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Russian-Americans Don't All Back Trump

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Stepan Pachikov says he has a problem every time he gets in a New York taxi. "I have to tell the driver, 'Trump Place, please.'"

As Hillary Clinton's campaign suggested a link between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Russians who own apartments in Trump developments were often mentioned as proof. Outwardly, Pachikov fits the mold: He is from Russia, and even though he is a naturalized U.S. citizen, he has kept his Russian passport. He is also wealthy enough to afford a large apartment with panoramic views on one of the top floors of a Trump-branded building on Manhattan's West Side. Pachikov is the founder of Evernote, which developed a note-taking application with about 150 million users. Until recently, it was considered a "unicorn," a private company valued at more than $1 billion, though it ran into some turbulence last year. After a management change, it has posted a profit for the last two quarters.

Trump doesn't own Trump Place, Hong Kong investors built it, but he has long history with the area. His name above the entrances to the tower blocks is the result of a branding deal. The name bothers Pachikov, a member of a small but active Facebook group "Russian Americans Against Trump." This year, he and some neighbors tried to find out if they could get the gold letters "Trump Place" removed from the facade. "It turned out to be difficult, too expensive," Pachikov says.

The Russian-American community is bitterly divided about Trump. Pachikov says very few of his Russian-speaking friends in the U.S. are Trump supporters, and none are young. I have heard of politically divided Russian families in which the younger members abhor the Republican nominee but the parents can't imagine voting for anyone else. Older Russian emigres are traditionally Republican: Their politics are based on their distaste for the slightest whiff of socialism. To them, Senator Bernie Sanders was anathema: He was out to turn the U.S. into a version of the country they fled. That doesn't explain, however, why Trump won the April primary in the areas of Brooklyn with traditionally large Russian populations, such as Brighton Beach. 

Pachikov's doctor and friend, Vadim Surikov, has his office in the Kensington-Ocean Parkway area, which also backed Trump in the Republican primary. Surikov, who immigrated from the Soviet Union 35 years ago, is a Trump fan. "If he's a racist, I'm a racist," Surikov says. "Everybody must have equal opportunities, but here we've got families that have been on welfare for three or four generations. America is the greatest country in the world and Trump stands for what makes it great."

Pachikov avoids talking politics with his doctor. His theory is that differing notions of greatness are at the core of the political divide among Russian-Americans. "We were brought up with no respect for democratic values but with a sense of living in a great power, of being respected because we're strong," he says. "So we brought that over here, too. When I moved here, I watched Fox until my Silicon Valley friends explained to me what it was."

The tech entrepreneur began dividing his time between Moscow and the U.S. in the early 1990s, when his Russian company, ParaGraph, was contracted by Apple to develop handwriting recognition for the ill-fated Newton tablet computer. The U.S. gradually became his home, and he came to share the values of his liberal American friends. 

These values inform his rejection of Trump. "It's his jingoism, his conviction that America is so exceptional that it has the right to wall itself off from the rest of the world," Pachikov explains. "Besides, it's obvious to me that he's a racist. A racist at the head of such a country is extremely dangerous."

The Clinton campaign has done its best to establish a link between Trump and Putin. That doesn't quite ring true to Russian-Americans, who have a better understanding of the Russian president than most of Clinton's target audience. Both Pachikov and Surikov oppose Putin's policies. Neither believes Trump is going to form an alliance with Putin or try to emulate his autocratic style. 

"Trump likes Putin because he's a strong leader," Surikov says. "But in the U.S., the Constitution won't allow him to do what Putin does in Russia. Here, the checks and balances are real."

Nonetheless, Pachikov sees similarities between Putin and Trump. "They have built their careers on lies," he says. "With Trump and Putin, remove the lies and you remove the foundation of what they are." Yet, Pachikov says, Putin is far wilier than Trump -- enough to take advantage of the American billionaire if he is elected. "Putin is going to outcalculate him," he says.

Pachikov isn't particularly excited about Clinton, though. "I don't have the same enthusiasm for her as I did for Obama," he says. "She doesn't have the charisma. I'd vote for a third-party candidate, but there is no one strong enough." 

Very few Russians I have met in the U.S. feel any affinity with Clinton. Those who will vote for her will do it, like Pachikov, because they can't stomach Trump. Those who will back Trump are far happier about their candidate: They really believe in his politically incorrect version of a great America that's a lot like an abstract great Russia -- not the Soviet Union and not Putin's version, but the empire in their heads and hearts. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net