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The Art of Navigating Trump's America — as a Russian

To Be or Not to Be


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It must be tough to be Russian in today's nutty America.

"In the age of Trump, we are America's Trojan horse, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov in one person," Anastasia Edel, the author of Russia: Putin's Playground: Empire, Revolution, and the New Tsar, wrote last month in The New York Review of Books. "If the Russians didn't exist, it would have been a good idea to invent us."

In the Cold War years, Russians in America were looked upon as suspicious, possibly spies, natives of what Ronald Reagan constantly reminded us was the "evil empire." We've watched this played out in the FX television series The Americans.

Then came Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost and Reagan's admonition to "tear down that wall." By the 1990s, it was cool to be Russian in America. "Marxist slogans and Brodsky's poetry coexisted peacefully in our now-wanted brains," Edel wrote. "We embraced the free world while still remembering how to take apart and reassemble our Kalashnikovs. We were zealous and grateful, an enemy-turned-friend, the spies who loved you."

And then came Putin, for whom the Cold War never ended. He brought back the old tricks of spying, interfering in foreign affairs and wreaking chaos. But here in America, a new approach to "diplomacy" was brewing. In 2015, GOP presidential wannabe Donald Trump began talking of Putin's great "leadership" and called the Russian president "brilliant."

Russians in America weren't cool anymore — at least not to Americans leery of Trump's motives. And those were the very same Americans who once would have welcomed our Russian neighbors. Today, it is the left who has made the Russian in America a "convenient enemy," as Nina Khrushcheva, a Russian-American professor of international affairs at the New School in New York, puts it.

"The category 'Russian-Americans' is largely a misnomer," Edel wrote in her piece. "Of the roughly 3 million people reported by the U.S. Census Bureau as Russian-American, less than a third identify as ethnically Russian. The rest are Ukrainians, Armenians, Georgians and other representatives of former Soviet republics. . . Many have mixed ethnicities; Russia has long been a multinational empire. If there is one common denominator to this émigré contingency besides the Russian language, it is that most of us came of age in the USSR."

When I asked Charlotte guitarist Vadim Kolpakov — a Russian of Roma descent who was born in Soviet-era Saratov but came of age under Gorbachev and Yeltsin — what it felt like being Russian in Trump's America, he largely dodged the question. "What's great about living in America," Kolpakov told me, "is that for the last 50 years at least, there's not the discrimination you get in Eastern Europe, or in Europe in general."

Kolpakov wasn't referring to being Russian — he was referring to being Romany. The guitarist, who came to the United States in 2004, is a virtuoso who plays the music of his Roma birthright. Much more than being Russian, Kolpakov sees himself as part of the rich Roma cultural traditions practiced in Romany communities throughout Europe and even here, although most Americans are unaware of their presence. Here, we see words like "Gypsy" in our literature and pop culture, and we don't realize it is an offensive term used to denigrate Romany people.

To complicate matters, the term "Gypsy music" is a legitimate description of a musical style made by Romanies. "Gypsy music is not people," Kolpakov told me in this week's music feature. "Gypsy music became the style. Django [Reinhardt, the French guitarist] was Romany, and he developed this new style of jazz, but it was Gypsy music, just like ours is Gypsy music. It all comes from the same heritage."

As for being Russian in Trump's America, Kolpakov seemed blasé about it. "Maybe there's hidden discrimination," he told me in a part of our interview not included in the story, "but in general nobody cares if you are Russian."

However, as for being Romany in today's world — well, that's a different story. Kolpakov wants the world, the U.S. and his Charlotte neighbors to know that Roma culture is rich and beautiful, that it has contributed depth and nuance to our music and arts. And he is showing this every day in his own rich and beautiful guitar music, which you can hear and experience when his VS Guitar Duo celebrates International Romany Day with an April 6 concert at Grace on Brevard.

"The truth about Russian-Americans," according to Edel, "is that despite the seeming commonalities of our initial circumstances, we make fundamentally different choices in our new environment."

The choice Vadim Kolpakov has always made, before and after his move to the West, is to promote the music and culture of his deeper roots — his Roma roots.