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From Putin to Trump: being a Russian student in New York

It’s a month on from President Trump’s inauguration, and I can’t help seeing similarities between America and my homeland of Russia.

To young Russians like me, supporting or criticising Vladimir Putin is a moral choice. To support him is to oppose western democracy and free speech; to oppose him is to fight against corruption and needless wars. I belong in the latter camp – I wanted to be a journalist so I could expose the truth. But my parents advised against it: writing about politics was too dangerous. So when I turned 18, I left Moscow for a fresh start in New York. Try as you might, when you emigrate you can’t leave all your baggage behind; it’s impossible to disconnect entirely from your old world. Five years later, I’m beginning to see similarities between the country I abandoned and the country I now call home.

Both Putin and Trump are described as populists. Their countries are now oddly in sync. Trump has defended Putin’s against accusations that he is a killer. One Russian foundry even went as far as to make a silver coin with “In Trump We Trust” inscribed onto the face. It’s only a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, and at New York University, the panic is still palpable. A fellow student confessed to sobbing in a professor’s office after the election. Like me, she blamed her inactivity for Trump’s win. University halls were empty; almost no one came to lectures. My programme director sent out an email encouraging students to stay safe. I stayed up all night at home in my tiny Manhattan apartment, ate Indian takeout, and cried a lot.

My building overlooks Trump Tower. The building represents a president I’m still afraid to speak unfavourably of. I once thought my Moscow past would provide me with a steeliness to handle New York. But yet again, I’m afraid. Immediately after the election, vandals wrote “Trump!” all over the walls of an NYU Muslim prayer room. That disgusting act was an omen of things to come. Before the election, I’d always thought Americans hid their political views, keeping them as private as their health records. I only saw one “Make America great again” hat on campus, and it was worn ironically. But that has now changed, and I’m reminded of my birthplace.

In Russia, Putin supporters state their views loud and clear. They have nothing to be afraid of – they are the winning majority, after all. I know them. Some of them even were my friends. Most of them voted for him out of expediency, but developed a fevered devotion to him once anti-Russia sanctions by the West started.

New York, unlike Trump, loves all immigrants – Russian, Iranian and Mexican alike. There’s no need to blend in; everyone came from elsewhere. Still, I am recognised as Russian everywhere I go – my brutal accent gives me away. I get asked about vodka, communism and mail-order brides. Now, I’m also asked about Russian hackers and Putin almost on an hourly basis. I can say that liberal Americans finally feel the way I do: they too have a president who does not represent their values. Although NYU still seems like a safe place, full of good people and constructive conversations, I am anxious about the future. On 3 February, 11 people were arrested outside NYU during protests over a speech by Gavin McInnes, a conservative commentator known for his racist and sexist “Proud Boys” group.

Russia Today dived into the story with gusto. It emphasised that the protests were violent, that McInnes was reportedly pepper-sprayed and then tweeted that “being called a Nazi burned way more”. They quoted him as saying: “You actually come out of this institution stupider. Isn’t that amazing? You’re spending – well, your parents are spending – 30k a semester to make you stupider.” Trump – whose son-in-law Jared Kushner went to NYU – then called students “professional anarchists”.

No, we are not professional anarchists, but students at one of the best universities in the country. We are a progressive establishment, and we are not stupid. I hope that young, progressive American students will not give up. While we have failed to change things in Moscow, I have a feeling that New Yorkers – and hopefully all Americans – famous for that independent, pull-yourself-up-by-the-boostraps spirit, will not back down.

Nadia Palon

 Photo: New York protesters march against President Trump’s immigration policy. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Reuters