PHILADELPHIA—After a few hours, the abundance of Cyrillic signs begins to blend together with the smells of eastern European delicacies: cabbage samsas, honey-sweetened poppyseed pinwheels, and lamb pilaf. Inside the well-trafficked supermarkets—the main draws of the low-slung strip malls that define this part of northeast Philadelphia—you hear boisterous conversations in Uzbek or Russian, and more staccato versions in English. In fact, what stands out about the faraway neighborhoods of Bustleton and Somerton—sometimes referred to as “Little Odessa” for their sizable population of Ukrainian, Uzbek and Russian immigrants—is that people seem content to keep it all hidden. Businesses advertise online only sparingly. Proprietors warn you not to take pictures. A bookstore owner refuses to translate the title of a Russian novel. There’s more than a hint of suspicion of outsiders.
Except when the conversation turns to Donald Trump.
Not since the end of the Cold War has there been quite such a miasma of suspicion and intrigue about Russia and Russians. The news brims with murky allegations of computer hacking, election meddling and influence peddling, all of which seems to demand assertions of allegiance to one side or the other. But for many of the estimated 26,000 Russian-speaking people in Philadelphia (not to mention the more than 900,000 across the country) the us-and-them nature of the political debate in Washington doesn’t really apply. Here, in a self-created cocoon of familiar cultural touchstones, I detected a kind of dual nationalism among the residents—a manifest love for countries that once were home and an equal adoration for the populist president many of them voted for.
“Trump is a fighter, a negotiator, a successful businessman. Four times he go through the bankruptcy. He understand how the world works from a business perspective,” says Alexander Shapiro, who came to the states in the early-1990s from what’s now Ukraine. “During the campaign, he ran against governors and senators. He beat everybody like babies.”
Hearing how jazzed residents sounded about Trump’s first 60 days in office, I half expected to find shelves laden with Russian nesting dolls featuring Barron, Ivanka, Don Jr. and the whole gang. There was nothing so brazen inside the Knizhnik gift store, a mom-and-pop-looking place where I was repeatedly reminded that the inventory was “all Russian —all.” There was, however, a Russian biography of Trump prominently displayed. It was the same book that became a popular giveaway at Trump-friendly election watch parties in Moscow, the one whose title has been dubbed in English as “The Black Swan.”
It’s an apt metaphor for how Bustleton and Somerton fit into Philadelphia writ large. Meaning, hardly at all. In a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one, and the local GOP has become something of a joke, these neighborhoods are as close to a conservative bastion as you’ll find. It’s been that way for decades. The Far Northeast, as it’s known in local parlance, which borders on the swing-state suburbs of Bucks County, has a long history of opposition to progressivism, on everything from taxation to school desegregation. In 1983, a Pennsylvania state senator representing the area introduced a bill to have Northeast Philadelphia secede from the city. In part, this was perceived to be retribution against the city’s first African-American mayor, a dynamic that evokes the subtext to Trump’s Make America Great American movement. “Whether they are Russian newcomers or older generations, there is a nationalist theme running throughout the political mindset of Northeast Philadelphians, especially those who lean more conservative,” says Matt Smalarz, a professor at Manor College in the Philadelphia suburbs and a native of the Northeast whose dissertation focused on the area he grew up in. “You won’t go to any other part of Philadelphia where there are more American flags being flown.”
For some, that adopted patriotism is cultivated in places like Bustleton’s New World Association. The nonprofit organization offers a “5 o’clock English Club,” among a host of acculturation and education services for refugees and immigrants. Like so many things in this part of town, the organization is housed in a strip mall, in a bare-bones space outfitted with folding chairs, folding tables and not many other supplies. Having a clientele that’s mostly Ukrainian, at a moment when so much of the national conversation on immigration focuses on the southern border, limits the visibility and financial support—through grants or government funding —that’s available for the New World Association, according to executive director Marina Lipkovskaya. “People don’t want to know about us,” she says. But it also engenders a sense of forced self-sufficiency that seemed to mesh neatly with Trump’s message.
In his campaign speeches, Trump leveraged a profound feeling of abandonment being experienced by white working-class voters, as if the government had cast them aside. You don’t have be an unemployed steelworker from western Pennsylvania to share that commonality. In fact, Lipkovskaya suggests that the population hailing from ex-Soviet states might be predisposed to an up-by-the-bootstraps message like that of the Trump campaign, and a drain-the-swamp message, too. “In my family, we paid for everything with our hard work and great attitude toward this country,” she says. “Eastern Europeans are not so much depend on public benefits. We’re not waiting for dollars to fall from the trees.”
After all, many of these immigrants ended up here, during the 1990s, seeking freedom from ethnic or religious persecution in their respective states. “Most of the Russians here are almost libertarians,” says Andre Krug, president and CEO of KleinLife, a senior-citizen program that caters to many Russian-speaking adults. “They came from a country where the country dictated how they were going to live their lives, so when they came to this country, they feel like the less government does, the better they’re going to be ultimately.” Their ideology—to draw a generality—is more like an attitude of rugged individualism, Krug says. In other words, one that is innately American but born of life in the former Soviet Union. In the end, Trump’s wealthy upbringing and his career of questionable business deals didn’t undermine the essential appeal of his well-practiced message of personal triumph. Last November, Donald Trump narrowly lost Philadelphia’s 58th ward, which encompasses Bustleton and Somerton, but garnered 1,464 more votes than Romney in 2012. Pennsylvania was decided by less than 45,000 votes.
The dual nationalism goes much deeper. Lipkovskaya first introduced me to Shapiro, who now lives in the nearby suburb of Huntingdon Valley. He vigorously canvassed for Trump in October. He wore a bright blue blazer and sipped on a bottle of Perrier, as we sat at a folding table in the New World Association. Shapiro’s embrace of the new president was blunt, as was his critique of Obama, whom he viewed as timid and scared of Vladimir Putin. As evidence he pointed to the U.S.’s failure to intervene forcefully in Ukraine or Syria. For him, the prospect of another Clinton presidency not only represented the status quo, but also the beginnings of a ruling political dynasty—a virtual House of Romanov disguised in constitutional democracy. Later, Shapiro admits that he wouldn’t mind an extension of the Trump lineage in power though. “After eight years of Trump, I think it’ll be Ivanka. I think she will run against Michelle [Obama]—and win.”
Despite a palpable dislike for Putin among most of the foreign-born Philadelphians I spoke to, there was concurrent praise of Trump for displaying what might be called Putin-like qualities: His unflinching projection of strength. And his intuition — what Shapiro calls “guts.” And most of all, Trump’s promise of bygone economic enrichment for all Americans. The MAGA message can be a personal one for immigrants like Shapiro, who arrived during America’s relative prosperity during the 1990s. This pink-cloud period in our recent history happened to be his first taste of the West. “From 1996 until when the [World Trade Towers] collapsed, it was communism,” Shapiro says, meaning, everybody was reaping the spoils. “It was a very good time. Everybody happy. People buy houses. Real estate booming. Stock market booming. That’s why Trump won. He wants to make America great again. He wants to return to old times when people were happy.”
Since 1990, no part of Philadelphia has been losing white residents faster, or taking on immigrants quicker, than the Northeast. A Pew report estimated declines of 14 and 17 percent in the white population of Bustleton and Somerton, respectively, between 1990 and 2010; meanwhile, the Hispanic and Asian populations increased more than 100 percent. While Russia’s recent turn in the news has caused a retrenchment of this nation-within-a-nation mentality among some of the Russian-speaking population here, there’s also the specter of discrimination, the sense that Russians might begin to experience the side-eyed suspicion that Muslims have come to expect.
“I do worry about that, given my background,” says Orhan Veli, a 33-year-old businessman who grew up in the area. His family arrived in the U.S. as refugees in 1994, after fleeing the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict. They were a prominent family in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, but when tensions broke out, that all changed in an instant. “I was literally that refugee kid that you see on Facebook,” he says. “I realize how propaganda can work. My kids have no idea that they’re [ethnically] Russian. But they very quickly can become Russian within the society that they’re in.”
Then again, Veli is a fervent supporter of Trump’s travel ban, a policy that many on the left assail as institutionalized persecution. It’s not that Veli looks back fondly on his family’s own experience attaining refugee status, which took the better part of two years—replete with background checks and mental-health evaluations—but he views the process as a valid prerequisite for would-be Americans. In contrast, Veli brings up his cousin, who also experienced war at a young age and went through the exact same refugee process as he did. “To her, our family’s paths showed that we were good people and should’ve been allowed to come here sooner, rather than be vetted and struggle through a year and a half in limbo,” he says. “We completely disagree on this.”
Maybe it’s not surprising that immigration is the subject on which notions of Trump begin to diverge most dramatically. It’s a topic that feels less ideological and more intimate. Lipkovskaya views Americans’ treatment of the first lady as a harbinger of nativist resentment bubbling to the surface. “You know what drives me crazy? The attitude to Melania Trump because she’s an immigrant. She speaks with an accent, as well as I do. Then some redneck looks at her and says, ‘I can’t even understand what she says in English’—that’s such a disrespect,” she says. And then, Lipkovskaya adds, “Then [they] scream, ‘Trump is not right with the ban—he’s not my president!’” For her, those Melania-bashing Southerners are not the Christian Right or traditionalist wing of the GOP, rather a bunch of “redneck” liberals. Talk about propaganda.
If there’s one clear fault line I detected in Little Odessa’s support for Trump, it’s generational. Veli, Lipkovskaya and Shapiro all acknowledge the political chasms Trump has caused within their families. Plenty of older people oppose the new president because they worry Trump will simply cede Ukraine to Putin. Plenty of younger people who’ve spent more time in America—or were raised here—tend to think of Trump’s policies as intolerant and retrograde.
But even among the folks who openly mock Trump as a puppet of corporate billionaires and Putin, there’s a contingent that sees his value. And they express it in a way that manages to praise a country some of them have no memory of. “Russia is way stronger than us, bro,” says Nazar, a Millennial (who preferred to not give his last name) working at a Metro PCS inside a Bustleton Avenue strip mall. For all his flaws, Trump’s promise to reset U.S.-Russia relations stands to maintain the delicate balance of dual nationalism that many of northeast Philadelphia’s immigrants live by. At the very least, he’ll keep them from having to choose sides, says Nazar. “If Trump didn’t become president and it was Hillary, Putin would probably try to start World War III.”