia. In last year’s special election, it was "Russian" votes that helped Bob Turner become the first Republican in 88 years (!) to represent this district in Congress. Unlike the liberal majority of New Yorkers, many Russian-speaking residents tend to support the Republican Party, partly as a result of historical memory (the Republicans, especially under Ronald Reagan, were considered to be on the whole more anticommunist than Democrats), and partly because of a natural suspicion of government influence on the economy, common to many immigrants from former socialist countries. In the 2008 presidential election, Democrat Barack Obama won New York City by 79 percent to 20 percent, yet the Little Russia (Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay neighborhoods) voted by 55 percent to 45 percent for Republican nominee John McCain. There is little doubt that in November, the same areas will vote for Governor Romney.

It is no simple coincidence that the Magnitsky Act has been cosponsored by New York Senator Chuck Schumer and Ninth District Representative Bob Turner.

The Romney campaign holds an appeal for many Russian Americans—not only because of its economic conservatism, but also because of its clearly defined negative attitude toward Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia, which stands in stark contrast to President Obama’s policy of “reset.” The GOP Platform adopted at the national convention in Tampa criticizes the Kremlin for “suppression of opposition parties, the press, and institutions of civil society”, and conditions the establishment of Permanent Normal Trade Relations with Russia on the passage of the Magnitsky Act which would introduce visa and financial sanctions against Russian officials involved in corruption and human rights violations. In his acceptance speech, Romney promised that, in the event of his victory, “Mr. Putin will see […] more backbone.”

Much like the anti-Soviet “third wave” of the 1970s (and unlike the mostly economic “fourth wave” of the 1990s), the “fifth wave” of Russian emigration that began after Putin came to power in 2000 has a distinctive political and antiauthoritarian character. This, indeed, is one of the reasons for the apparent emergence of a political identity of "Russian America", which was seen in the numerous rallies in support of the Russian protest movement, and in the support for Yabloko, the only democratic opposition party allowed on the ballot, in the 2011 parliamentary elections (according to the official tally, Yabloko won at polling places opened in the U.S.)



Russian Americans’ growing interest in the political events in Russia, and their support for the Russian pro-democracy forces, are important indicators. Whereas Italian Americans helped the anticommunists in the 1948 Italian election, and the Polish diaspora supported Solidarity in the 1980s, Russian Americans (naturally, with exceptions) did not show much interest in the political life of their country of origin. This, too, appears to be changing. Russian American activists have taken part in a campaign in support of the Magnitsky Act. It is no simple coincidence that the Act has been cosponsored by New York Senator Chuck Schumer and Ninth District Representative Bob Turner.

"Russian" votes are unlikely to be a significant factor in this year’s U.S. presidential election. But their importance is bound to grow, especially considering that Russian-speaking populations are becoming increasingly concentrated not only in the safely Democratic states of New York, Massachusetts, and California, but also in the swing state of Pennsylvania where candidates are fighting for every vote. U.S. presidential contenders will soon have to pay more attention to Russian issues. And the U.S. Congress may very well finally get a Russian-speaking lawmaker.