The Politico recently set out to probe the complex private lives of young Russians who are living and working in Donald Trump-era Washington, D.C.
I have to admit, up front, that my take on this story has been influenced by the fact that (a) I am an Orthodox Christian, (b) I worked in D.C. for a decade-plus and (c) my current Oak Ridge, Tenn., parish includes its share of Russians and Romanians. Yes, Oak Ridge is way outside the Beltway, but it’s home for a very high security zone, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, so that has to count for something.
The massive double-decker Politico headline tells you all that you need to know about the content of this long feature:
Washington’s young émigré crowd is beginning to feel like they’re living in a spy novel. And they’re the bad guys.
As always, let me stress that this whole Tinder angle is a valid and, of course, sexy angle on this story, which has certainly heated up in recent months. Hold that thought.
However, there’s nothing new about Russians living and working in major American cities, such as D.C. and New York. I would think that it’s easy to find many congregating in bars. However, you might also consider looking in a Russian-heritage church or two in Beltway land.
Here’s what GetReligion’s man in Moscow (a journalist who is a faithful reader, not a spy) had to say about this totally secular Politico story:
I am a little baffled that the discussion of the Russian community in a city like DC basically boiled down to a restaurant/club with expats from various Russian-speaking countries. This venue (and the report in general) only involved people of a very specific age range, let's say 25-35.
How could they not report about the Saint John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral? Is religion not one of the main factors uniting Russian speakers from countries like Russia, Ukraine and Moldova?
This report generally seemed like a good idea, but far too limited. It reminded me of the Washington Post story from a few months ago, the one that Terry Mattingly responded to with the blog headline, "Does Russia's 'Putin Generation' have a soul?"
This journalist has a point. While it has been awhile since I visited one of these Orthodox sanctuaries in D.C., I recently paid a visit to St. Nicholas Cathedral near Central Park in New York City. This parish linked to the Moscow Patriarchate was packed, for a Sunday Divine Liturgy (in Russian and Church Slavonic), and there were lots of young adults, including young married couples with children.
It would appear that, for the Politico, Orthodox Russians do not fit into the template that they had in mind. Here is the long overture, which is a road map for the whole piece:
Not so long ago, the Russian émigré party scene in Washington was off the hook. Every weekend, promoters would throw Slavic night bashes at venues like Ozio on M Street and Eden on Farragut Square. Euro-pop beats pounded and vodka shots flowed. In 2013, Mari Vanna, a three-story restaurant and nightclub littered with Soviet-era kitsch, opened in DuPont Circle and became the Russian diaspora’s de facto party house. Its “KGB Karaoke” nights on Wednesdays raged into the morning hours. Top Russian acts like Ivanushki International would swing through town to play gigs, and Washington Capitals stars Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin would sometimes join in the revelry with students and summer workers from all over the former Soviet Union.
“Before, I would call an event and say, ‘Hey we’re going to have Ukrainian Independence Day,’ and everybody would come,” Andrey Bessarabov, better known as DJ Bezza, a Soviet-born IT worker who moonlights for Troika Party, a promoter of Eastern European club nights in the area. “It didn’t matter Ukrainian, Russian. Nobody differentiated.”
Then Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, and the headlines were filled with talk of sanctions. The party scene began to fracture along political lines. The Ukrainians went their own way. Suddenly parties marking Defender of the Fatherland Day seemed in poor taste given their Russian nationalist overtones. “A lot of people felt negative about it, so I kind of stopped organizing them,” Bessarabov confided over cake on a recent Friday night at Mari Vanna.
But nothing prepared the young Russians of Washington for the wintry blast of social isolation and suspicion that followed the arrest this July of an attractive young Russian apparatchik. When Maria Butina, 29, was charged with acting as an unregistered Kremlin agent from her perch as a grad student at American University, it seemed to confirm Washington’s worst suspicions about them.
You can predict all of the logical angles that follow from that hook.
Obviously, there is the Tinder swipe angle:
Their Tinder dates keep asking them if they’re spies. Their landlords are interrogating them. Their résumés are getting tossed in the trash, and when they do get the job, their boss might warn them not to mention their nationality to people at the office. If that sounds bad, many of them — especially opposition figures and gay men in exile — are regarded with more suspicion by their own government back home than by their new neighbors here.
To be young and Russian in Washington is, often, to live in the gray ambiguities of a John le Carré Cold War spy novel.
Also, it’s easy — and appropriate — to follow up on the issue of Russians involved in the massive D.C. higher education scene:
Washington’s numerous campuses are also sites of counterintelligence concern, both because university study is a common cover for foreign agents and because of the sensitive research conducted on them. Butina was enrolled as a graduate student at American University while allegedly pushing the Kremlin’s agenda here. …
Counterintelligence officials regularly meet with university officials all over the country to warn them of just that, with mixed results. Many administrators are loath to turn away bright students or researchers on account of vague warnings about national security.
There are other linked explored, somewhat, in this piece, including Russians involved in the arts, think tanks, business and entertainment. It would appear that they missed sports, which is really strange.
Of course, the Politico included this angle, mixing politics and sexuality:
… For a sizable number of young Russians who came to Washington fleeing persecution, the city is a haven.
Oleg Tomilin, a gay man from the city of Voronezh in southwestern Russia came to Washington in 2014 seeking political asylum. He is middle-aged but said he knows 40 or 50 gay Russian men in the area, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who are doing the same. One of them is 29-year-old Andrew Nasonov, who previously worked in Voronezh as a journalist and activist against anti-LGBT laws.
Other than hockey, the one big angle that is missing is, of course, religious faith.
Would it have hurt to have called a Russian-speaking priest or two who has lived in Washington for years, or decades, and who has observed, as an insider, the evolving lives of Russians there? A priest may have even married a few Russian couples, people who have chosen to settle down and stay in America.
Maybe these Russians didn’t fit into the template selected to create this sexy story?
Just thinking out loud here. I’ll have to ask some Russians about it.