Mark Stipakov went to grade school with Russian President Vladimir Putin and consulted with him in the 1990s when Putin worked in the St. Petersburg’s mayor’s office. Watching the barrage of news about his old classmate’s possible influence on the Trump administration, Stipakov worries.
Yes, Putin is a former top spy, he said, but he’s also not a guy who would jeopardize relations with a superpower.
“Why would Russia be so stupid as to interfere with American elections?” asked Stipakov, a Twin Cities Realtor. “This is like the Cold War all over again. It’s dangerous.”
Minnesota’s Russian-speaking community, about 50,000 strong, is reacting to growing tensions between Russia and the Trump administration with a mix of concern, curiosity and skepticism.
Many believe that Americans’ worries over Russian influence on the White House are understandable but exaggerated. They fear the barrage of negative headlines is reigniting Russophobia in America and worsening anti-American sentiment in Russia.
But many don’t trust Putin either. Nor do they trust reports from the media, having lived through the daily propaganda of an authoritarian state. So they watch their TVs or read the news — often from both Moscow and Washington — and try to make sense out of how Russia became such a hot topic again.
“It’s very painful for everyone,” said Leon Grichener, publisher of the Russian Directory of Minnesota and the newspaper Zerkola, sitting in his office decorated with old Soviet-era posters.
The issue is so divisive in the Russian-speaking community that most people avoid the subject, he said. “Everyone just wants peace and good relations with America.”
Yet a common theme emerges. Many Russian expatriates haven’t fully grasped the U.S. legal system that puts White House officials in hot water for certain offenses — that would be just another day at the Kremlin.
Phone calls by Trump’s campaign staff to Russian diplomats don’t seem like a big deal, even though it is illegal in the U.S. Sending a Russian spy ship off the U.S. East Coast wasn’t a brilliant move, but it was neutral territory.
Spying or attempting to influence U.S. elections wouldn’t be a surprise, many say, but it seems far-fetched to think Russia could actually shape election results.
Stipakov, for example, thought that conversations between Trump’s campaign staff and the Russian ambassador seemed more like “bridge-building” than a serious offense.
Stipakov remembers Putin as a kid who was “always fighting” when he was a youngster growing up in St. Petersburg. They were in the same grade, same school, until sixth grade, said Stipakov, who still keeps his class photographs with young Putin sitting in the first row by the teachers.
“That was a sign he was a hooligan,” joked Stipakov. After Putin got involved in athletics in middle school, his life and his grades turned around, he said.
Stipakov said his path crossed Putin’s again in the early 1990s, when he visited St. Petersburg several times to try to arrange trade deals. One of the first things Putin told him was that he no longer worked “in intelligence,” a sign that the former KGB official was trying to move beyond that image.
Stipakov believes other threats in the world need more attention. He noted: “These are two great countries that should be combining their energies to combat the common enemy … ISIS.”
Skepticism about Putin’s agenda remains, however. The inexperienced Trump administration is no match for Putin, say some Russians here. Putin has been a Russian leader for 30 years, carrying a bag full of psychological skills and global expertise unmatched by America’s new president.
Likewise, Russia’s diplomatic corps, including its Washington ambassador, have decades of experience.
“I don’t trust Russia, especially Putin,” said Gedaly Meerovich, who founded the Slavic Community Center in St. Paul. “They have long-term strategic goals. They don’t hesitate to lie, to manipulate people. [Putin] had very good training in the KGB. He will do everything he needs for Russia, which is right, because he’s the Russian president. Trump, meanwhile, has to think about the U.S.”
Other Russians see Russia caught in the battle between Trump and his opponents.
“Someone is trying to put together things that are totally separate,” said Gene Shendov, a retired engineer who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years. “The only thing connecting everything is hatred of the president.”
The constant negative news reports, however, are on people’s minds.
At an exhibition that opened Saturday at the Museum of Russian Art attended by several St. Petersburg officials, the first thing museum director Vladimir von Tsurikov told the crowd was that political news has overshadowed the rich cultural exchanges between Russia and Minnesota.
At a meeting of the Hennepin County Board last week, a Russian woman stood up to complain that her application to serve on a committee wasn’t approved, charging “it’s probably my origin.” And new trade deals between Minnesota and Russia aren’t exactly booming, said Anatoli Korkin, chairman of the American-Russian Chamber of Commerce of Minnesota.
“When there is tension between two countries, businesses on both sides are less likely to cooperate because it could be considered a business risk,” Korkin said. “It’s like blowing against a strong wind.”
Anatoly Liberman, a U professor in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch, takes a long-term view and is not particularly worried.
“It’s part of the ups and downs of Russia-U.S. relations,” Liberman said. “Right now, we’re at the low end.”