Vladimir Putin, Ukraine, Nazi, Propoganda
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from President of Russia / Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0) and National Archives / Wikimedia.

Russians living in the United States are not immune to Putin’s propaganda. And that makes them more receptive to Republican talking points, too.

I’d never had a disagreement with my Russian workout buddy Julia, an accountant in her early 30s who immigrated to the US nearly a decade ago. 

When we met in 2016, I was a food and culture journalist in San Francisco, CA. She was settling into a role as an analyst at a tech company in San Jose. We bonded over our love of the great outdoors, memories of strict Soviet-era ballet classes, and our language. (I was born in Odesa, Ukraine, before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and still speak Russian fluently.) 

Julia and I met at least once a month for a workout and some tea. Our conversations were fun but polite; we never discussed politics. 

And then Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Nearly a month into the war, we met up for a walk around the Stanford campus. We strolled past a yellow-and-blue protest sign in the window of a classroom: “Russian Students Stand With Ukraine.” 

Julia gingerly approached the subject of war: “What do you think of this situation with Ukraine and Russia?”   

“It’s terrible and shocking,” I said. “My Ukrainian friends and their kids are hiding underground from missiles. It’s unfathomable.”

“Not to worry, it will end soon,” Julia replied. “Russia will get the Nazis and liberate people. But they have to approach it carefully; Ukraine has biological weapons.” 

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. We launched into an exhausting hour-long conversation during which Julia recited Kremlin talking points, pulled up YouTube videos of Tucker Carlson insinuating — in a very high-pitched, sarcastic voice — that Ukraine has bioweapons, and suggested that a global cabal engineered the war as a way of forcing the world to switch to cryptocurrency.

Tucker Carlson Tonight, bioweapons

Screenshot from an episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight where he warns against US supported biolabs in Ukraine. Photo credit: Fox News / YouTube

I showed her the counterevidence; her response was that The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Snopes were all “fake news.” I offered an analogy: “Should Canada or Mexico send their troops into the US to expunge us of our neo-Nazis too?” This was met with a shrug.

This wasn’t some unnamed Twitter troll looking for validation. This was a decent, rational person who was formerly apolitical and focused on building a life and career in a new country; now she was palpably agitated, spouting QAnon conspiracies. 

Things got heated. Before we went our separate ways, I called her a “дегенератka” (dehgineratka) — or degenerate. She called me a “типичный наивный американец“ (tipishnaya niaevenaya Americanka) — a typical naive American. Eventually, I accused her of being a Russian intelligence agent.

It wasn’t my finest moment. But I’d bought into propaganda, too — the American illusion of all of us Slavs united against an autocratic regime.

At the start of the war in Ukraine, it seemed like the media couldn’t get enough of stories featuring immigrants from the former Soviet Union — both Russians and Ukrainians living in the US — lamenting the plight of Ukrainian refugees. It painted a monolithic picture of post-Soviet emigres aligned with liberal media against the war.

Yet off camera, there’s less consensus in the community. As Russian media often points out, the ties between Ukrainians and Russians are indeed strong… not “let’s-rejoin-as-one-country” strong, but there are indeed familial ties between the two, as an estimated 11 million Russians have Ukrainian relatives. 

Of the roughly four dozen Ukrainian and Russian immigrants I interviewed in the Bay Area and on the East Coast in the weeks since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, all shared a frustration regarding at least one family member or close friend living in the US who they’ve described as “brainwashed” or “zombified” and who supported Russia’s attack. I have a handful of such people in my own life, in addition to Julia (who asked that I not use her real name for fear of being fired or, interestingly, deported). 

Vladimir Putin, 2018 Moscow Victory Day Parade

Vladimir Putin observing the 2018 Moscow Victory Day Parade. Photo credit: President of Russia / Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)

Though news story after news story relates how Vladimir Putin’s control of Russian media dominates within the country, what’s less explored, and perhaps more disturbing, is how that messaging so deftly reaches Americans, too. The war in Ukraine has made clear that a significant portion of the US far-right supports Russia: Watch Tucker Carlson on Fox News or pay a visit to social media site Gab, the home of Twitter exiles like Trump, white nationalist Hitler aficionado Nick Fuentes, and Putin fan and Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar (R). In fact, YouGov found that 15 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Putin compared to Democrats, while only 9 percent of Republicans hold a favorable view of President Joe Biden. That holds true for some immigrants, too.

In conversations with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, some have quietly expressed support for Russia’s Nazi-hunting “mission” in Ukraine. 

“I feel sorry for the victims [in Ukraine], but I’m not against Russia because Putin is not an antisemite and he takes Nazism seriously, so there be must something brewing in Ukraine that they are trying to stop,” said a 64-year-old retired radiologist in New Jersey who emigrated to the US from Ukraine in the early 1980s. She said her primary source of news is Russian-language sites that she finds through Facebook, YouTube, and Russian social media sites like Одноклассники (Odnaklasniki) — a term that means “schoolmates,” where accounts presenting themselves as pro-Ukraine publish pro-Russia videos and the news tab redirects users to Russian propaganda news sites

Russian propaganda, media

Screenshots from Odnaklasniki’s “news” tab featuring Russian propaganda headlines, April 2022. Photo credit: WhoWhatWhy screenshots

World War II is the source of other, related pro-Putin arguments. 

“I believe Russia’s approach to the war, because Putin is the only one who consistently throws a parade for WWII veterans,” said ​​a 59-year-old Russian software engineer living in Sacramento, CA. “Meanwhile in Ukraine, I saw [on a Russian state-run television program] that [Ukrainians] harassed elderly veterans during a memorial event.” Russia would be more receptive to the US, she suggests, if Biden visited Moscow during its Victory Day parades. 

The Soviet’s defeat of the Nazi regime during WWII is a proud part of the USSR’s legacy. The Kremlin’s current call to arms to squash what it brands as a modern-day Nazi uprising in Ukraine is powerful propaganda that — in the eyes of some former Soviet émigrés’ — justifies the invasion. Many, like the retired radiologist from New Jersey, deem Russia’s war tactics “uncivil,” criticizing Putin for what they view as a strongman approach, but credit him for restoring Russia’s relevance on the global stage. They also excuse Russia’s bombing of Ukrainian civilians as accidents, and blame Biden for instigating war by “dangling the promise of NATO’s eastward expansion” — something the software engineer told me that I’ve heard more than a dozen times from other Soviet immigrants.

These immigrants share Julia’s QAnon conspiracy-scented theories, and seek out news programming in Russian like from the state-controlled network Russia Today. They also express an unequivocal devotion to the Republican Party, which takes a multipronged approach to growing its voter base. After Julia took her US citizenship exam in 2018, she says she was approached by a Republican voter registration worker outside of a federal building in San Jose. His pitch? “Did you know that our president’s wife is also an immigrant? Republicans love immigrants.” 

Russian propaganda, Ukraine, Gab

Samples of Russian propaganda memes on Gab, April 2022. Photo credit: WhoWhatWhy screenshots

In the 2016 presidential election, between 75 to 80 percent of émigré voters from the former Soviet Union chose the Republican Party, according to the Pulitzer Center. That’s five percent up from the two prior elections, reported the American Jewish Committee, which initially posited that a younger, more liberal voter turnout would decrease that figure 

To understand this tendency, I spoke with Ellen Fox, a Palo Alto, CA-based cognitive behavioral therapy psychotherapist who’s worked with dozens of immigrants from authoritarian countries. Fox attributes the gravitational pull toward “the devil you know” as a natural desire to preserve the psyche. 

“There’s always been oppression and there’s always been tremendous isolation [in Russia], and [Slavs] had to learn to live with it,” said Fox. “This is a people who never had autonomy, so they had to adapt to a czar or overlord of the serfs, and they became so inured to it that to not believe in it would cause a cognitive dissonance, or else they could lose their minds, they would lose their life.”

Fox said that there are certain psychological characteristics that one develops in countries ruled by dictators for generations: Acquiescence, caution, and mistrust of government become implicit. These attributes become essential survival skills for people living, even now, in what Fox called “the shadow of the czar.” She said there’s a sort of long-term Stockholm Syndrome at play to make daily life in places like the former Soviet Union bearable. 

“A czar by any other name is still a czar,” said Fox. “It would require someone like Julia to make massive psychological adjustments that most people cannot undertake, even after the regime changes, because it’s her ingrained thought pattern.” 

As a foreign-born journalist who’s deliberately avoided covering politics for nearly a decade, I can empathize with immigrants who fear being punished for exercising their freedom of speech publicly. But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the notion that immigrants fleeing nations crippled by demagoguery would, in private, eschew liberty and instead lean toward political leaders whose rhetoric mimics the leaders of the mother countries they escaped.

“It’s why so many [Soviet immigrants] voted for Trump,” said Fox. “He presents a rhetoric that they recognize because he’s a kind of czar, and having faith in strongmen has defined their experience.” 

Donald Trump, Cossack

Immigrants in the US from authoritarian countries are comfortable with Donald Trump’s strongman rhetoric. Photo credit: Joe Flood / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fox adds that most Soviet immigrants don’t ever fully trust that any system will protect their rights, and even after decades living in the US, some remain afraid that their basic liberties will be taken away if they enjoy their freedom too much. (In their minds, that catalyst may be something as simple as a negative comment about a politician to a co-worker.) 

According to Fox, some don’t want to exercise American liberties beyond living economically comfortable lives, and view those who protest or challenge the system as crazy for sticking their necks out. 

“I have a good house, my job, a wife, and some nice neighbors,” said one 63-year-old software developer from Cupertino, CA, who voted for Trump and gets his news from Facebook. “Why do I need to complain about America, ever?”

The tendency to overestimate the appeal of liberal values, democracy, and facts is a uniquely Anglo-Saxon — or Western — worldview, according to author and historian Timothy Snyder. An expert on Central and Eastern Europe, Snyder addressed this worldview on the The Good Fight podcast in November 2018. “We think that the facts are just out there and that in a fair fight they’ll win,” he said, “but they’re not out there, they have to be produced and pushed into the fight if they’re going to have a chance.”

His view is that the left-wing and center media need to stop damaging their credibility by removing themselves from opinion-based arguments, for starters. 

I’d add that if we want today’s voters to discern between experts and charlatans, we must also find a way to extend that education to all adults — including immigrants like Julia who move from places with state-run media to a country with a free press, and Americans who’ve forgotten the difference. 

North Carolina Trump convoy, 2020

Alamance County North Carolina Trump convoy, 2020. Photo credit: Anthony Crider / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I meet up with Julia at the gym a few days after our big argument. We agree that we’ll both avoid the subject of war and just focus on leg day — all lunges, no debate. To set the mood, I turn up a playlist featuring European club bangers from 2019. Even Post Malone’s tranquil, breezy basslines don’t cover the awkwardness. We can’t think of much to say. I miss the time before the internet’s algorithm hijacked her brain and made her wary of vaccines, science, and what she calls “corrupt experts.” Before the temptation to change each other’s minds became a compulsion. 

A notification pops up on my phone. I can’t help reading it aloud. It’s from the BBC, reporting that Ukraine will offer neutrality — meaning it will abandon its aim to join NATO, in exchange for peace with Russia. 

Julia can’t help responding: “But Ukraine wasn’t going to be accepted by the EU, and NATO didn’t want to step in, so what was the point of this war for Ukraine?” 

This time I’m the one who shrugs in response. I’m indignant at her insinuation that Ukraine instigated the war. But I try to see her through Fox’s empathetic eyes. She says that Julia and people who immigrate from authoritarian countries are like abused children who have a hard time trusting adults. 

“You can’t just tell someone to trust the press or the government or rule of law because then she’d need to change her whole worldview overnight,” said Fox. “She has to live it before she understands what we’re fighting for.”


  • Valerie Demicheva

    Valerie Demicheva is a Bay Area-based journalist and photographer who covers culture, technology, media, and food. Her work has appeared on the covers of the San Francisco Chronicle, SOMA Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, and Silicon Valley Magazine.

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