When dissident Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky toured the U.S. this month to promote his civil society movement Open Russia, he took care to reach out to Russian emigres.
“The Russian diaspora outside of Russia could – and I hope will still – play a huge role in the effective development of our own country,” said Khodorkovsky, inviting the diaspora to work for change in their homeland.
But much of the diaspora in America that Khodorkovsky sought to energize politically does not seem to be listening.
Russian experts say that, unlike many other ethnic diaspora communities in the U.S., the 400,000 or so Russians who immigrated here in the 1990s left local politics far behind. Many in the Russian community in New York, for example, were Jews who suffered discrimination at home and then saw their citizenship revoked when they left for the U.S. It was a “painful and traumatic process,” says Ludmila Isurin, associate professor at the Ohio State University, which left those in the diaspora now “hurt and wounded.”
As a result, the diaspora in the U.S. is “deeply divided politically” and “do not interact with each other,” says Andrei Korobkov, political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University. Nor do they vote in elections back home. Of 45,000 Russian citizens registered in New York City who could have voted in the country’s 2012 presidential elections, only about 10 percent cast ballots.
In recent years, immigration from Russia has dropped dramatically; only about 10,000 Russians came to the U.S. in 2012. Thus, the immigrants of the 1990s still make up the bulk of the Russian diaspora here.
But while most may not be very interested in today’s Russian politics, a few diaspora members still try to promote activism.
“As opposed to some people saying that the Russian diaspora should play some kind of a role, we are trying to actually do it, ” says Dmitri Glinski, the founder of the New York-based American Russian-Speaking Association for Civil and Human Rights.
Glinski started the association before Russia’s 2012 presidential elections. Among its activities has been support of the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. law that imposed sanctions against Russian officials allegedly responsible for the death of imprisoned Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009.
Before he emigrated, Glinski was part of a democratic movement in the late 1980s in the Soviet Union – a coalition of parties and individuals that rejected communism and called for the establishment of a Western-type democracy.
Glinski says it was difficult to get broad support and media attention – then, and now. “We are silenced by the media, not funded by anyone,” he says.
In September, the association organized a march for peace in Ukraine, meant to mirror a similar demonstration that drew tens of thousands of people into the streets in Moscow to protest Russian incursions into neighboring Ukraine. Only around a thousand in the diaspora turned out, in six different cities; just 150 or so demonstrators joined in New York City, according to the sole article dedicated to the demonstration, in the Russian-language newspaper V Novom Svete.
Glinski believes a new generation of young Russian immigrants might be more politically motivated than the 1990s emigres, and seeks to recruit them on social media. On a pro-Ukrainian Facebook page, he found Sergey Kolesov, a 23-year-old student who moved to the U.S. from St. Petersburg in 2012.
Kolesov took part in the September Ukraine march. “A lot of my Russian friends say I betrayed my country,” by marching against Russian involvement in Ukraine, says Kolesov. “But I care about my country; it’s a beautiful country. Most people won’t even try to do something,” he says.
“With Putin on the throne, nothing will change,” he adds. “If opposition went up, maybe I would come back. It’s hard to see how people live in Russia, without money, without dreams.”
Other activists include Aleks Yakubson, a Russian-English interpreter in his forties who lives in Staten Island and blogs on the website of Echo of Moscow, a Russian radio station that remains one of the country’s very few independent media outlets.
Yakubson’s pro-Ukrainian and pro-western blogging usually draws a few thousand views. “They let me get away with a lot,” he says. “My value is not in myself, but in the fact that I live in New York,” he says, which makes his range of topics broader.
Yakubson is also active on Livejournal, a social network started in 1999 by an American developer and now the property of a Russian media company. Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny, now under house arrest, made his debut on the platform.
With mainstream media increasingly under Kremlin control, blogs have grown in importance as a forum for alternative voices. Last April, the Russian Parliament implicitly acknowledged the importance of blogs, when it approved a law that equated popular bloggers with media outlets – subjecting them to greater potential control.
When asked whether he hopes for an increase in diaspora involvement in the years to come, Glinski says “hope” is an ambivalent word in Russia. He then quotes a famous Russian proverb: “Let’s drink for the success of our hopeless cause.”