A Russian war correspondent covers election wars in the U.S.
A few days before New Yorkers went to the polls in the presidential primaries, Russian journalist Pavel Kanygin paid a visit to Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn neighborhood that has long been home to Russian immigrants.
“There were many babushkas,” said Kanygin, who was surprised that so many of the Russians still living in Brighton Beach are elderly.
Less surprising, he said, was the strong support he found there for Republican frontrunner Donald Trump – who Kanygin says bears a political resemblance to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“He has audience only from white, losing, working-class people,” said Kanygin.
Kanygin described the Russians in Brighton Beach as people with no real homeland. “They escaped to the United States because of the Soviet power,” said Kanygin, who is a reporter and war correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, a tiny but prestigious Moscow-based newspaper known for its hard-hitting investigations.
Having fled communism for capitalism, which hasn’t always treated them well economically, “I believe they are not real Russians or real Ukrainians, they are just people who is stuck in between,” he said. “Their motherland is only this piece of New York beach.”
Kanygin claims that most people in Russia are Trump supporters, too. That may seem counterintuitive, given the high level of anti-western rhetoric in Russia under President Vladimir Putin – and the government’s readiness to blame the West for many of Russia’s political and economic problems. “They would like America to be a real enemy of Russia,” Kanygin said.
Kanygin traveled to the U.S. this spring as recipient of the Paul Klebnikov fellowship at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. While here, he reported on the New York primary elections and the U.S. democratic process. The U.S. elections were new ground for him as a reporter who has made his name as a war correspondent.
Last summer, 29-year-old Kanygin was detained and assaulted by the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic as he was seeking accreditation to report in eastern Ukraine. According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the DPR made Kanygin take a blood test and accused him of having drugs in his system. He was released after five hours.
In his temporary role as elections reporter, Kanygin spent New York’s primary election day following Rachel Denber, a Human Rights Watch staffer, to a polling center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Williamsburg is a creative hub for young adults who have moved into the area over the last decade.
“People who voted for Bernie [Sanders] were quite young,” said Kanygin, while those he spoke with who supported Hillary Clinton “were around age 30-50.” According to Kanygin, there were only about seven “old people” voting during his hour of observation, and not one person he spoke with voted for Trump.
Kanygin said he was disappointed in the audience his election reporting drew. He said his latest article for Novaya Gazeta got 30,000 views, which he considered underwhelming. “I thought things like the American election would be more interesting for our audience,” he said.
But while Russians may not be engaged with the election, it’s all New York City can talk about, said Kanygin, allowing him to identify voting trends fairly easily.
Several days after his Brighton Beach visit, Kanygin attended a rally for Bernie Sanders in Washington Square Park. A young crowd gathered around the park’s iconic arch, where an enthusiastic Sanders addressed supporters holding signs reading “A future to believe in.”
Despite the enthusiasm of such crowds, “I think Sanders is not very popular here, because from what I understood, only young people, young professionals, young people, young teachers, maybe some intellectuals from universities, they’re going to vote for Bernie,” Kanygin said.
Of Hillary Clinton, he said her experience makes her “the best candidate for the whole world, not only for United States.”
If he were voting, though, he said he would choose Sanders. “That’s voice of my heart, not the voice of my mind. My mind tells me Hillary is really great.”
Perhaps more impressive than the candidates was the opportunity to see the U.S. election process. “It was astonishing,” Kanygin said. “I could see a real democracy practiced, a real election, which I never see in Russia,”