Roots of Anti-Americanism

Public opinion polls show that anti-American sentiment in Russia has reached a level not seen since the days of the Cold War. This hostility is not the product of a political confrontation, as was the case during the Soviet era, or of a diplomatic standoff, as happened on Yevgeny Primakov’s watch as prime minister. Paradoxically, it has arisen during a period of unprecedented political partnership between Russia and the United States in the “war on terrorism.” America‘s popularity reached its peak during perestroika. Russians loved America simply because they had been forbidden to do so for 40 years. But all that changed during the 1990s, as U.S. support for the unpopular policies of Boris Yeltsin’s administration steadily eroded its appeal. I remember how in October 1993, after the shelling of parliament, my American students found themselves surrounded by a general malevolence. “Tell people you’re Canadian,” I advised. “Canadians never hurt anyone.”


The anti-American mood was fiercest during the conflict in the Balkans. For the first time crowds of angry young people gathered outside the U.S. Embassy — not the indigent and marginal, but middle-class kids who had grown up in the post-communist era and never underwent the ideological indoctrination of Soviet schools. These scenes gave the lie to the theory that after 10 to 15 years of democracy and free market reforms, Russians would come to see themselves as part of the West.


The tragedy of Sept. 11 altered this situation somewhat. People felt sorry for the Americans, though their pity was often mixed with schadenfreude of the sort expressed in the popular slogan: “We’re sorry for the American people, not for America.” But the attitude toward America did significantly improve.


As it turned out, this trend was short-lived. America‘s poll numbers in Russia began to fall along with bombs dropped by U.S. planes in Afghanistan. Hostility heated up when U.S. troops appeared in Central Asia and reached boiling point when Washington imposed restrictions on imports from Russia. According to data from the Public Opinion Foundation collected this spring, more than 70 percent of those polled considered the United States a hostile country.


This mood has not gone unnoticed by politicians of all stripes, who indulge in “Yankee-bashing” to boost their numbers in the run-up to parliamentary elections next year. Putin and his inner circle, on the other hand, have little choice but to demonstrate their loyalty to their U.S. allies. As a result they seem more and more isolated from society.


Russian anti-Americanism is as diverse as Russia itself, and it expresses three different, even mutually exclusive, views of the world.


The nationalists, for a start, have never been big fans of the United States. They hate Americans mostly because they hate the entire outside world. In the United States they see a country that spreads the worldwide Jewish conspiracy and the repulsive ideas of political correctness, human rights and racial tolerance. They suspect the United States of providing clandestine aid to the Chechen fighters.


Russia‘s many ignorant and unprincipled politicians constitute the second main group. They know that America-bashing is a big crowd-pleaser. More important, they can blame foreigners for their own stupid mistakes. For them, anti-Americanism is a political alibi. They talk about a confrontation without reflecting on the meaning of their words.


Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, and ideologically it’s in the same camp as the United States. But a half-conscious memory of the Soviet past remains part of the national psyche. In their dreams, upper-class Russians still see themselves as communist party committee secretaries.


The third group criticizes the United States for the same reason that the left all over the world criticizes the Bush administration. For them, the United States is a country with a questionable record on human rights, the environment and race relations — a country that looks on indifferently at the suffering of the Chechens and the Palestinians. This is still a minority position. But that minority is growing.


Much in Russia will depend on which of these trends achieves ascendancy. To overcome anti-Americanism as such, however, something also needs to change in the United States itself.


Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.

Leave a comment