Several years after my family immigrated to the U.S., my father got a peculiar letter from a friend in the Soviet Union. The letter—no doubt the friend had been strong-armed or blackmailed into writing it—asked if he might be able to procure a technical manual for a DEC minicomputer banned from export to the Soviet Union. Obviously, that was the end of that relationship. In the story of my family’s immigration, this was a last tawdry reminder of the repressive, manipulative regime we’d left. Like so many other Soviet Jewish refugees, my family was committed to the United States, fiercely anti-Communist, and hopeful about regime change that would bring democracy to Russia and its captive nations. In all this, my family’s convictions were probably similar to those of another family of Soviet refugees who arrived in the U.S. three years after us: that of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the decorated officer and National Security Council staffer who testified on Capitol Hill this week.
As thanks for his testimony, some on the Right have accused Vindman of dual loyalty and even treason. Nobody genuinely believes this. What infuriates his critics is that Vindman, like others in the NSC and State Department, was willing to call out the effort to blackmail Ukraine’s new, reformist government as a policy inimical to American interests and more characteristic of the repressive state Vindman and I left behind. Still more damning is that for Vindman there really is no quid pro quo. He gets nothing out of standing up but the enmity of the president of the United States. For people who think the world operates entirely on the basis of quid pro quo, that makes no sense—just as it makes little sense to support allies like Ukraine, unless maybe they can help out with a little favor. To understand someone like Vindman, it helps to put yourself in his shoes: a refugee from a failed dictatorship, serving a nation built not on blackmail but on principle.