Why Soviet Refugees Aren't Buying Sanders's Socialism

The ultra-conservative views of many in the Russian Jewish community are driven by memories of life in the USSR.

Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

SAN FRANCISCO—Janna Sundeyeva still remembers life in the Soviet Union, where stores in remote regions would lack meat for months at a time and toilet paper had to be snatched up quickly on the rare occasions it appeared.

But the minor indignities paled in comparison to what happened to her grandfather: He had the chance to come to America in 1929, but he opted to stay, sensing an economic thaw. Seven years later, Sundeyeva says, he was arrested and never heard from again.

Sundeyeva immigrated to San Francisco from Moldova in 1994, and now she and her husband run a Russian-language newspaper here called Kstati. Her Soviet experience colors how she sees U.S. politics to this day.

“I don’t like big government,” Sundeyeva said. She made two circles with her thumbs and forefingers and pressed them against each other so they touched, like binoculars. This Venn diagram represents the interests of people and government, she said. “They don’t have very much in common.”

Today, she’s not a registered Republican, but like many of the readers of her newspaper, she said she’s starting to lean toward supporting Donald Trump for president. The other self-styled outsider in the race, though, holds no appeal for her. The only Bern she and many other Russians here are feeling is the one in the banya.

To Sundeyeva, left-wingers seem to yearn for a workers’ revolution. “I would ask them: Have you ever lived under a revolution?” she said. “Do you know what it’s like? When someone comes and takes your family member in the night?”

Interviews with more than a dozen immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the Bay Area suggest that some in the community are recoiling from Bernie Sanders and his leftist ideals. One hundred years after the Bolshevik Revolution swept Communists into power, some Russians in America say they can’t believe a serious candidate in the United States is calling himself a socialist.

As another Russian émigré, Tatiana Menaker, put it, “We feel like we survived a plague, and now we are seeing people with boils on their skin.”

Most of those who’ve immigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States over the past few decades have been Jewish. Estimates of America’s Russian-speaking Jewish population range from 350,000 to 750,000, and about 40,000 of them settled in the Bay Area. Jews born in the Soviet Union now account for about 5 percent of the American Jewish population.

Menaker and Sundeyeva are part of a small circle—indeed, they know each other. Like with any immigrant group, the political views of Russians in the United States range widely. Ilya Strebulaev, a Russian-American and a finance professor at Stanford, said the left-leaning Russians he knows outnumber the right-leaning ones.

Still, some researchers have found that Russian Jews tend to be both less religious than their American counterparts and more conservative. According to preliminary data from a survey being conducted by Sam Kliger, director of Russian-Jewish Community Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, between 60 and 70 percent of Russian-speaking Jews will vote Republican in this election. About that same percentage of American Jews backed Barack Obama in 2012.

“They have experienced socialism and communism in a totalitarian regime,” Kliger said. “Anything that remotely resembles that, they hate it, they despise it.”

Tatiana Menaker left St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, in 1985. She attended the same university as both Vladimir Putin and Ayn Rand. In the U.S., she built a successful tour-guide business using a fax machine she kept under her bed, all while raising three kids as a single mom. That was all she needed to become a hardcore Republican.

“Why did [Soviet] Russians live in such a shit hole? They didn’t even have a word for Q-tips,” she said. “Americans had wonderful foods and Russians had no cheese.” The difference in lifestyles, she said, can be chalked up to Judeo-Christian values—the kind embodied by her personal hero, Ted Cruz.

Tatiana Menaker and her guests discuss politics in her home (Olga Khazan / The Atlantic)

Menaker recently hosted a birthday gathering for her friends in her three-story home in San Francisco’s “Little Russia” neighborhood.

There wasn’t quite enough champagne to go around, “so those who are standing closest to me will get some,” Menaker said, “pa blatoo”—a reference to blat, the complex network of connections and favors that governed the trade of precious consumer goods in the Soviet Union. Staples could be bought in stores, but anything desirable was scarce. Friendliness with the butcher could get you a nice cut of meat; the baker would make your birthday cake in exchange for perfume for his wife.

Those brushes with communism’s downsides prompted Menaker and many of her friends to embrace capitalism with a rabid intensity. “Socialism is a conspiracy of losers against achievers,” Menaker said. “America is the only country where you can come naked with no language and make it in 25 years.”

Many Russian immigrants work in the tech industry, according to Kliger, since math and engineering were popular college majors among Jews in Russia. They arrived in Silicon Valley just as personal computing was taking off, and some made small fortunes that they are not keen to redistribute. They get their news primarily from conservative sources—Fox News and the Drudge Report were popular go-tos among the party-goers. Nadia Shkolnikov, the birthday girl, said she “listens to Rush Limbaugh to relax.”

Many of them are torn between Cruz and Trump. “Cruz, I like that he’s conservative,” said Shkolnikov. “But what is not appealing to me is that he sounds like he’s preaching all the time. Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish, but I don’t like when Christians are preaching too much.”

About Trump, she says, “I don’t like his personality, but I like all his ideas.”

Her husband, a software engineer named Val, considers himself a strong Trump supporter.

“He’s a successful businessman,” he said. “He’ll be able to work with people. Plus, a guy who’s not a politician won’t be able to promulgate big government for its own sake.”

Russian Jews in America value hard work and overcoming adversity, said Evgeny Finkel, a political science professor at George Washington University, who is of Ukrainian Jewish descent. “They worked hard and succeeded, back there in the USSR and especially here in the US. [In their minds], if others don't succeed it is because they don't want to, not because of structural problems.”

I suggested to Menaker’s guests that even the most extreme of Sanders’ proposals—to make America resemble a Scandinavian country—is not quite as radical workers rising up to seize the means of production.

The Russians didn’t buy it. There’s no need for America to become more like Finland or France, they said. “They think Finland is just America with free medical care. Finland is good for people who are on welfare for a long time,” Nadia Shkolnikov said. “Not if you want to rise up.”

That brought about a discussion of Obamacare and single-payer healthcare. Specifically, how bad they consider it to be for providers. The saying in the Soviet Union was that a doctor who worked one shift had nothing to eat, and one who worked two shifts didn’t have the time to.

One attendee, Nick Wolfson, dissented. As a doctor who had worked in three different healthcare systems, he believed socialized medicine was the best option. “I believe a good society should take care of the sick and weak and should not cost money,” he said.

“Are you going to work for free?!” cried Alexander Bootman. “Who’s going to pay?”

It escalated until Wolfson rose up out of his seat, shouting. “Do you really want Trump to be your president? He’s going to sell you! He will sell you tomorrow to the Arabs!”

A flurry of shushes and calls to order brought the ruckus to a halt.

“At least it wasn’t a fist-fight?” Nadia Shkolnikov said later, smiling.

Others at the party seemed more conflicted, particularly when it came to abortion, which was widespread and normalized in the Soviet Union. “We have become successful and comfortable within capitalism,” said Gina Budman. “On the other hand, I really am adamantly pro-choice. And I would love to see education that is less expensive. I am for gay rights.”

They are lured, though, by the GOP’s more vociferous support for Israel, a country where many Russian Jews have friends and relatives. For some, this was a source of hesitation about Trump, the Republican front-runner, who said he’d be “sort of a neutral guy” on Israel.

They also endorsed limits on illegal immigration. As refugees themselves, they support helping refugees in principle, but they harbored deep suspicions that migrants from Syria might have ties to the Islamic State.

“We cannot let terrorists come here,” Rose Bootman said. There was grumbling that refugees should be properly screened. “Trump was right when he said we should postpone immigration until we figure out what’s going on,” Bootman’s husband, Alexander, said.

According to the AJC’s Kliger, the opposition to immigrants, by immigrants, is not surprising. “Every immigrant group wants to be unique," he said. “They come here, and they don't want others.”

The Bay Area’s small Russian population won’t swing deep-blue California in the general election, of course. And Menaker’s crew doesn’t even represent all the Russians in the state. Several people at Menaker’s house lamented that their adult children are turning out to be more liberal than they are. (“Our children are all brainwashed already,” Menaker said.)

But their views provide insight into the rise of Trump, a phenomenon that has bewildered many liberals. Several of the guests said they appreciate Trump’s tendency to “say what people are thinking”—a definite plus in a culture not exactly known for being timid.

“We are so tired of not being able to say what we want,” Sundeyeva said. “[Trump] says politically incorrect things.”

Sundeyeva said liberals accuse her of racism for questioning President Obama. “When Obama says, ‘Trayvon Martin could be my son’ — that translates that he is giving him legitimacy only because he has the same skin color, and this is racism,” she said. “When I ask [liberals] all these questions, they don’t like to answer them.”

Some of these sentiments are informed by life in the USSR, a rigid, racially hierarchical society. Jewishness was considered a separate ethnicity in the USSR, which was rife with anti-Semitism. Several people said they were blocked from applying to certain universities or jobs. “I’m not racist,” Sundeyeva said earnestly. She added what she believes is evidence: “My husband is Russian.”

I asked her about some of Trump’s more outlandish statements, like the idea that women who have abortions should be punished. Sundeyeva said that was taken out of context. Chris Matthews cornered him, she said, and “Trump is not very good when when you push him hard.”

Besides, some of her own beliefs make Trump sound like Chomsky. About Muslim refugees, she said, “I don't trust them, they have a different culture, different beliefs. Right now, they are coming to the White House. Clinton’s aide, Huma Abedin, she is the sister of or daughter of a Muslim Brotherhood guy.” (That claim, put forward by former GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and four members of Congress in 2012, was widely debunked, including by John McCain.)

Back at the party, there were plenty of misgivings about Trump and his tendency to “say dumb things.”

“I don’t think someone can be president when people are laughing at him,” Alec Budman said.

Despite those apprehensions, Hillary Clinton was out of the question for most in the group. Economically, she’s far too left for them, and personally, they just don’t seem to like her. When pressed with a Clinton-versus-Trump scenario, all but two people said, essentially, “anyone but her.”

“To defend the country from Hillary,” Menaker said. “I would vote a dinosaur.”