If, in the eyes of many Russians, Vladimir Putin is the world’s greatest leader, on November 8th Moscow had a clear favorite in the race for who’s second in line.
At an election-night event at the American Cultural Center in central Moscow, people jostled to pose with a life-size cutout of a grinning Donald Trump in red tie, with Hillary Clinton as a less-popular cardboard sidekick.
“These elections are the most entertaining in history,” said Tim Goritsky, a college student and freelance computer programmer who supports Trump. “It’s like a free TV show!”
For weeks, the U.S. election cycle dominated Russian news outlets, and the social media timelines of the urban middle class were filled with feverish assessments of the latest scandals from Clinton’s private email server to Trump’s Access Hollywood hot-mic groping comments, and poll results. In Russia, such political buzz is a rarity—when the country held a parliamentary vote in September, urbanites turned their backs on it en masse, and the turnout was historically low.
Skip ahead two months and, judging by the blanket coverage on both opposition and state media, you would think Russians, and not Americans, were casting their ballots.
The difference is that, even though the real vote took place thousands of kilometers away, many Russians felt their country’s future was on the line.
“Whoever is the next U.S. president will have to deal with the confrontation with Russia,” said Viktor Tikhonov, a 43-year-old financier, several hours before the final result came through.
Scarred by plummeting relations with the United States over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea and, more recently, the conflict in Syria, many Russians are tired of confrontation and economic sanctions. “Reset” has become the new buzzword in professional circles.
“Russia’s economy depends directly on the United States’ foreign policy,” said Alexei Melnik, a tech entrepreneur in his early thirties.
“It’s important that there’s a personal relationship with Putin, and that was a problem for Obama,” he adds. With Hillary Clinton seen as a symbol of the previous administration’s frosty if not outright hostile attitude toward the Kremlin, Trump seems like the safer bet. “I don’t like either of them, but I like Hillary least of all,” said Melnik.
“The choice is between a man of soft U.S. isolationism and a woman who takes the hard-handed approach,” summarized Goritsky, the programmer. “Trump is better for Russia.”
Whether Russia has been equally good to Trump is still a point of contention on the night of the election.
Most people were doubtful that the Kremlin would go as far as launching cyberattacks on the DNC or otherwise support the Trump campaign to undermine his rival.
Like many Russians, media and PR entrepreneur Yekaterina Movsumova saw the rumors of Kremlin-sponsored sleuths as part of a domestic misinformation campaign.
“It was Hillary who actively played the card of the image of Russia as an aggressor and emphasized Trump’s reported ties to Putin,” she says. “I’m sure there are no such ties, the reports were just laughable.”
“Strange that the narrative wasn’t about what was actually in the e-mails, but about how the e-mails were somehow retrieved by Russian hackers,” she said, echoing Putin’s own dismissal of the allegations.
Programmer Doritsky, however, takes a different line.
“I know for a fact that the Russian hacking allegations are true since I personally know some of the people involved,” he said, deadpan. “The hacker community is quite small.”
Asked whether he thought such interference was appropriate he said: “The goal is to compromise the U.S., that’s good for Russia.”
Whether or not the leaks were orchestrated by the Kremlin, there has been a concerted effort in Moscow to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. election in the eyes of Russians, with media rehashing Trump’s allegations that the system is rigged against him.
Financier Tikhonov, who is critical of the Kremlin and said he would grudgingly pick Hillary if he had the vote (“It’s not about who’s better, it’s about who’s not as bad,” he says), dismissed the state media’s rhetoric.
“Putin just used the U.S. election to keep people distracted,” he says. “All that talk of the American elections being unfair was a way of telling Russians: “You see, nothing and no one is perfect, so what can you expect from Russian elections in the future?”
Nevertheless, some Russians did have questions about Tuesday’s vote. Media entrepreneur Movsumova was shocked by news of a shooting around a polling station in Los Angeles. “If in Russia there’s talk of vote rigging at the voting booth, then there [in the U.S.] there are even shootings,” she said.
If there were doubts as to the election’s legitimacy, however, they were mostly dispelled by Wednesday’s result.
“I’m 100% sure that a majority of Americans will vote for Trump, so if Trump wins, it’ll be a sign the vote was fair,” said Maria Katasonova, a 21-year-old nationalist activist, dressed in a Trump T-shirt. At the “Friends of Trump” party that she organized at a Moscow bar on Tuesday, the showstopper was a three-part panel painting of Trump alongside Putin and French far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who has received Russian funding in the past.
As Trump snatched a victory, the mood in Moscow was largely a mix of hope and amazement. “This was unexpected, I didn’t think Americans would ever vote for such a freak!” said tech entrepreneur Melnik.
But Moscow’s continuing support won’t come cheap. While Trump’s supporters at home might have pinned their hopes on a wall on the Mexican border, Russians have their own wish list.
“Maybe under Trump the U.S. can finally form a military alliance with Russia against ISIS,” says Goritsky.
At the pro-Trump event, Katasonova expressed hopes of “stability in the world,” while Movsumova called for an era of “constructive dialogue” with Russia.
“We need to get rid of the stereotypes,” she said. “We’ve long stopped being the U.S.S.R and have no ambitions of an empire.”
For financier Tikhonov, who wants political reform in Russia, “the best thing the next U.S. administration can do is to impose even stricter sanctions,” he said.
His, however, was a lone voice on Wednesday morning, drowned out by a wave of applause from Russian parliamentarians as news broke in Moscow of a resounding Trump victory.