How Trump’s Supporters Distort Alexander Vindman’s Very American Origin Story
Alexander Vindman, the lieutenant colonel who testified before impeachment investigators in Congress on Tuesday, introduced himself in his prepared statement as an immigrant. For some of Donald Trump’s prominent supporters, this fact was enough to begin painting Vindman as a double agent, a traitor, or a spy. On “Fox & Friends,” perhaps Trump’s favorite program, Brian Kilmeade said, ominously, that Vindman “tends to feel simpatico with the Ukraine.” Fox’s Laura Ingraham suggested that Vindman was working on behalf of Ukraine from within the White House, leading her guest, John Yoo (most well known for his co-authorship of the so-called Torture Memo), to question whether these conversations amounted to “espionage.” The CNN commentator Sean Duffy, who also expressed alarm about Vindman’s loyalties, opined that Vindman “is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense . . . We all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from. Like me, I’m sure that Vindman has that same affinity.”
For many others, however, Vindman’s spare summary of his life sounded like a quintessential story of the making of a patriot. As a fellow Jewish immigrant from the Soviet Union, I had my own set of memories and associations to project. Vindman introduced himself in his prepared statement as follows:
I sit here, as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army, an
immigrant. My family fled the Soviet Union when I was three and a half
years old. Upon arriving in New York City in 1979, my father worked
multiple jobs to support us, all the while learning English at night.
He stressed to us the importance of fully integrating into our adopted
country. For many years, life was quite difficult. In spite of our
challenging beginnings, my family worked to build its own American
dream. I have a deep appreciation for American values and ideals and
the power of freedom. I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and
honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or
The Times reported that Vindman came here with his twin brother, Yevgeniy; his older brother, Leonid; his father, Semyon; and his maternal grandmother. The boys’ mother had died shortly before the family left the Soviet Union. Three children was a lot by Soviet standards, enough to qualify for benefits such as free public transportation; the state, concerned about ongoing depopulation, was trying to encourage families to have more children. The birth of a son was usually seen as a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, a boy was more of a future achiever than a girl (even in the world’s first major power to adopt gender equality as a founding principle); on the other hand, a boy was at risk of being conscripted. Many families began planning their strategies for avoiding conscription as soon as a son was born, the way some American families begin planning for college when their children are infants. A number of universities guaranteed deferments that amounted to an exemption from conscription, but there was also the issue of getting into a university with a last name like Vindman and with identity documents that specified that their bearer was Jewish. Some institutions of higher learning were closed to Jews altogether; most of the rest enforced strict quotas. A young person could apply to one or two universities the summer after graduating from high school, and, if a boy failed to matriculate by the age of eighteen, he would be conscripted for two or three years of service. Every Jewish family dreaded the humiliation their children would face once it came time to apply to college, and every Jewish family with boys feared the cruelty of the Soviet military and the particular abuse it reserved for Jews.
We don’t know what Vindman’s parents did in the Soviet Union, but his father eventually found work in the U.S. as an engineer, so this was likely his field in the U.S.S.R., too. Statistically, Vindman’s mother also probably worked. It’s likely that the maternal grandmother was taking care of the boys back in Kiev. Daily life, with systematic shortages of food, clothing, and other basic life necessities, would have been difficult. Assuming that the boys’ mother had higher education—again, a statistically safe assumption for an urban Jewish family—the Vindmans would have been a family of modest means. Engineers without advanced degrees fit at the bottom of a bourgeois class that was taking shape in the Soviet Union in the nineteen-seventies.
Then the mother died, and Semyon Vindman became the sole person responsible for giving his boys a future. The one advantage Soviet Jews enjoyed, for a brief moment in the seventies, was the privilege of being able to leave the country. Not every Jew was allowed to leave, of course, but most of the families who went through the arduous bureaucratic process of asking for an exit visa were granted one within a few months. They then headed for the entirely unknown world outside the Iron Curtain, leaving behind everything and everyone they had ever known; the assumption was that they would never be able to return to visit the U.S.S.R. Most of the new émigrés told themselves and others that they were doing it for the children. In the case of the Vindmans, this couldn’t have been any more clear: the father and the maternal grandmother were embarking on this journey together in order to give the boys a future.
Upon being granted permission to leave the country, the Vindmans would have been stripped of their Soviet citizenship. In exchange for their red passports, they would have received two pieces of pale green paper—one for the grandmother, one for the father and the kids—that stated that they had the right to leave the Soviet Union for the purpose of taking up permanent residence in Israel. They were stateless persons now, and these flimsy pieces of paper were their main identity documents. Within a month of being granted permission to leave, the Vindmans would have departed Kiev for Vienna, likely by train, carrying the maximum number of suitcases allowed. Most families bought suitcases just for this journey: they were large—the maximum size that the airline or railroad would accept—and brown, made cheaply, with sharp corners, of cardboard-like material.
In Vienna, Jewish émigrés were greeted by the Israeli resettlement agency ready to transport them to their presumed destination. But, like a majority of Jews who left the U.S.S.R. that year, the Vindmans were what was known as “dropouts,” who opted out of being resettled in Israel. After a few days or a couple of weeks in a small private hotel in Vienna, they would have been put on an overnight train to Rome, where HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, would help them with the paperwork needed to resettle in the United States. This history has a strange set of echoes in the present, from the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, a year ago, where the shooter was apparently obsessed with HIAS, to the arrest, this month, of two other Soviet Jewish émigrés, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who had one-way tickets to Vienna on their hands when they were apprehended.
HIAS gave the émigrés in its care a modest allowance to live in Italy. Most used it to rent a room in an apartment with other Soviet émigrés in one of two easily accessible seaside towns outside of Rome, Ladispoli, and Ostia. Off season, these resorts were ghost towns, so rent was cheap. The Times reports—citing the photographer Carol Kitman, who has chronicled the Vindman twins’ lives—that they sold their possessions to survive in Europe. More likely, they sold objects that they brought from the U.S.S.R. expressly for this purpose: linen towels and sheets, pocket watches, nesting dolls, miniature hand-painted lacquered boxes, perhaps a camera. (The actual possessions of a Soviet family were hardly of any value to Western Europeans.) The émigrés laid their wares out in a small town park, and resellers from Rome would walk through, picking out objects that they would take to a flea market in the city.
A hundred and twenty-six thousand Jews made their way from the Soviet Union to the U.S. between 1969 and 1988, and more than a third of them left the same year as the Vidmans. (There is, or was, a group of Soviet refugees in San Francisco called the 79ers.) Last month, I travelled to Ladispoli with my girlfriend. We had both stayed there as children: she in 1979, and I two years later. This had been our first experience of the West—a very limited experience, because our families didn’t have the money to buy anything at the stores there or go to a café. We had been largely limited to the streets of this town, in the cold months when no one else wanted to be there. The experience was limited, too, because we didn’t have the language to interpret the strange world we saw, touched, and heard. Now, we wondered what the people of Ladispoli had seen when they saw us. But no one we met seemed to remember the Soviet Jews who had stayed there. We had been ghosts in a ghost town.
The Vindmans, like all Soviet refugees, believed that they were leaving their country forever. It was our deep conviction that the Soviet regime would last for eternity. The only hope for the future lay in getting out. Since visiting, never mind returning, would not be an option, every émigré’s goal was to make their children grow up to be real Americans. Some families put an effort into maintaining Russian language and literacy in their children, but, socially, they wanted to push them out into the American world. “Real” American friends and, later, spouses would be markers of immigrant success.
But then the Vindmans went to live in Brighton Beach, where, the joke went, if you asked directions in English, you’d never get where you were going. This was before the proliferation of Russian restaurants called Tatiana, back when there were only a couple of Russian food stores, but the streets spoke Russian. There were Russian-language newspapers and, as the boys grew up, a growing number of Russian-language signs in the streets. But this was before the Internet and accessible satellite technology, so television was in English, and television was the new immigrants’ window into American life.
Every immigrant child lands in a country without history. The Vindmans’ grandmother would have been able to tell them about the Second World War in Europe, but not about the civil-rights movement, or the Kennedy assassination, or McCarthyism, or even the gas lines of 1973. They were the perfect audience for the ahistoric optimism of the Reagan era. When the Vindman twins were eight, it was morning in America: Ronald Reagan’s reëlection campaign ad claimed that life was better than it had ever been and ended with a long shot of the American flag. When they were twelve, Reagan gave his final speech as President. He read a letter from a man who said, “You can go to live in France but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan but you cannot become a German, a Turk or Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.”
Reagan continued, “Yes, the torch of Lady Liberty symbolizes our freedom and represents our heritage. . . . It is that lady that gives us our great and special place in the world. For it’s the great life force of each generation of new Americans that guarantees that America’s triumph shall continues unsurpassed. . . . In one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on Earth comes close.”
Reagan got something else right, too. He called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.” Then the empire crumbled. The regime that was supposed to last forever was no more. One of the fundamental misunderstandings at the root of Trumpian attacks on Vindman has to do with his country of origin. The Vindmans emigrated from the Soviet Union, not Ukraine. As Ashkenazi Jews from a majority-Russian-speaking Soviet city, they would have been perceived as Russians when they landed here, and they had no reason to think of themselves as Ukrainians. Ukraine’s development as an independent state with an ethnic identity at its center didn’t even begin until twelve years after the Vindmans left. More than that, when the Soviet Communist regime collapsed, it was the entire former empire that opened up for the Vindmans to visit, study, and otherwise reconnect with. Alexander Vindman’s master’s degree, from Harvard, is in Russian, Eastern Europe, and Central Asian Studies. He later served at the embassies in both Kiev and Moscow. His older brother, Leonid, who became an investment banker, married a Russian art historian from Moscow.
An irony of the Vindman boys’ story is that, having escaped the Soviet draft, all of them used the U.S. military to escape the confines of Little Odessa, as Brighton Beach became known. Leonid joined R.O.T.C. in college. The twins became career officers. “I have dedicated my entire professional life to the United States of America,” Vindman wrote in his prepared statement. Not “to the United States military”; not “to serving the United States.” Just “to the United States of America.” Vindman became the ultimate immigrant: a professional American.
There is nothing new or surprising in the way Trump’s supporters have misconstrued and misrepresented Vindman’s origin story. Most of it stems from the Trumpian obsession with espionage and the deep state, and the readiness of his propagandists to twist and misrepresent any information. Some of it also plays on our routine obsession with place of birth, as though that fact in itself were informative. The Southern District of New York indictment of Parnas and Fruman—the anti-Vindmans—specifies that each is a United States citizen who was born elsewhere—Parnas in Ukraine and Fruman in Belarus. Why is this relevant? One might argue that it points to their connections to ethnic organized-crime circles, but one doesn’t have to have been born in the former Soviet Union to have those connections—just look at the former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. More to the point, it’s misleading: the men were actually born in the Soviet Union and grew up in the United States.
The same is true of Vindman. His origins are in the Soviet Union, which had no place for people like him—Jews. His origins are in Reagan’s relentlessly optimistic and simplistic America, where a boy like Vindman could grow up to become a defender of American values. And his origins are in Brighton Beach, one of the few New York City neighborhoods that voted for Trump in 2016.