Russian historian Ivan Kurilla shares his thoughts about the current U.S.-Russia confrontation, arguing that the spike of anti-Americanism in Russia and Russophobia in the U.S. are part of a broader historical cycle.
The guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain is on visit to Vladivostok on the Russian Pacific coast, taking part in the May 9 Victory Day celebrations. The American crew praying for the dead. Photo: RIA Novosti
When we speak about the current crisis in Russian-American relations, we should distinguish between the reality of the current state of international affairs (which has markedly deteriorated since the annexation of Crimea) and the perception of that current state of affairs. This current crisis is best symbolized by the U.S. House of Representatives passing House Resolution 758 “condemning” the actions of Russia and Vladimir Putin by a vote of 411-10. When we take a more balanced view of international relations, we find that mutual perceptions of Russia and America are probably worse now than they deserve to be.
The deterioration of mutual perceptions can be traced back to important policy failures on both sides. On the U.S. side, we see a failure of the U.S. administrations since 1991 to suggest any comprehensive strategy for Russia’s integration into the Western structures of security and economic cooperation. Thus, instead of a post-World War II model (which included the Marshall Plan and promotion of European and North Atlantic security cooperation), Russia received the type of treatment reminiscent of post-World War I policy towards defeated nations.
On the Russian side, we see foreign policy behavior resembling the standards of the 19th, not the 21st century, especially in the latest crisis in Ukraine. The “acquisition” of Crimea, the support of a military conflict in a neighboring country and the suspicion that Russia was providing arms to irresponsible rebels that downed a passenger airplane could not help in improving the image of the country.
Still, if we look at the essence of the mutual images and perceptions spread in the media in Russia and the U.S. during 2014, we may conclude that they are targeted at something quite different. The Russian media portrays Americans as the main instigators of the Ukrainian fight and the background figure of a “world conspiracy” against Russia’s interests. Meanwhile, some in the U.S. media rush to equate Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Soviet predecessor Joseph Stalin, write about “a new Cold War” and worry about the resurrection of the U.S.S.R.
To understand this logic of media image construction, we should first look back in history.
After all, the ups and downs in U.S.-Russia relations are historically quite normal: Periods of hope have alternated with periods of disappointment throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. So, from a historical perspective, this is just one of the recurrent periods of hostility that were always replaced by periods of rapprochement. From this point of view, the situation is not as catastrophic as some journalists paint it.
From the Russian side, periods of closer relations with the United States (and better public attitudes towards America) have always coincided with internal reforms. In short, industrial or social modernization implied the use of the U.S. as a model. That was true for Nicholas I (who in the 1840s invited American engineers to build the Moscow railroad), for the Bolshevik government (which in the 1930s invited American engineers to help the USSR with its industrialization), for Soviet leaders – Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s and Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, and again for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the 2000s.
The opposite point of the same cycle was always reached when the government pursued the goal of stabilization (which was also historically known as “counter-reformation” or “stagnation”). Describing the United States as a foe and threat usually aimed at domestic mobilization and silencing critics of the government. Russia reached this point earlier this year, and has remained at a high level of anti-Americanism for quite a long time. However, the pendulum will eventually move in the opposite direction.
From the U.S. side, the problem with Russia’s image is rooted in America’s hopes for the victory of Russian democracy (during all Russian revolutions and reformist cycles) and subsequent disappointment when the country did not meet the high standards set by the U.S.
We should also take into account that politicians in both countries describing Russian-U.S. relations have their own agendas. Painting the relationship in black-and-white terms helps in mobilizing popular support for the domestic needs of the government or its critics. The critical situation in the Russian economy and in the distrust between the people and the government that became clear during the protests of 2011-12 required the government to divert the attention and to mobilize the masses. So, the creation of an image of a foe is a traditional way to solve both problems.
In the U.S. (while with much lesser intensity) the critics of U.S. President Barack Obama needed to detract from his foreign policy achievements that featured a “reset” with Russia. The U-turn in Russian policy in 2014 gave them an excellent pretext to pounce on Obama by denying Russia any reason or rationality for their actions and portraying contemporary Russia as an equal to the USSR or even Nazi Germany. The true target of their attacks is the sitting president, but Russia turned into the focal point of the campaign, thereby blackening Russia’s image.
Despite increasing confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, there are ways to prevent the total collapse of U.S.-Russian relations, even in our uneasy times. The media should distinguish between politics of the governments and the politics of “the people.” We now have a much greater volume of people-to-people contacts compared to the Iron Curtain era, including deep personal contacts for scientific collaboration and artistic and cultural exchanges. It may be too much to hope for, but journalists should avoid using sweeping generalizations about “Russians” and “Americans” when describing any policy or behavior emanating from the U.S. or Russia.
Even though some experts talk about a so-called “Cold War II” between Russia and the U.S., we are not in a Cold War and will not get there again. The media should not portray the situation as they did during the Cold War, when Soviet political cartoonists and anti-Communist crusaders in the U.S. like Senator Joseph McCarthy were ascendant. Otherwise, both nations run the risk of being obsessed with fear, uncertainty and doubt about the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship.
The opinion of the authors may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.