Anti-Americanism and current Russian policy

Dmitri Travin
29 October 2008


On 22 October 2008 an unexpected initiative was proposed in the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg. The leader of one of the pro-Kremlin parties suggested asking the UN to lift the Cuban blockade. In his speech, he constantly criticized a certain large country, which has caused Cuba serious problems.

This initiative is absurd in itself, but it looks especially odd when it comes from deputies from the Russian regions, as involvement in international politics is hardly part of their brief. In view of the imminent economic crisis, representatives of the Legislative Assembly should probably be paying particular attention to the problems of the city budget, rather than to the affairs of an island in the Caribbean. However, anti-Americanism has become fashionable in today's Russia. Anti-American attacks are used on suitable and unsuitable occasions. Almost every politician knows that even excessive anti-Americanism will not spoil your image with the electorate (on the principle that you can't have too much of a good thing, as the saying goes).

Sociological studies by the Levada Centre in July 2008 (i.e. before the war with Georgia) have shown that only 43% of Russians had a positive attitude to the USA, while in February 2000 this figure was 67%. Overall a clear tendency towards deterioration in relations can be identified. The figure may fluctuate significantly from month to month, but attitudes are becoming generally increasingly critical with the most negative attitude towards America on the part of Russians being at the start of military operations in Iraq.

It is, of course, interesting that the deterioration has taken place on Vladimir Putin's watch. And indeed, under Putin, influential Russian mass media began to inculcate a negative image of America in the minds of viewers, readers and listeners. However, these propaganda efforts, in our opinion, would not have found such a strong response in Russian hearts had it not been for certain questionable actions by the USA on the international stage.

It is also interesting to note that Russians mainly support actions by the Kremlin which strongly resemble the very actions by Washington that they condemn. The invasion of Chechnya by Russian troops is seen as an attempt to establish constitutional order; the invasion of Iraq by the Americans, and of South Ossetia by the Georgians (whom many believe to be American puppets) are seen as aggression. The recognition of the independence of Kosovo is condemned by Russians, while there is support for the  recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many people in Russia are horrified at the possibility of Russia's neighbour Ukraine joining NATO, but meddling in the affairs between the USA and its neighbour Cuba is seen as a fight for freedom.

To understand why Russians have these ideas, we believe it is worth looking at our recent history.

In many ways Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika was carried out under the banner of acceptance of western values. Soviet people who suffered from a total deficit of goods and services were seriously interested in the possibilities created by the consumer society in the West. Together with the goods and technologies necessary for their manufacture, we were also prepared to accept market economy and democracy as attributes of the prosperous western world. Despite the fact that in the late-1980s and early-1990s in Russia, the largest part of the USSR,  anti-market, anti-democratic and nationalist opinions were quite common, Westernization still won the day. The symbol of the move towards closer relations with the West was President Boris Yeltsin, who initially had the clear support  of the people.

The reforms of the 1990s meant that Russians were able to enjoy all the benefits of the consumer society. There is naturally enormous social inequality, which strengthens paternalist tendencies throughout Russia. Many people want to increase state protection, believing that this will make them better off. But in general, society has accepted the market economy and does not intend to reject it. This is shown by low support for the communists at elections, and the fact that the communists themselves (with the exception of marginal groups on the extreme left) do not call for a return to the administrative economy and the iron curtain. Russians have practically recognised that the path to the consumer society lies through the market.

On the one hand, of course, there is not much market freedom in Russia. But on the other hand, the lives of Russians in Moscow, Petersburg and other large cities today bear a greater resemblance to the lives of people in other major cities in Europe and North America than to the Soviet way of life.   The Russian economy has become part of the world economy.  This can be seen very clearly in the downturn of market indexes in the present crisis. In other words, the West has become a much greater authority for us in practice than sociological surveys often show it to be in words.  

Russian citizens have accepted the way of life of the consumer society and the market economy as a way of attaining this way of life. It would be logical to assume that they would also accept the western values that regulate international relations. This does not seem to be happening:  confrontation is on the increase. To many people, it seems that Russia's present position on the international stage is hardly different from that of the Soviet Union during the cold war.

In fact, however, the current state of affairs is quite different. The USSR expanded its zone of influence, motivated by the need to achieve the worldwide victory of socialism. The "socialist camp", "countries of socialist orientation", "the island of freedom" (Cuba) were terms in constant use in Russia. But as Soviet society no longer took the idea of socialist seriously in the 1970s-1980s, a confrontation with the West did not enjoy wide support among the people. This meant that it was relatively easy for Gorbachev to move to a policy of "new thinking" in international relations, as he put it himself.

Today, the extremely harsh foreign policy of Vladimir Putin really does have wide support among the population. In other words, if Soviet people in the past may have secretly felt nothing but annoyance that our country "was feeding" the socialist regimes of Asia or Africa, while we did not have enough food ourselves, Russians today are prepared to put up with the expense of supporting South Ossetia, and many would even be prepared to support Serbia, pushing it towards a confrontation with the West.

Russians are quite sincere in their wish for confrontation. The leaders of the country who have a good knowledge of politics, such as Vladimir Putin, may have their own personal motives for adopting a hard line position (for example, see my article published by Open Democracy, "Putin: mentality of a street fighter"), but the average Russian simply thinks we must pursue a hard line in the fight for our place in the sun.

Why do people think like this? In many ways simply because Russians continue to imitate the behaviour of Western countries (in this case mainly the United States), believing that this is how a strong state should behave in the modern world if it wishes to prosper and gain universal respect. The American assertion of their interests by force in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, the expansion of NATO, and support for the "coloured revolutions" in various countries, is seen by Russians as a model to be imitated.

 "Why are Americans rich?" the average Russian wonders. "Because they always fight for their interests. The modern world is a constant struggle for survival. In a market economy there is competition, in international politics there is expansion of zones of influence, creation of military bases and control over territories rich in resources. Democracy and peaceful existence is just idle talk for weak fools, a consolation offered to them like social welfare. The strong must survive by constantly elbowing everyone else out of the way."

In other words, in the modern world, the Americans are our teachers, not our friends. They have enormous authority, and we constantly copy their actions, but certainly not their words.  Words, for Russians, who are used to constant propaganda, are just another way of fighting for a place in the sun. "If we believe that Americans are fighting for democracy all over the world, and if we don't oppose them, then we will become weaker and make a place in the sun for our enemy."

Many Russians remember from school that Tsar Peter the Great, who fought the Swedes in the early 18th century, also learnt from them. Almost every school pupil has read the lines by Russia's most revered poet, Alexander Pushkin, describing the actions of Peter after the historical victory and capture of the Swedes in the battle of Poltava:

"In his tent he entertains

His own chiefs, and the enemy chiefs,

He comforts his glorious captives,

And drinks the health of his teachers."

Russian anti-Americanism is seen by some analysts as a rejection of western values in general. It seems to us that this is a completely false understanding of the problem. On the contrary, these values are accepted, but the actions that make it possible to attain them are in many cases copied without understanding and without any attempt at a correct interpretation.

Ethnographers have a famous example that demonstrates the fundamental difference between the formation of ethical ideas among peoples in different stages of development. An American Indian was asked for his definition of good and evil. "Evil is when someone steals my horse," he replied. "Good is when I steal." A similar approach predominates in Russians' ideas about international policy. Evil is when the USA expands its sphere of influence, and good is when we expand ours.

In this situation, it seems that the extremely important discussion about what western countries' current policy towards Russia should be ignores a fundamental point. The issues that are mainly discussed are whether Russia should be treated more harshly or more mildly, whether there should be an attempt to isolate her, or draw her in to various forms of international cooperation. There is not often any discussion of how Russia is affected by the actions of western countries that formally have only an indirect relationship to the country. In the modern world of globalization and the swift spread of information, it is this that sets the standard of behaviour for Russia.

Russians' ideas about the USA comprise three main components. At any rate, it is these components that are actively used by Kremlin propaganda to achieve its desired result. They are the war in Iraq (along with the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iran which some suspect is in preparation), the expansion of NATO to the east, and the support given to the "coloured revolutions" in the post-Soviet space. This creates an image of the USA as an extremely aggressive nation. So if aggression and expanding spheres of influence are an important element of foreign policy for the USA, then for Russia, from the average person's point of view, they should be no less important.

If the ideas we have expressed above are correct, then unfortunately in our relations with western countries, many of which are seen as American puppets in the mind of the average Russian, neither the policy of isolation nor the policy of involvement in cooperation will have much effect. Other factors are much more important.

Firstly, Russia's economic development is in many ways determined by oil prices. The country's wealth gives rise to an illusion of strength. An extremely popular idea in Russia today is that the country has risen from its knees after the humiliation of the 1990s, when the West pushed us around. However, if Russia's economic situation deteriorates (and this is the way things are going at present), the illusion of strength will vanish. The aspiration to imitate America will not go away, but people will take a more balanced view of the relationship between the possible and the desirable.

Secondly, the kind of example for imitation that the United States will give. It is, of course, difficult to expect that even such radical actions as the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, for example, will seriously affect the situation.  Russian views are already formed and it is unlikely that they can be radically changed. However, the American model will be extremely important for the development of ideas among young Russians. If new generations too learn to believe that all strong countries should fight for a place in the sun and expand their sphere of influence, then aggression in Russian foreign policy may remain an element in the system of international relations for a long time to come.

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