A new Cold War? Views from a Russian American in Oklahoma and an Oklahoman in Russia
As a Russian-American living in Oklahoma, Alexey Tarasov feels uneasy these days about the relationship between the United States and his home country.
“It's very troubling,” said Tarasov, 32, a lawyer with offices in both Norman and Houston. “You think you're living in a stable world ... then all of the sudden you're back to the 1980s, or maybe even the 1950s.”
As a University of Oklahoma student living in Russia, Johnathan Walls says the subject rarely comes up with those he meets.
“When they find out you're American you usually get two questions,” said Walls, 20, who has been studying in St. Petersburg for about a year. “'What state are you from?' When I say Oklahoma they usually stare blankly. The second thing is, 'What do you think about Donald Trump?' But overall, they tend to avoid those kinds of discussions, particularly about their own internal politics.”
From the annexation of Crimea to support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, from the recent poisoning of a double agent on English soil to accusations of interfering in Western elections, America more and more finds itself at odds with its old Cold War foe.
"There are some very good reasons for this strain," said Emily Johnson, a Russian language professor at OU. "(Russian President Vladimir) Putin is not a very good actor, but he's also a fierce defender of Russia's national interests and that's something we have to acknowledge. But some of the things he's done have led to conflict.
"It's not great that it's happening, but it beats lobbing missiles at each other."
While conversation about rising tensions might not come up with those Walls talks to, to some, like Tarasov, it's almost as if a new Cold War is brewing.
It's not unusual that students of Wall's age would view America's relationship with Russia through a different lens from those who grew up in the post-World War II years when the threat of nuclear destruction hung heavy over the globe.
"(They) probably have less of an understanding of Communism because it really hasn't been an issue for their lives," Johnson said. "Certainly there is still a fair amount of anti-Russian rhetoric that they would have picked up on, but the old Cold War stereotypes are less in play for this generation than mine."
Coming to the United States
Born in Archangel, a northern seaport of about 350,000 residents, Tarasov was 13 in 1999 when his family decided to make the United States their new home.
He'd earlier spent a summer in Missouri as part of a People to People International exchange program and also traveled to the West Coast.
“By that time I'd spent two summers in the U.S. and had a relatively good idea of how American society works,” he said. “I was excited about it. It was something different, to start a new life in this country."
The Tarasovs settled in Missouri. Alexey attended OU on a National Merit Scholarship, earning his bachelors and law degrees in six years.
Today, his parents live in Norman where Alexey maintains one of his two law offices. The other office is in Houston, where he spends much of his time. He's lived what many consider to be the American dream.
“For myself, and for my family, the U.S. is our country,” he said.
That said, Tarasov laments what he sees as a growing Russophobia. Hundreds of thousands of Russians live in the U.S. Many are citizens, while others hold student or work visas.
“When these headlines flash and people read them they scream about Russia's role in stealing our elections,” he said. “They are bound to engender anger and animosity toward these groups here in the United States. The Russian individuals living here are not spies. They are not KGB agents and they don't have hidden agendas. They are just like your neighbors next door. This is a very significant concern.”
He also is critical of media coverage of the election meddling and questions whether Americans distinguish between the Russian people and their government.
“The media uses the word 'Russians,' they don't use the words 'Russian government,' and they very seldom use the word 'Kremlin,'” he said. “As a Russian living in the United States, I have to take exception to that.”
He sometimes sees what he believes is Russophobia in his law practice, whether it's clients who had their immigration status delayed or questioned or individuals unable to find jobs.
"You wonder if it is because they are Russian," he said. "Nobody shouts in your face, at least for now, but there are subtle tensions.”
When Tarasov visits Russia, he sees much of the same rhetoric, only in reverse. Russian media has dismissed U.S. concerns over Kremlin election meddling, saying America has its own long history of trying to influence elections in Russia and other countries. Russian media also has criticized the U.S.'s ongoing role in the Middle East as unjustified and senseless.
“The Russian media portrays the United States in a bad light,” Tarasov said. "All of this polarizes people in Russia against the United States. Their message is the cause of all of the calamities in the world are because Russia wants to pursue an independent course in foreign policy and they are encountering difficulty because of opposition from the West.”
The view from St. Petersburg
Walls arrived in Russia nearly a year ago to study the language at St. Petersburg Pyrotechnical Institute, part of an exchange program through OU, which has seen a renewed interest in its Russian program. Today, 29 students are pursuing Russian majors with 20 other students minoring in the language. In 2014, there were 35 students in the program.
Professor Johnson's small office in Kaufman Hall features kitschy Russian knickknacks. A broken clock features Putin and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. A toy truck carrying a missile, the kind seen in parades on Red Square, sits on a shelf.
Johnson made her first trip to the Soviet Union in 1986, months after the Chernobyl disaster. Since then she's visited as much as possible, and lived there for nearly two years in the early 1990s. She loves not only the Russian language, but also the culture.
"I had 'Let's Speak Russian' records I checked out from the library when I was 7 years old," she said. "Now, I didn't learn much from them — records are a terrible way to learn a language — but it showed the interest."
Johnson's enthusiasm not just for the language, but also the program, is obvious. She chalks up the renewed interest in Russian to current events.
Walls hopes to become an interpreter. He's also majoring in French and Italian. Besides the ongoing tensions between the United States and Russia, he witnessed Putin's comfortable win in the country's presidential election earlier this year.
“You see these big billboards of Putin on them on the side of the road around the time of the election that say this is 'our choice',” he said. “They're clearly put up by Putin's party. I don't think I saw a single ad for anyone outside of that. It was definitely fascinating to watch, the preparation for it.”
OU student Elizabeth Penn arrived in St. Petersburg for the spring semester. She hopes to become a translator some day, possibly working for the United Nations.
“When I told people I was going to Russia, I got asked jokingly by some friends if I was a Communist," Penn said. "So that Cold War mentality is still out there a little bit, even if they're joking. But in my experience, when I meet Russians my age, they get really excited. They're glad you're here.”
One exception to the lack of political discussions came in the lead-up to Putin's re-election.
Like Penn, Walls was born a decade after the Soviet Union broke up and the Cold War ended. He's hesitant to call what's happening now a new Cold War.
“It seems more restrained now, though it might head in that direction.” But the increasing tensions caused at least one genuine scare for OU's students in Russia. When the U.S. expelled diplomats last month, Russia responded by closing the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg.
“We had some mild panic,” Walls said. “We weren't concerned for our safety, but we were definitely concerned about our papers being pulled and being sent home.”
Otherwise, they've been treated well by the Russians they've encountered and gotten to know.
“I find the opinions and actions up on high have little to no effect on people on the ground,” Walls said. “They don't seem to care if their government has a thing against America.”
Penn doesn't think it's a renewed Cold War, at least not now.
"There's been a lot of back and forth with sanctions and kicking people out," she said. "But it could be worse.”
Hopeful for long term cooperation
Tarasov still gets back to Russia frequently. His wife's family lives in Omsk, a city in southwestern Siberia about the size of the Oklahoma City metro area. He is an American, but is proud of his Russian heritage.
That's one reason why the tension troubles him so much. He came to the United States as part of a cultural exchange program, and hates to see the good will built up through those efforts eroded.
“There was a spirit of cooperation,” he said. “Now all of this has virtually vanished.
“I'm hopeful the relationship will come back to where it was. It will take time and effort and at least one political cycle, if not more. I try to remain optimistic.”
Penn said improving relations might be as simple as taking the time to talk.
“So many people in America have this view of Russia that everyone is grumpy and mean and it's cold all the time,” she said. “It stopped snowing here in April. This is a city so rich in culture and history, I think if more Americans took the time to visit, they would be shocked at what they see. I think Russians, from my experience, already have respect for American culture and music.”
Walls believes the rocky relationship eventually will stabilize itself.
“I think what we see mostly is a lot of bluster from both governments,” he said. “I don't get the sense either want to get into anything too serious or dangerous in the long run.”