A Russian Reporter Goes to a Trump Rally — And Feels at Home

From a Russian point of view, the Iowa caucuses look a little different.

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Evgeny Feldman is a young photojournalist for an independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. He is perhaps best known for his photographic coverage of the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine and the subsequent war in the country’s east.

His latest assignment is a bit less dramatic -- but, for him, no less exciting. This week he's come to Iowa to report on the caucuses, for which he has already published some striking images.

Though Feldman prefers to focus on his photography, I decided to talk to him to see what light his broader observations could shed -- both on the United States and on his home.

Evgeny Feldman is a young photojournalist for an independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. He is perhaps best known for his photographic coverage of the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine and the subsequent war in the country’s east.

His latest assignment is a bit less dramatic — but, for him, no less exciting. This week he’s come to Iowa to report on the caucuses, for which he has already published some striking images.

Though Feldman prefers to focus on his photography, I decided to talk to him to see what light his broader observations could shed — both on the United States and on his home.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FP: Are your readers interested in the U.S. elections?

Feldman: In Russia, there’s almost no culture of following the international news, so it’s very sporadic. When I came here, I knew it wasn’t very well understood by my readership, so I took a risk and decided to do some explanatory journalism in Facebook. I wrote some very detailed posts about the electoral college, the primaries, and the conventions, all the other procedures, and about each candidate’s positions.

I didn’t expect this, but the posts got hundreds of “likes,” so it’s clear that they reached an audience. But on the other hand, though people are interested, there’s probably not a very deep understanding. We’re used to following European elections with all their complex coalitions and so on, because it’s closer to our system.

FP: Based on how your readers react to your journalism, can you tell what they have the most trouble understanding about our system?

Feldman: I quite often encounter the opinion that it’s all а show. But in large measure this comes from the position, which at least in Iowa is quite popular, that Washington is lying to everyone, that the liberal media is lying, and so on. All the top candidates in this election are saying this, in one way or another. So [my readers] kind of have a garbled, misunderstood version of this.

But I don’t think it’s so much a mistrust of the people who are in the [American] establishment — I think it’s more mistrust of the system of elections, as such. Because in Russia, there’s a syndrome of “learned helplessness.” For decade after decade, our society has seen that its opinions don’t affect anything. Since 1996, for sure. People don’t believe that one can really choose.

[Here in Iowa City], I spent a lot of time with this elderly couple. We’ve done a lot of talking. They went to see a Cruz rally in a neighboring town, and they came back having made a decision to vote for him. And their explanation really shocked me. They said, “We want to vote for him because he’s proposing term limits [in Congress].”

The fact that this was the deciding factor — Cruz’s position on how the political system should be set up in principle — is really a huge difference [from Russia]. It’s very cool — a completely different level of political thinking than what we have.

With us, it’s heavily weighed in the other direction — no one discusses tax rates, or whether we should have legal abortion. They talk about whether Russia should look towards the West or towards Asia, and about the overall makeup of the system, but not about term limits. It’s more about whether we should have competitive elections at all.

FP: So, in Russia, political discussions are on a much more general level?

Feldman: Not even general, more like illusory. The issues are discussed among major parties that are all controlled from the center. Those that are independent are barely allowed to participate in elections.

FP: Are there any similarities between Americans and Russians that have surprised you?

Feldman: I think that, both here and there, there’s a part of the public that’s inclined to various conspiracy theories. But here it’s a little more grounded. For example, people say the only reason Hillary isn’t in jail is because she’s part of the establishment. I haven’t heard anything about the Masons, whereas we have that [in Russia].

At the beginning, I had a strong impression of similarity between the campaigns here and what [opposition leader Alexei] Navalny did in Moscow [when he ran for mayor]. I knew that he was orienting his campaign on techniques that were developed in the United States, but still, the similarity seriously surprised me, at least at the beginning.

There are differences, too. As far as I understand, here the rallies are done mainly for the benefit of the media. They all take place in a closed building God knows where. No one who’s just walking by can get in, because there won’t be enough tickets anyway, at least if it’s a top candidate. The rallies are done to show the media an image: that we have many supporters. Isn’t that right?

FP: I think so.

Feldman: In Russia, of course, it’s quite different. In Russia, opposition candidates absolutely cannot get into any building. Not in winter and not in summer. Because either it’s a government building, or it’s private, but then there’s a “burst pipe” or some kind of inspection, if they try to schedule a rally. Also, Navalny can’t get on TV, so he does rallies outside. At least this way he can have some access to the voters.

FP: Has your opinion about American democracy changed while you’ve been here?

Feldman: I’ve always thought that the general elections are the most important stage. But now I understand that these primaries are even more important, because they allow more nuanced policy views to be spotlighted for the voters. So I’m really glad that I got to be here for this.

FP: So for you, this is a very serious exercise of democracy. It doesn’t seem like some kind of absurd circus?

Feldman: Of course there’s a certain element of “show.” But I can see that the absolute majority of people here take it very seriously. And I understand — this is probably mostly about Trump and his attempts to make the campaign about himself — that there’s an element of a talk show, and that’s probably bad.

But I follow the Democrats a little more, because their values are more understandable to me. For example, I live in a country that made abortions legal in 1920. So for me, the “pro-life” position is a completely incomprehensible thing. I understand, intellectually, where it comes from, but emotionally I can’t understand how anyone can support this. From this point of view, for me the Democrats are easier to understand.

FP: Of our candidates, who do you think would be most popular in Russia?

Feldman: On the surface, Trump is, of course, terribly similar to Putin.

Because in Russia, the elections are more like a choice between different aesthetics. That is, you have no chance to have an effect on actual policy. You can vote for the Communists if you’re nostalgic, for the screaming [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky if you want to bang your fist on the table, for [the ruling party] United Russia if you want to show your loyalty, and for A Just Russia if you’re loyal, but not very.

So in Russia, elections look different. It’s a ritual, a cult. You vote and it doesn’t change anything. Here it’s not like that — but in that way, on the surface, Trump is, of course, very similar to Putin. He’s the closest to this kind of Russian politics.

FP: In that, by voting for him, you’re more showing who you are than voting for a policy?

Feldman: Yes.

I was actually at a Trump rally in Cedar Falls, and I had this feeling that I had returned to the Motherland. I wanted to go onto the stands to take photos, and to walk around just to see the crowd. But they had made a section for the press in the back, and blocked it with a barrier, and they didn’t let you out.

And so, using my Russian experience, I stayed quietly on the stands when the rally began — but someone immediately came up, and very quietly and politely, they escorted me back to the press area and didn’t let me out until the end. This was very similar to what I’ve seen at home. Because, of course, when you go to a Putin rally, they let only a few accredited people through.

FP: Other than Trump, what are your impressions of the other candidates?

Feldman: I was very impressed by Cruz, because he’s a fantastic speaker. He’s like a stand-up comic, always joking, with a really great sense of humor. And after each joke, he speaks very clearly about some specific policy. From the point of view of effectiveness as a speaker, he is probably the best of anyone that I’ve seen, maybe except for Sanders. I didn’t see Rubio, though.

FP: What are the biggest differences between the two systems that you’ve noticed?

Feldman: I think the biggest difference is the authenticity with which people are plugged into the political process on very different levels. I’m here for the presidential elections, but I know that state-level elections have no less of an impact on people’s lives. In Russia all of our politics are on the federal level. If a factory goes bankrupt in a city, Putin goes there to figure out how to employ the people who used to work there. The governor can’t do anything because he has no money, to say nothing of the municipality.

But the main thing is the authenticity. Here’s a good story. After a big Sanders rally, probably the biggest one, the [University of Iowa] students had a “caucus awareness party” in a little underground basement club where usually they have house parties. So it was a very normal house party, all of these students came and drank a whole lot of beer and smoked a lot of weed, and every conversation began with a very serious question: “Are you caucusing?”

This is incredible. And these weren’t politics nerds who sit and watch CNN every night. This was a totally normal party, but the extent to which it was political really shocked me.

I think the fundamental difference is that here, the elections are a public discussion of where you want to see the country in 10, 20, 30, 50 years. In Russia, there’s no long-term planning at all. Even the regime operates like this: “We have elections in half a year; let’s see if we can make it till then. We’ll raise pensions so that they’ll vote for us, and after that, screw them. And then when there’s another election, we’ll start a war, or put someone in jail, or invent some reform, or pretend that we invented some reform.”

I hear very often this very Republican phrase, that immigrants who come here must become Americans. And every citizen of the country, with some differences of course, but more or less, understands what it means to be an American. There are some general features — I won’t try to list them, I’ll probably get it wrong, but you know what I mean.

The main problem in Russia is that there’s no conception of — this is a horrible word — “Russianness.” There’s no feeling of why we all — me as a Muscovite, a Chechen, or someone from St. Petersburg or Novosibirsk or Vladivostok — why, other than historical circumstances, we’re all together? How do we all benefit? There’s no understanding or discussion about this.

FP: But what about Pushkin? Stalin? The Russian Orthodox Church, Russian history, and so on?

Feldman: These are just symbols. It doesn’t work. The church can’t be a unifying factor in a country where 3 percent of the population are members.

FP: So Russian heritage isn’t enough to bring the country together?

Feldman: It’s enough to define those people who then need to figure out why they should be together now. For example, I’m a Jew, an atheist, a liberal, and so on. I’m still Russian from the point of view of culture. I live in Russia and I want to live in Russia, because I associate myself with Pushkin, Bulgakov, Moscow, and so on. But beyond this geographical and cultural platform of unity, there should be some kind of conception — why should we all be together?

At the end of the ’90s this was a widely told joke: “Let’s all get together and figure out what our national idea is.” But it’s a problem that still hasn’t been solved.

FP: So Putin hasn’t succeeded in figuring this out?

Feldman: Putin has no policies. Putin has only a collection of immediate reactions. Putin is the essence of a system which is focused on reelection — reelection in the circumstances of rigged elections. Not letting anyone into the system, and not allowing anything to really happen during the elections, making sure people don’t raise their pitchforks.

If you imagine our society like a tree, we have common roots, but no understanding of how we’re growing above the ground: Are we a fir tree, or an oak, or a fern? Actually, we’re still discussing what our roots are. We more or less have common roots, but even there: What kind of common roots can we have with [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov — not with Chechens, but with Ramzan? Hell if I know.

FP: But America does have this common “tree” — and you can see this in Iowa?

Feldman: Of course. I hear a lot of historical references. Yesterday, some conservative radio guy spoke for 40 minutes before Ted Cruz, and he talked about the life of George Washington. The way Americans perceive these elections, there are roots and there are branches. A collection of various models in the past, and different possibilities for the future. There’s a feeling of strategy: Together, you are all making decisions about the future of your country.

Image provided by Evgeny Feldman and shot by Petr Shelomovskiy.

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