As a high school student, I was known as “JFK” because of my so-called obsession with John F. Kennedy. My classmates called it an obsession because I could recite several of his speeches from memory for hours.
This is not an exaggeration: I could recite his entire inaugural address from memory at the same speed and pace as he delivered it in 1961, when he urged Americans to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. I could follow that address with his June 1963 speech in Berlin, when he famously declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which has unfairly become known as the jelly doughnut speech, and then continue with any of several other of his speeches, such as the September 1962 Rice University speech now known as the “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech.
However, I wasn’t just inspired by his speeches. One day in Language Arts class, while the rest of the class was taking turns reading Great Expectations, I was secretly reading the book about the conspiracy surrounding his assassination that would become the basis of the 1991 Oliver Stone movie “JFK”. The teacher caught me, but I think he was surprised by my choice of reading material. I guess he was old enough to remember the day Kennedy was killed and perhaps assumed I was reading some young adult fiction novel when he approached my desk. I didn’t get in trouble. He didn’t even say a word. He just picked up the book, turned it over to see its cover, closed it, and returned it to me.
That incident stayed with me as a reminder of my youthful fascination with JFK. This fascination led me to become interested in the Cold War and the complex relationship between the United States and Russia. I was disappointed by the state of the US-Russian relations, given that Russia had historically been a friend of the United States who had even helped the American cause in the Revolutionary War and, having just abolished serfdom, supported the Union in the war between the states known as the Civil War. The political idealist in me dreamed of a future in which our two nations could once again be friends and even allies instead of geopolitical foes whose leaders were stuck in the Cold War.
So, I started learning, Russian, as one does. Unfortunately, Russian wasn’t offered as a language option at my high school. But I was drawn to the language, nonetheless, so I decided to embark on my own self-study journey. I got the original Rosetta Stone language learning software and spent many hours learning vocabulary and even practicing my pronunciation with a headset microphone plugged into my desktop computer.
My interest in Russian didn’t go unnoticed. Of all people, my French teacher was one of the first to notice. She then gifted me several Russian dictionaries and grammar books to encourage my pursuit of the Russian language. This was surprising, as one might expect her to encourage me to study for my French exams, but she said that she had studied Russian in some capacity herself and was happy to support my interest. I was not able to study the language formally until college, where I took it on as a minor.
When I entered college, my interest in learning Russian was not just a linguistic curiosity, but part of a broader idealistic vision of the future. I envisioned a world in which the United States and Russia were not rivals or enemies as they were at the time, but allies in an alliance that spanned the Northern Hemisphere, something more closely resembling the friendship our two countries shared in the early years of the United States.
And when it came to matters of the heart, I imagined that if I ever married a Russian woman, our children would be the product of a blood alliance between Americans and Russians, a symbol of this renewed bond. Of course, such dreams are only possible in the mind of a naive college freshman inspired by Kennedy, who, speaking at the American University in the summer of 1963 said:
“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Another Kennedy speech I could recite from memory.
After my freshman year, I participated in a study abroad program that took me and some of my classmates to St. Petersburg for six weeks in the summer of 2006. It was the first time I had set foot in a country whose language I had studied and admired for years. During those six weeks, I not only improved my Russian language skills, but also explored the city’s rich cultural and historical sites, including the Hermitage, the official residence of Catherine II, who provided some limited support to the American cause for independence from Great Britain, and later Tsar Alexander II, who sent the Russian fleet to New York and San Francisco to show support for the Union during the Civil War, thus preventing the United Kingdom from intervening on behalf of the Confederacy.
Visiting Russia that summer also taught me that Russia is nothing like the dystopian image portrayed in American society by Hollywood and the media. I expected a strict police state with armed soldiers patrolling the streets with AK-47s. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Russian society is quite the opposite. In fact, not only did I not see any soldiers, I barely even noticed the police. This made me question the accuracy of the negative image of Russia that had been painted for me. My time there made me realize that if everything I had learned about Russia through popular culture and the media was wrong, then perhaps the government’s portrayal of the country was not to be trusted either. In the end, I enjoyed my time there so much that I decided to return the following year as an ESL teacher to further immerse myself in the culture and language.
For the next several years in Russia, I viewed Western criticism of Russia with skepticism, as my firsthand experience in the country contradicted much of what was reported in the Western media. I found Russia to be a beautiful and vibrant country, full of welcoming and friendly people who had a positive view of Americans but a negative view of the American government, a sentiment I shared with them. This disconnect between what was reported and what I experienced on the ground made me realize the importance of first-hand experience and the dangers of believing media narratives and I felt compelled to challenge those narratives. Thus, to the surprise of some of my fellow Americans, I found myself defending Russia against Western criticism of its record on civil rights, justice, and foreign policy, and advocating for a multipolar world no longer dominated solely by the collective West.
Admittedly, my views of the Russian government had been “through the lens of rose-colored glasses,” as Russians would tell me, referring to my overly idealistic perceptions of that country. However, I was forced to remove those glasses and face reality when I myself was detained by police, along with thousands of others, for participating in an unsanctioned rally in support of press freedom in 2019. I was quickly released because I feigned ignorance of Russian and presented myself as a tourist who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I knew exactly where I was and understood the commands on the police megaphone to disperse from the area yet ignored them like everyone else. My release became a viral moment in Russia, as it was captured on video. Soon thereafter, protesters took to YouTube and TikTok to learn the expression and proper pronunciation of “I am an American,” as the secret to being released by the police during unsanctioned protests.
After that experience, I witnessed the corruption and hypocrisy that dominated Russia’s response to the 2020 pandemic. It turned out that the office of the Moscow Mayor Sobyanin had taken ownership of one of Russia’s largest mask manufacturers and then instituted mask mandates, which was undoubtedly quite profitable in light of those mandates. Like California Governor Gavin Newsom’s French Laundry scandal, Moscow Mayor Sobyanin rarely followed his own mandate.
The sobering reality of the Russian justice system became clear to me in 2021 when Alexey Navalny was arrested upon returning to Russia. He had been medically evacuated to Germany after being poisoned by Russian agents and was arrested for not checking in with his parole officer while lying in a coma in the German hospital to which he had been airlifted from Siberia. Later that year, I used my platform as a columnist and media personality to call for the release of Trevor Reed, the American who had been wrongfully imprisoned by Russia and later traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian drug smuggler.
Finally, the brutal invasion of Ukraine launched in 2022 was a stark reminder of the country’s expansionist history and future plans to restore the Russian Empire. My family had left just prior to the invasion as the political situation in the country had shifted and no longer felt safe and I knew that wartime Russia would not be a good place to raise my family. We were in Turkey on the day of the invasion and have not returned to Russia since.
Together, these events shattered my idealistic notions and caused me to see the Russian government for what it really is, rather than the rosy image I had looking through those “pink glasses.” Consequently, I felt a sense of disappointment in Russia similar to how I felt about my own country when my perceptions of American history and government were changed through life experience. However, the disappointment I felt about my country was rooted in a sense of responsibility and belonging, as Kennedy once said, “For I can assure you that we love our country, not for what it was, though it has always been great — not for what it is, though of this we are deeply proud — but for what it someday can, and, through the efforts of us all, someday will be.”
Thus, I have always felt the need to point out the difference between one’s country and one’s government. I remain critical of the American government to this day — as do most Americans — but I have always loved my country. One way we show love of country is by exercising our rights to pursue what we believe is right, to speak what we believe needs to be said, and to write what we believe needs to be written. Exercising one’s First Amendment rights is about the most American thing one can do, and those rights exist specifically to protect speech that the government would otherwise disallow.
My criticism of Russia, however, is different. It is not rooted in love of country, because I am not a citizen of Russia and have no vested interest in its future. The authoritarian regime in Moscow and its imperialist and expansionist agenda to restore the Russian Empire threatens the sovereignty and stability of neighboring countries, Europe, and the world. As a former political idealist turned Russian apologist, I say that the West must continue to confront this threat and ultimately defeat Russia on the ground.