The Russian-American community in the District was once a thriving scene, complete with bustling nightlife and daytime cultural events. A new report in Politico Magazine, however, characterizes it as in decline since the July 15 arrest of 29-year-old Russian national Mariia Butina, a graduate of American University accused of being an unregistered foreign agent. The charges against Butina confirmed "Washington's worst suspicions" about its Russian residents, the outlet wrote.
But these suspicions likely go further back. The article mentions a number of bars and clubs in DC frequented by Russians and others hailing from former Soviet republics, but fails to mention the situation one particular institution has found itself in since claims of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election began dominating business in the beltway. Russia House in DC had a brick thrown through its window shortly after US President Donald Trump was inaugurated. It has also fallen victim to repeated postings of stickers accusing Trump of being "Putin's puppet."
But since Butina's arrest, it seems that every Russian is suspect. Many of them told the outlet that when on dates, they're frequently asked whether they are spies, but that's the least of their concerns from popular dating applications such as Tinder. One young man with security clearance who spoke with the outlet believed that a woman who was flirting with him on the platform was really seeking to gather intelligence. "I don't know if I was targeted specifically or whether I became an asset of potential interest as we started getting to know each other," he told the outlet.
Women in particular are suspect when on dates. "The prospect of Russian agents using sex as a weapon of statecraft is a real one," Politico said in the September 10 story, citing Butina's case. Prosecutors initially alleged that Butina had offered to trade sex for a position at a public interest organization, but walked back the claim on September 7. On Monday, the 10th, the judge in Butina's case, Tanya S. Chutkan, admonished the government for the erroneous allegation, saying it took her a mere five minutes to figure out there was no substance to it.
"We can't go to Tinder and say, ‘Give us a list of everyone with a Russian surname,'" Frank Montoya Jr., once an FBI special agent and former director of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Directorate, told Politico.
While "mostly, men in Washington seem to be intrigued by Russian women, though they do keep asking if they're spies," according to Politico, Russians are also highly sought after by intelligence community recruiters, the outlet noted.
Other Russians complained to Politico about strange inquiries from their landlords about their names. One girl named Natalia was interrogated by the person she was renting from for using the name Natasha — the name of a Russian spy in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s cartoon "Rocky & Bullwinkle." The landlord, Natasha believes, thought she was using the name as a spying alias and only became contented with her use of it when she showed the landlady a Wikipedia page explaining how it is a commonly used nickname for Natalia.
According to one of the Russian sources, a classmate of theirs came back to their dorm room on campus at George Mason University to find that somebody had tried to set fire to their Russian flag.
Meanwhile, in a city where everybody and their brother seems to work for the government, Russians have difficulty maintaining friendships with such people. When a meetup is cancelled, one wonders, "Are they really busy? Who knows?" one girl said. Or, in the case of employment, "You're not hired for that job. Why is that?"
It is against the law in the United States to discriminate against job applicants on the basis of nationality, but an executive at a DC cybersecurity firm told the outlet that companies doing sensitive work have a "very well-enforced informal policy" to avoid hiring people from Russia and other countries in poor standing with the US State Department. He told the outlet that he has joked with his colleagues about giving these applicants summer internships and then allowing the government to spy on them while pretending to be an "internship coordinator."
One American who works in a DC think tank said he lost trust in another American who attended too many Russian cultural events.