The women at lunch are chatting in the typical Russian way, the best of friends sharing opinionated views, affectionately interrupting one another, laughing and lobbing gentle gibes across a table filled with bowls of borscht, plates of beef stroganoff and stacks of blini.
But these older professional women aren’t talking about shopping or the beaches or the latest gossip back in the rodina – the homeland – as they enjoy a sumptuous feast at Tatiana Restaurant, a popular gathering spot in Hallandale Beach for South Florida’s large Russian émigré community done up in the elegant czarist style with chandeliers, white lace hanging from rafters, fine china and silver.
They’re engaged in animated discussion about the seemingly odd relationship between the president-elect of their adopted country and the Kremlin leader of the country they left behind. Their lively banter rolls easily back and forth from Russian to English, the heavy Slavic accents bathing the talk.
“Putin is not a nice boy,” said Zoya Roit, a former Northrop Grumman engineer who retired from Baltimore to Hallandale Beach, north of Miami, deliberately using the diminutive kind of reference to men that Russians love to employ for every purpose from affection to sarcasm.
“He is strong,” Roit said. “He is aggressive. But he wants to have another strong figure in the White House. Not to fight, but to respect. This is why he supports Trump – because he is strong. He feels he can make deals with Trump. Obama was weak.”
From down the table came a dissenting voice.
If Vladimir Putin thinks Donald Trump will be a strong or reliable negotiating partner, Klara Witkon said, he’s in for a bitter surprise.
“I’ve met Trump,” she said. “I was on his boat. There was nothing I liked about him 25 years ago, and there’s nothing I like about him now.”
A longtime New Yorker who splits her time between Long Island up north and Williams Island near North Miami Beach, Witkon imitated a strutting figure with swinging shoulders and nose held high in conceit.
That dis brings a rebuke from some of the other women, who like a number of other local émigrés are enthusiastic Trump supporters.
“I always liked Trump,” said Gina Fastovsky, a psychotherapist in Sunny Isles, another Miami-area community, who came to Miami in 2006 by way of Israel and New York. “He has a cheerful personality.
“I agree with Trump because I know the Russian system. With Putin, you have to deal not with fists, but with negotiations. If you come at him with one fist, he will show you 100 fists!”
Across South Florida, from Fisher Island to Sunny Isles Beach and beyond, all the fantastic and fascinating stories of intrigue about Kremlin interference in the American election and the supposed “bromance” between Trump and Putin have rippled through the region’s large Russian community.
Many Russian émigrés dismiss as outlandish the talk of Putin, a former KGB leader, and his intelligence agents manipulating the Nov. 8 presidential election or running a cloak-and-dagger operation to plant Trump, an open admirer of the Russian president, in the White House.
The stories, some tied to documents compiled by a former British intelligence agent collecting what’s known as opposition research for Trump opponents, go so far as to suggest that Russian diplomats in Washington, New York and even Miami helped pull off a high-risk operation to influence the outcome of the election.
Local Russians dismiss such claims, echoing Trump himself, who’s labeled them “garbage” and called news outlets that publish them shameful.
“The whole media is talking about how Russia helped Trump’s election and got into the Democratic computers and all that stuff, but nobody has any proof,” Eugene Torgovsky said.
Torgovsky and other Russians noted that the CIA has a long history of interference in other nations’ elections. Regarding hacking into foreign governments’ databases, they pointed out that U.S. intelligence leaders have testified to Congress that Washington does it too.
Torgovsky left Russia at 16 with his family in 1991, the year of the KGB-led coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.
“As soon as we crossed the border, the whole country fell apart,” he said.
Moving from Chicago to Miami in 2004, he now owns South Florida stores selling high-end fashions and home furnishings.
Like other local Russian entrepreneurs, Torgovsky likes Trump’s business background.
“This country needs a businessman because every country is a corporation,” he said. “Trump doesn’t have any political experience, but he’s a businessman. That’s what this country needs right now. We need less politics and more business. That’s why I believe Trump, maybe, will do better change.”
Torgovsky watches both Russian and American TV news reports. He’s amazed by their stark differences in covering the explosive Trump-Putin story, with state-run networks in Moscow ridiculing it as nonsense and American outlets issuing breathless updates.
“It’s like a couple sleeping in the same bed at night,” Torgovsky said. “One of them pulls the cover his way, then the other pulls it her way.”
As for Putin, South Florida Russians appear divided, with some saying that while not a democrat, he’s at least brought order and respect back to their homeland after the 1990s chaos under Boris Yeltsin.
At Florida International University, comparative politics professor Tatiana Kostadinova takes a more nuanced view based on her personal and professional experience.
Kostadinova, head of the FIU graduate political science program, grew up in Bulgaria during the Cold War, when it was a Kremlin vassal.
After leaving Bulgaria in 1995, Kostadinova received her Ph.D. in political science at Florida State University, writing a dissertation on election systems in Eastern Europe. After a four-year teaching stint at the University of Minnesota, she arrived at FIU in 2004.
She said she had no way of knowing whether Putin or his lieutenants directly interfered in the election or took concrete steps to boost Trump. More likely, she believes, they compiled what Russian spies call kompromat on Trump. Tied to the word “compromise,” it is an intelligence dossier of potentially embarrassing information about politicians, diplomats, wealthy businesspeople, scientists, journalists and others.
“They do this with many important people,” Kostadinova said. “The worst part of it is that they can use it as blackmail. It could be tied to someone’s personal life, to their relationships, but also to their relations with other businessmen or politicians, things like paying bribes or hiring prostitutes.”
The Kremlin, she said, has used such files for decades not so much to ruin people, but to influence them and threaten them.
“He or she may do things they otherwise wouldn’t do,” Kostadinova said. “So it can be used as a power weapon. It can be used to change a policy.”
While Kostadinova is cautious about even suggesting that Moscow has compromising information on Trump, she doesn’t rule it out.
“It is possible,” she said. “When the election result was announced, the Russian Duma celebrated. This is some sort of evidence that Trump’s election was the preferred result for Russian policymakers. But there is a big difference between who you prefer and whether you would do something to get him elected.”
At the same time, the professor has done research indicating that the Kremlin interfered in Czech elections last year and may have planted “disinformation” to influence politics in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, something that Democrats accused it of doing in the United States last fall to harm Hillary Clinton.
“Here in the United States, I think it was more about disrupting the election,” she said. “There was a prevailing opinion that Hillary Clinton would win. She’s anti-Putin. The election of Trump would shudder the system because he portrayed himself as an anti-establishment candidate. So if the Russians could bring more instability to the United States and show the world that a liberal democratic system is not necessarily better — this is a goal about which I can be more certain.”
Along with the fascination in South Florida about all the intrigue comes fear.
While a dozen local Russians were willing to weigh in on the Trump-Putin stratagems, real or imagined, just as many were wary.
Calls to some émigrés were met with hangups once a question was asked. Other queries elicited polite rejections with voices cloaked by caution.
“I don’t meddle in politics,” was a typical response.
Asked whether a reporter could take a photograph or a short video clip of them eating lunch, most of the women at Tatiana threw their hands in the air.
“No! No!” they said.
One diner leaned in and said conspiratorially in Russian: “They’re a little paranoid.”
A woman who would identify herself only as Irina, a medical internist, explained why, despite having left the then-Soviet Union decades ago, she has no appetite for wading into politics having anything to do with the Kremlin.
“I do have paranoia,” Irina said. “My father was sent to the gulag. My family and I were exiled to Siberia.”
Now living in the Miami suburb of Aventura, Irina said her family in Estonia had lost everything when the Russians seized control of the Baltic lands after World War II.
“We were Jews,” she said. “That’s the only way we were saved, by coming to America.”