Every day Russia makes the headlines. A recent sample from major news sites produced: “Putin orders reduction of 755 personnel at U.S. missions in Russia” (Baltimore Sun), “Pence takes tough tone on Russia after Putin retaliates against sanctions” (Washington Post), “Pence Delivers Tough Speech on ‘Unpredictable’ Russia” (Wall Street Journal).
In light of all of the focus on U.S.-Russia relations, the Baltimore Jewish Times spoke to people in the Russian Jewish community about what they’re hearing, thinking and talking about.
Rabbi Velvel Belinsky, 40, was born in Leningrad and is now spiritual leader of Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue on Old Pimlico Road in Baltimore. The center is a Chabad-Lubavitch congregation for Russian Jews.
“The Russian Jewish community here in Baltimore, and probably all over the states, there’s a reason they left the USSR,” Belinsky said. “There’s no love lost between them and the Russian government. That being said, they also probably have more of an understanding of the Russian mentality that gives a little more insight.”
Belinsky said the media focus on whether Russia, President Vladimir Putin and Russian policies are “good or bad” is misplaced. He said that’s a trap limiting political discourse and moving forward on issues where Russia and the U.S. disagree.
He said the focus should be on “deeds and specific actions, rather than trying to categorize people.”
“There is no question that Putin is far from angel. But, having said that it doesn’t mean that everything that he does is bad,” Belinsky said. “Perhaps America could utilize some of the things he does for our own benefit. Whether he is good or he is bad is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether there are specific actions that he takes that could be good. And maybe we could steer him to take specific steps which are good for us.”
Belinsky was reluctant to address specific political issues including alleged election meddling or meetings with Trump administration and Russian officials. But he did offer a personal perspective.
“In my life, I never look for ideal people, I never label somebody as bad, I judge people’s actions, not people themselves. Even a horrible person could sometimes do pretty good things,” he said. “Therefore, I am sure that some of Putin’s actions could be beneficial for the U.S. So, maybe we could steer him in that direction if we know how to play the game.”
Alex Berezin, 30, lives in Owings Mills and emigrated from Ukraine with his family when he was 5 years old.
Berezin noted the Russian Jewish community is not monolithic and hails from many places, and, depending on the era people left Russia or the former Soviet Union, opinions vary widely.
“We have immigrants from Ukraine, from Russia, from Azerbaijan, Georgia — all over. So, it depends on the community. Some have different nationalism and patriotism depending on when they came here,” Berezin said. “The religious situation was never good. When we started to see there was a lot of religious persecution there, that’s why we all wanted to come here.”
Media hype, and not real issues, is what’s keeping Russia- U.S. stories in the news, Berezin said.
“What is the purpose of continuing investigations and continuous news coverage of every little thing? This person’s being interviewed, this person’s being interviewed, due to Russia meddling with our election,” he said. “We’re over with the election, let’s get on with running the country. I think our media here tries to instigate these situations. The U.S. applies sanctions to Russian diplomats, Russia responds. It’s back and forth.”
However, beyond what he sees as the U.S. media fanning the flames, Berezin is concerned what tit-for-tat politics could yield.
“What’s going on right now with U.S.-Russia relations, the back-and-forth sanctions, is not good,” he said. “I wasn’t alive during the Cold War, but based on reading the history, it seems like we’re going toward not actual physical warfare, but a Cold War type of era.”
Igor Goldberg is a 52-year-old engineer from Owings Mills who came to the U.S. in 1979.
“We’re here to make a living and put food on the table and educate our children. This is a land of opportunity. We want to make sure that America never becomes Soviet Union, or what Russia is today.”
Like Berezin, Goldberg said he is most concerned about reporting of Russian issues. He said “alleged actions” are reported as fact, and the media is concocting scandals, including about alleged election tampering.
“People are discussing it, but people care more about it because of the reporting of it,” he said. “It wasn’t Mr. Putin who caused Mr. Trump to be elected. We don’t have any physical evidence of that. The facts do not seem to indicate anything happened.”
As for Putin, Goldberg said “He is a strong leader and doing his thing and trying to stay in power.”
He said what most people in the community care about is being free to work hard, make a good living and take care of their families, which is why they left Russia in the first place.
“We’re here to make a living and put food on the table and educate our children,” he said. “This is a land of opportunity. We want to make sure that America never becomes Soviet Union, or what Russia is today.”
Tanya Kolchinsky left Moscow when she was in her 40s. More than 20 years later, she lives in Northwest Baltimore. Once a Democrat, Kolchinsky is now a Trump supporter who says the president is the victim of unfair media attacks. She said her voice, and that of many Russian Jewish conservatives, is not being heard.
“It’s a real war in mass media against Trump,” she said. “For us, he’s hero and he’s close to our hearts because he supports Israel. Obama didn’t support Israel.”
Kolchinsky is in favor of Trump’s immigration ban and wants the United States to maintain a working relationship with Putin and Russia, with some sanctions, but not too many.
“Russia is a very strong country, and they have atomic bombs. It is bad idea to confront Russia, because Russia is not a predictable country,” she said. “President Putin can do terrible things to the whole world.”
Kolchinsky discounts the idea that Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election helped get Trump into the White House.
“I don’t believe Russia did things to make the president. I believe God did that. It’s God’s will to save this country,” she said.
An improving economy and job market, as well as a successful overseas trip to meet world leaders, are all things Kolchinsky said are evidence that Trump is doing a good job. She wants his critics to back off and give him an “opportunity to work.”
“They call him dictator, but it’s false accusation,” she said. “He wants to do the best. He can do some mistakes, all presidents did mistakes. But nobody pronounced a war against them.”