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Russian politician in the USA: I advocate and support my culture

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Russian politician in the USA: I advocate and support my culture


Svetlana Smetanina

Anton Konev is a young politician; he is an assistant to the Senator from New York. 20 years ago he came to the USA from Russia; and today he is one of still very few members of Russian-speaking émigré community who has built successful career in politics. While Russophobia runs the show within the top tiers of the US power, middle ranking politicians continue to develop relationship between our countries.

Please tell us how has your political career evolved? Have you dreamt of becoming a politician since childhood?

I emigrated from Saint-Petersburg in 1997 and completed my 9th to 12th grades in the USA. As a young emigrant learning English, I became interested in politics right away. While in the 10th grade, I became the president of our class, then the vice-president and finally the president of the school. While in university, I was also involved in organizational affairs and promoted rights of our students.
Then I ran for the Democratic Committee and was elected as its member. And then I was able to be elected as a member of the Albany municipal government.

Furthermore, I was undergoing training at the New York State Assembly since my freshman year, and upon its completion they offered me a job. Indeed, I have been always interested in political activities and how lives of people around me could be improved.

When I was a member of the municipal government, I had a district where around 10% of voters were senior Russians. It is good to have some group to support you during democratic primaries. Obviously, Russian-speaking voters supported me. Before that they had not taken part in any elections due to lack of understanding of why and how to do that. Besides, pre-election materials had not be translated for them. I was the first representative speaking their language.

I visit them during every election, either local or federal, because many of them are not able to go to their voting place in person anymore. I bring ballots and translate required documents for them. In such a way they are able to take part in political life of the country.

Do you know any other politicians of Russian origin? Are they present at municipal or federal level?

Their number is quite small. Here, in the State of New York, we had one assemblyman, but he resigned. A spokesman of New York City treasure is a Russian-speaking person. Some senators and congressmen have Russian-speaking assistants. There is a Russian-speaking member of the municipal government in Maryland near Washington.

Do members of municipality governments in the USA also have to deal mostly with utilities issues and address complains of residents?

Yes, they do. As a member of the municipal government I had to deal with various local problems. For example, my elderly Russian voters requested to arrange one-way traffic at their street since there was a rather narrow two-way road and elderly people felt scared to cross it.

Then they asked for help with installation of benches in the municipal part. Also I had to arrange parking places for disabled. There were lots of complains about neighbours not cleaning after their dogs.

And currently, being the assistant to the Senator, you probably deal with different issues, don’t you?

Yes, now I deal with translation of documents for Russian-speaking citizens, immigration issues, lawyers for immigrants, and so on.

From your perspective, why are there so few representatives of the Russian-speaking community in the government?

Elderly people, for example those living in Brighton Beach, simply do not take part in elections, because they do not know the language well and often do not understand all subtle aspects of voting. So for Russian politicians it is hard to come up without support from their community. Probably, it is simply due to lack of education about electoral participation. And youth does not care much about politics they have to work and earn money. Many of them think: why do I need politics, why do I vote, and what can politicians do for me that I am not able to do myself?

There is no understanding that participation in election is a civic duty, and if you further your representatives, it will help to implement your communitys interests. However the situation has been changing lately: there are Russian associations within labour unions; there are even associations of Russian lawyers and Russian policemen. And they are gradually becoming involved in elections.

Now you cannot say that the Russian community does not participate in American political life. But its participation is still far rom being comparable with the one of other communities.

Today there are lots of discussions on intensity of Russophobia in Western countries, especially in the USA. We often see that allegations are targeted at Russia in general and at the Russians. So there is undisguised violation of rights of specific nationality. Can such situation be opposed somehow at the level of community?

Indeed, some American politicians are looking for some external problems and draw attention to foreign policy issues, just to distract minds from vital home matters. For home policy to be affected, it sometimes requires taking kind of drastic decisions and investing money. That is the reason they are much more comfortable to make statements on foreign policy, which they cannot affect much, but make active efforts in search for enemies.

Republicans often use Mexico as their target; lots of illegal immigrants come from there. Democrats use Russia it is always convenient to look for someone to blame elsewhere.

As a person who has been in this field for a long time, I perfectly understand that there are politicians who are involved in solving vital issues, such as problems of poverty, problems of the homeless people or those who do not have proper housing. For example, in New York, there is a large number of social homes that are regularly flooded, or have rats multiplied there. Or, for instance, the authorities used to deny for a long time that paint on inner walls of such houses contained lead. This adversely affects people's health blood samples of many children have shown high concentrations of lead.

Obviously, solution of such problems requires to relocate the residents somewhere and renovate the houses, i.e. huge investments are needed. In most cases it is easier to play the blame game and make statements on Donald Trump being too close to Russia and so on. And that is instead of criticizing him for actual issues he ignores, such as climate change or poverty.

Alongside with your political activities, you are quite an active member of the Russian community you lead the youth branch of the Russian Community Council of the USA. Does it hinder your work in any way? Do you need to conceal the fact that you are Russian?

No, absolutely not. I was born in Russia. I have extensive Russian background. And I am proud to be a Russian emigrant. I advocate and support my culture, just as representatives of other national minorities do.

I am also a member of the board of directors of the Albany-Tula Alliance, a public organization. We brought a team of 10-year-old American hockey players to Russia for the international children's hockey tournament. Along with them, I brought 30 members of their families and five coaches. During this trip they were able to see that Russia is a beautiful and interesting country, and what hospitable people live there.

I constantly work on such projects. Soon we will have a business exchange: we invite young businessmen, active young people from Tula for an internship in the United States. We also held an essay contest on the importance of Russian-American relations among Russian and American schoolchildren. We constantly strive to make efforts to promote and develop ties between our countries.

A while ago, one of the Senators of our State approached me and asked, “Are you going to organize a trip to Russia again? I would love to visit it.”

Despite general negativity, there is a lot of positivity as well. Perhaps it is not so visible and less talked about in the media. But it is there. There are people who are still interested in Russia, want to go there and build relations with the Russians.

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