Some of Trump’s top supporters are refugees – and they’re scrutinizing his Putin meeting

Many of the Sacramento region’s tens of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union were watching closely Friday when President Donald Trump shook hands for the first time with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Community leaders and journalists said voters nationwide from the former Soviet Union and their adult children overwhelmingly supported Trump and his running mate Mike Pence, praising their “Christian values” and Trump’s efforts to make nice with Russia. Most of the new U.S. citizens came as evangelical Christian refugees fleeing religious persecution in the 1980s and 1990s, making Sacramento the capital of Soviet Christians outside Russia.

“Russian-speaking people liked Trump because he is not (Hillary) Clinton,” said Kim Golubev, a 28-year-old Ukrainian refugee who hosts Sacramento Speaks, a Russian call-in show with an estimated 5,000 listeners. “Some of that’s from Soviet sexism, some from the conservative perspective, but the majority of our community is very much anti-immigrant even though they are immigrants themselves.”

Sacramento Speaks’ listeners come from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and other European countries, Golubev said. Support for Trump, however, doesn’t necessarily mean any love for Putin, an ex-KGB spy who has dominated Russian politics since 2000, he said. Golubev doesn’t take a public position on Trump but supports Putin’s leading opponent in next year’s elections, Alexei Navalny, who was jailed for 30 days for sparking anti-government protests.

“Trump, Russian interference in U.S. politics and the war in Ukraine are three of the most popular topics,” Golubev said about the calls to his show. “According to my polls, about 50 percent of our audience is pro-Ukrainian and are not happy with Putin.”

U.S. census figures show nearly 70,000 people in the Sacramento region came from the former Soviet Union, with many of them coming from Ukraine. Community leaders, however, estimated that number is as high as 100,000, largely because some Soviet refugees are reluctant to be counted by census takers.

Florin Ciuriuc, the longtime director of the Slavic Community Center of Sacramento and national chairman of Trump’s Slavic American Coalition, said older, religious and more conservative refugees have been faithful to Republicans ever since former President Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” while speaking in West Berlin in 1987.

“I was in a political prison in Belgrade at the time when I heard that speech and from that moment I loved Reagan and the Republican Party, which was much closer to my religion,” said Ciuriuc, 47.

Ciuriuc said during the campaign, he traveled to more than 20 states rallying Soviet Americans for Trump. He also issued a news release on behalf of Slavic Christian leaders to more than 1,000 Slavic churches nationwide, including 103 in the Sacramento region, urging them to vote for Trump. He said he faced some criticism on social media, “where I was called ‘Trump’s mouth,’ getting paid big money to brainwash Slavic voters, while some conservative Christians said a guy who’s been married three times can’t be president.”

Ciuriuc, whose mother is Jewish and whose father is Ukrainian and Russian, acknowledged that “people have learned good things and bad things about Donald Trump, but finally they chose the person who had more to say about who we are as Americans, who we are as Christians.”

Tatiana Shevchenko, a former investigative reporter from Ukraine who runs the nonprofit Russian Information & Support Service, which helps refugees, said she personally spoke to more than 200 families before the election and “all said they were voting for Trump, including people who had never voted before.”

The legalization of gay marriage “was definitely a big concern, but the main thing was they voted against Hillary and the direction of society under Democrats,” said Shevchenko. She said she voted for Trump because she thought that under former President Barack Obama, more people felt they were entitled to governmental help “and lose their productivity.”

That sentiment was shared by a woman who called into Sacramento Speaks last week and declared “America’s working class and Russians went for Trump and I’m proud of it.” She ended her call with: “I wish people would stop talking about Russian influence on the election.”

In October, top officials from U.S. Homeland Security and the FBI declared, “the U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian government directed recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions,” adding that “these thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”

It was Trump’s foreign policy – not social issues, the Affordable Care Act, immigration or NAFTA – that won over Sergey Terebkov, the president of Sacramento’s Slavic American Chamber of Commerce.

“A lot of people voted against Mrs. Clinton because she was very critical of Russia and spouted anti-Russian rhetoric,” Terebkov said. “Obviously there’s spying on both sides, but as far the Russian government influencing the election, I don’t believe it.”

Neither does Vladimir Gavrilov, a Latvian who chairs the science department at Rio Linda High School. “It could be hackers from any country, including Russia, but I don’t think it’s possible to hack into the U.S. elections, you can try but this is not a banana republic.” Gavrilov said he voted for Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary but couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump or Clinton.

Some younger Soviet immigrants, including Sabina Nussipov, 23, supported Clinton.

“I’m a very big advocate for refugees and immigrants and Trump’s hateful rhetoric and fear-mongering, I don’t agree with at all,” said Nussipov, a religious refugee from Kazakhstan who works as a field director for Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove. She also opposed Trump’s comments about women, but said for older Soviet immigrants, “it may be hard to envision a woman president, even though if you look at their résumés you would choose Hillary for the job.”

For David Ponomar, owner of the Afisha Media Group that runs the radio station Golubev appears on, the appeal was Pence, not Trump. “It’s more about Pence, who said, ‘I am Christian, conservative and Republican, in that order,’ ” Ponomar said. “That’s what people are in love with.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini