Russian immigrants came relatively late to America — and are still coming. The US Census Bureau says 2.95 million Americans claim Russian ancestry, and there are three-quarters of a million people who were born in Russia or have at least one parent who was.
And so the Russia scandal that continues to dog the Trump administration isn’t just a concept for these Americans. Russia was a place that they, and their relatives, were happy to leave.
That’s why special counsel Robert Mueller’s charge against Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser in the Trump administration, touched a nerve.
It isn’t just that Russians were painted as the bad guys in so much popular culture. It’s that for the past century and a half, America has been a particular refuge for people of Russian descent, who are confounded that Mr Trump is so benevolent toward their former country.
The feelings about their homeland are far fresher than those among the Dutch, English, Germans, Irish and Italian immigrants who began arriving in the States as early as the 1500s.
The big waves of Russian immigration didn’t begin until around 1880 and really swelled in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1907, the peak year for American immigration, more than a million Russians came to the States.
That was the era when my maternal grandfather and his brothers boarded ships bound to Quebec City, an alternate route to New York’s Ellis Island. The land they farmed was taken away by the Czar, and according to family lore, it was strongly suggested by local officials that they would be much happier abroad.
Later, my ancestors went on to Chicago, and eventually to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where jobs in furniture factories were as plentiful as those in car plants, allowing them and their descendants to climb the ladder of economic success.
Bolsheviks, Cold War brought Russians to US
Another wave of Russian immigration took place in 1918, right after the Bolshevik Revolution, and then the doors were slammed shut for decades, both by changes in US immigration law and by World War II.
While there were a few defectors during the Cold War, things picked up again in the 1990s, when oligarchs and ordinary people took advantage of the fall of the Berlin Wall to leave.
So, when Mr Trump defends Russia and fawns over its leader Vladimir Putin, it’s personal.
Some people take it as an insult, others as a sign of collusion, reinforced by Mr Flynn’s decision to plead guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian Ambassador to the US during the transition between Barack Obama and Mr Trump.
Most Americans of Russian descent live lives divided into two parts: cultural Russia and political Russia.
Culturally, nearly everyone clings to some traditions from the old country. It might be a simple as hot tea served in a glass with cherry jam.
Perhaps, they make the sweetened bread called kulich that is served at Easter. Or, enjoy the sound of a men’s Russian choir singing during a religious service.
Baryshnikov defection ‘not about money’
Politically, the divide isn’t so easy. There are still a few people who wish for a restoration of the Romanov dynasty. There are some loyal Communists who think the break-up of the Soviet Union ruined a system they thought worked.
Some Russian-Americans become loyal to democracy and proudly display the American flag. Others think a strong man like Mr Putin is the right idea.
But, the one thing they have in common is that they came to the US on purpose. Some, to invest in real estate and get even richer. Others because they wanted to get away from scrutiny.
I’ve always been fascinated by the risk that the great ballet dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov, took in order to defect.
In June, 1974, he was one of the stars of a Russian ballet troupe that was performing in Toronto. With help from the Globe & Mail’s ballet critic, he made contact with two men in a getaway car who sped him off to rural Canada until his arrival in the US could be arranged.
Baryshnikov is the symbol of the artistic freedom that many Russian performers craved before they could easily come and go from their homeland.
“It [was] not a question of money,” he told American 60 Minutes in 1979.
“I came to this country really not to make money; [but to] be somebody and to spend my life in the most interesting way, in the most intriguing way.”
What does Flynn have on Trump?
For many with Russian roots, the dance between Mr Trump and the Russians is being viewed with alarm and curiosity. Alarm, because we can’t fathom why he would tangle with potential treason.
Curiosity, because we can’t help wondering: what, actually, does Mr Flynn have on Mr Trump? What has he told Mr Mueller? Will Mr Trump pardon him, or dismiss him as hired help who doesn’t really matter because he isn’t family?
Mr Trump said he “felt very badly” for Mr Flynn, and tried to shift the conversation to his former opponent, Hillary Clinton, who he claimed lied multiple times to the FBI without consequence.
Mr Trump has made his own assertion, multiple times, that there was no collusion with Russia. But he also muddied the waters with a tweet he now says was written by his attorney.
“I had to fire [Mr Flynn] because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies,” Mr Trump tweeted.
“It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!”
Watching this Russian drama play out, one can’t help but think of what playwright Fyodor Dostoevsky said in Notes From The Underground. “There are things which a man is afraid to tell, even to himself.”
Micheline Maynard is an author, broadcaster and former New York Times business journalist.