Accusations of Russian espionage, vandalism and ethnic intimidation rock the Shadyside neighborhood
A March 17 statement from the Pittsburgh police did not contain much information. He said officers were “investigating multiple incidents of harassment and intimidation” at a Shadyside home, provided photos of the suspects and added that the FBI had been notified.
What happened next didn’t follow the typical narrative for cases like this.
Police accused a prominent architect and his wife of ethnic intimidation. The couple – Rob Pfaffmann, 66, and his wife, Lisa Marie Haabestad, 64 – live in Shadyside and are known for their civic efforts.
The owner on the other end of the alleged harassment, Vasily Potanin, might be even less predictable. He is a 23-year-old Carnegie Mellon University graduate who happens to be the son of Russia’s richest business magnate, a man with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Through their attorney, Pfaffmann and Haabestad declined to comment on the matter.
“At my direction, no comment regarding the pending criminal charges will be made,” said Jon Pushinsky, the couple’s attorney. “It has not been determined that any of my clients have done anything illegal. They remain innocent in the eyes of the law.
But Potanin came forward to describe his version of events. He’s happy to explain why he thinks he’s being targeted because of his ethnicity, why he opposes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine despite his father – and, perhaps most interestingly, why he adorns his $1.2 million home in one of the city’s swankiest neighborhoods with pro-Trump and anti-Biden flags and signs.
Accused of espionage
The case opened at the end of February. Potanin said that’s when he and his neighbor, who share a driveway, started being harassed. People would break into his house and accuse them of being Russian spies.
Potanin has lived in Shadyside for five years and bought his house on Amberson Avenue in 2019. He was born in Russia, grew up in Moscow and immigrated to America as a teenager when his parents divorced nearly a decade ago.
Potanin said earlier this year people threw a bag of rice in the yard with a letter attached, accusing him of being an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and saying he should be kicked out of CMU and that he should leave the neighborhood.
“Receiving letters targeting your nationality doesn’t make it easy for you to sleep,” Potanin said.
Potanin is conservative. He said he read the Wall Street Journal and liked Ben Shapiro’s podcast, a show notorious for poking fun at liberals. Although he supports conservative causes in the United States, Potanin is not a citizen and cannot vote in elections.
Either way, he said he wanted to share his beliefs, and that’s why he displays banners and flags showing his support for police officers, sometimes mocking liberals, and supporting former President Donald Trump. .
Potanin’s home in Shadyside sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s charming like many houses on Amberson Avenue, with a pleasant garden in the front and a comfortable terrace in the back. But his garden decorations are out of place in the neighborhood.
Signs depicting Trump with the caption “Miss Me Yet?” stick out of the grass. A blue and red “Let’s Go Brandon” flag flies high on a silver pole. (Let’s Go Brandon is a euphemism for a profane insult by President Joe Biden.) Another sign placed on the door mocks well-known liberal court signs that promote inclusiveness, many of which can be seen in the East End of Pittsburgh.
However, Potanin does so in hostile waters, as Shadyside is generally a liberal stronghold in Pittsburgh. The neighborhood voted overwhelmingly against Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections.
This section of Shadyside is also one of the wealthiest enclaves in the city, according to property values. But most residents don’t flaunt their politics from any point of view.
Unsurprisingly though, Potanin’s house has sparked some controversy in the past. He said some of his yard signs had been vandalized ahead of the 2020 election. He didn’t really mind, and said it was simple to replace them.
“If someone breaks my sign, it’s silly and inconsequential,” Potanin said.
Even so, he acknowledged that his tactic might upset some of his neighbors, but he said it was all done in good spirits. For Potanin, that was sort of the goal.
“There is hypocrisy in people who disagree and vandalize my signs but say they are tolerant,” Potanin said.
Escalation of conflicts in the neighborhood
At some point in 2020, he said he received an anonymous letter criticizing him for supporting Trump, but things then quieted down after the election.
It started to escalate again after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. It was then that Potanin said he was targeted with a letter attached to a bag of rice, the letter accusing him of being a Russian spy. He said another in-person encounter had people yelling “F—- Putin” at him from the sidewalk and they told him to go back to Russia.
The third time was when one of the panels in Potanin’s courtyard was allegedly tampered with. After the third incident in a month, Potanin contacted the police to file a complaint.
Pittsburgh police investigated and released video footage showing a couple screaming outside Potanin’s home and a woman tampering with a sign Potanin had placed on her door.
Police are investigating several incidents of harassment and intimidation at the same address on an undisclosed block in Shadyside over the past few weeks. Detectives hope to identify the individuals in these photos.
Info? (412) 422-6520.
More here ➡️ https://t.co/hVXLsiHubS pic.twitter.com/VE2XL2scSN
— Pittsburgh Police (@PghPolice) March 17, 2022
On March 24, Haabestad and Pfaffmann were charged with ethnic intimidation, misdemeanor, and summary charges of criminal mischief and conspiracy. Potanin said Haabestad and Pfaffmann were “obsessed” with him. He said they even visited CMU a few times to protest.
All of this happened in the wake of sanctions against Russia imposed by the US government and a series of actions by US institutions to divest from Russia. Pennsylvania, for example, banned Russian vodka and other spirits from the shelves of state-run liquor stores.
Anti-Russian sentiment came to a head when on February 24, U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell, D-California, said in a CNN interview that deporting Russian students from U.S. universities should be “on the table.” in response. to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Swalwell, who was once a presidential candidate, was widely criticized for his suggestion, but nonetheless the idea gained a foothold in some circles.
The sign that was vandalized at Potanin’s home was a conservative sign mocking liberal yard signs that typically read “in this house we believe…” followed by well-known liberal causes like Black Lives Matter and support for LGBTQ rights.
According to a Feb. 27 post on Pfaffmann’s Facebook page, he and Haabestad are seen in a selfie next to a homemade sign that reads, “We believe in democracy for Ukraine. Carnegie Mellon, kick out corrupt Trumputin oligarchs,” then a URL for the Wikipedia page of Vladimir Potanin, Vasily Potanin’s father.
Pfaffmann’s Facebook page primarily showcases the activities of Pittsburgh’s liberal activist community, known for advocating for issues such as better air quality, affordable housing, and bicycle and pedestrian safety.
But, on Feb. 24, the same day Swalwell made news for suggesting expelling Russian students, a post on Pfaffmann’s Facebook page read: “Trump and Putin Oligarchs Among Us: Vladimir Potanin Owns Shadyside real estate and son is/was at CMU!!” then information on how Vladimir Potanin became rich and his close ties to Putin.
But Pfaffmann’s message was only partially correct. Vladimir Potanin is a Russian billionaire who in 2018 was listed as an oligarch with close ties to Putin by the US Treasury Department. According to Bloomberg, Vladimir Potanin is also Russia’s richest man as of May 2022. He generated much of his wealth through the acquisition and ownership of Norilsk Nickel, a major nickel and palladium mining company. .
Vladimir Potanin is also the father of Vasiliy Potanin, but he is not the owner of the Shadyside house. Vasiliy Potanin is listed on the property registers and he said he bought the house. Allegheny County property records show Vasily Potanin purchased the home for $1.24 million in April 2019.
Moreover, Potanin said that he was estranged from his father and has been for many years. According to Insider, Potanin’s mother, Natalia Potanina, said in 2016 that Vladimir has reportedly not spoken to her son since he left the family home in 2013 after serving divorce papers.
“He’s not involved here at all, my relationship with him is not people’s business,” Potanin said of his father. “He’s not related to anything here, do you want to criticize him? Alright, I might join you one day.
“I clearly like being here”
After immigrating to the United States in 2014, Potanin said he went to high school in Long Island, NY, then stayed in the country after his mother moved to London. He enrolled at Carnegie Mellon and liked Pittsburgh enough to buy a house in 2019.
He said he liked the size of Pittsburgh and the access to amenities like parks, without having the traffic and congestion associated with other larger cities. He also enjoys road trips across America and has praised the country’s interstate highway system, which he says is better than Russia’s. Potanin visited 45 American states.
“I clearly like being here, because I’m here,” Potanin said. “It’s a city where everything you need can be gotten without driving for an hour.”
Potanin said he also disagreed with Russia’s and Putin’s actions in invading Ukraine, and called Putin’s targeting of civilians “evil”.
“If I was really a spy, I probably would have changed my name and wouldn’t have spoken with so much of a Russian accent,” said Potanin, who said openly criticizing Russia in the press would likely lead to consequences for him if he were to surrender.
In the end, Potanin was grateful to many of his neighbors. He said they don’t always agree with his road signs, but they spoke to him and offered their support.
He said one of the reasons he loves the United States is the freedom to express his opinions without punishment or discrimination.
“You can’t discriminate against people, even if you don’t like them,” Potanin said.
Ryan Deto is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Ryan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .