For many Russians, Hillary Clinton’s health issues are reminiscent of an earlier time, when the health of Soviet leaders became a national issue. It is feeding into new perceptions of Clinton as a weak and dysfunctional candidate.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C. Photo: AP
The last few days have showed that Russians are much more interested in discussing the health of U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton than in their own parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on Sept. 18.
Russian state-run TV channels focused on Clinton's health a great deal, with one of them airing a dedicated hour-and-a-half-long show under the title “The U.S.: Election Poisoning.” On this show, guests speculated about various conspiracy theories related to the causes of Clinton’s malaise and came to the conclusion that history would remember the current U.S. election campaign as the biggest failure, regardless of the outcome.
The fact that Russians are paying so much attention to the events in the U.S. is indicative. First and foremost, it means that the U.S. is very important for political culture in modern Russia. Russian citizens understand that the parliamentary elections in their country would hardly lead to any changes in their lives. However, in the eyes of many Russians, the stature of the new president of the United States is comparable to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin in his or her ability to influence the lives of ordinary people.
That's why Clinton’s health, as well as that of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, appears to matter both in the United States and Russia. People in general tend to simplify a complex and contradictory reality. Russian state propaganda is actively using this phenomenon and has successfully implanted among Russian viewers an image of an “evil, aggressive and hypocritical” Clinton and a “kind-hearted, peace-loving and honest” Trump.
And now the Russian audience, along with the rest of the world, saw images of Clinton, nearly collapsing, being carried into a vehicle. They listened to doctors as they explained that Clinton had pneumonia and suffered from the effects of antibiotics. Reaction of the Russian audience partially resembles that of the American one: similar doubts as to the credibility of the information, as well as concerns that health problems of the leading presidential candidate could trigger a crisis in one of the most powerful nations that has the potential to drag other countries along with it, as has already happened in the past.
But apart from the “common” fears and concerns, the Russian perspective has another hidden meaning that Americans might not be able to understand completely. It comes from the fact that many Russians remember all too well the period when the country was run by a gravely ill President Boris Yeltsin and before that – by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s politburo of the Communist Party’s Central Committee consisting of terminally ill elders.
Those memories from Soviet and Russian history do not evoke any nostalgia or desire to once again become dependent on a leader fighting for his or her physical (not just political) survival. Meanwhile, no matter which of the two leading presidential candidates wins in America, by the end of the first term he or she will have reached the age of Brezhnev when he ordered Soviet troops to enter Afghanistan.
Interestingly, young Russian students studying politics today have a skewed view of reality. When describing the characteristics of Trump, they portray him as a “young opposition politician.” Such a strange and incorrect perception of Trump can be explained by the Russian tendency to divide U.S. presidential candidates into “good” and “evil,” depending on their willingness to be Russia’s friend or foe.
For many Russians, a “friendly” Trump by definition cannot be old and sick while that is the only description that suits the “hostile” Clinton. As it turns out, Clinton’s health problems fall smoothly into Russian political mythology where all roles are clearly defined and complement each other.
The fact that Clinton tried to hide her illness from the public as well as certain inconsistencies between the well-known symptoms of pneumonia and her current condition all but convince the Russians even more that this candidate is not a good fit for Russia. Nevertheless, Russians are guided by a somewhat different logic than Americans, who have long criticized Clinton for her alleged lack of honesty and openness.
For Russian people, politicians hiding their health problem from the public, as well as their propensity to lie and deceive, is the rule rather than the exception. Ubiquitous hypocrisy was common in the Soviet Union. Later, during perestroika and in the 1990s Russian people tried to “live not by lies” (according to a famous call by writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn) but in the 21st century, everything went back to the way it had been before.
When Russians realized they were fooled once again, they didn’t take to the streets or protest, and they didn’t show any particular emotions. Immediately after the 1996 elections, president Yeltsin, who got successfully reelected, had to undergo a surgery after an extensive heart attack that he suffered, as it turned out, during the election campaign. However, no one called for his impeachment or expressed anger for misleading the entire country, everyone felt sorry for the president and wished him a prompt recovery.
This peculiar trait to turn a blind eye on lies and hypocrisy and take them for granted applies only to domestic political leaders who are believed to defend the national interests. Sometimes Russian politicians even showcase such lies, all in the name of defeating the enemy.
Russian “enemies,” which today include Clinton, should not expect any mercy from the Russians, who live by the thinking “we have enough of our own liars and we will not tolerate foreign ones.” According to this way of thinking, if Trump (“one of ours”) is caught lying, Russians won’t blame him, but rather see him as kindred spirit and might even like him even more. In contrast, Clinton will be held accountable by the strictest U.S. standards.
One way or another, Clinton’s health problems have set the record straight regarding which U.S. candidate Russia should support. No rational reasoning that Clinton is more experienced and predictable, or that she used to be one of the sponsors of the “reset” policy and that she would be able to find common ground with the Kremlin even at the new stage of her political career, sound convincing when the Russians see her as a potentially weak and dysfunctional president.
It comes as a paradox, but even criticism of being overly aggressive harms Clinton’s image in Russia less than the news of her disease. If Russian public opinion sees the U.S. as the main external enemy, it would seem that Russians should be dreaming of a weak and ill American president. However, since in the minds of the Russian people, a hostile United States goes together with a powerful America, they would like to see a strong U.S. president who likes Russia. Clinton in no way matches this description now.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.