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A Brief History of Anti-Americanism in Modern Russia

Or how contemporary Russians came to see the United States as Enemy No. 1. From

by Denis Volkov 9 June 2015

Russians’ attitudes toward the United States have been monitored by the Levada Center on a regular basis since the early 1990s (with small breaks in the first few years). During this time there have been four sudden bursts of negativity toward the United States: in 1998, 2003, 2008, and 2014-2015. It’s not hard to guess that they coincided with the differences between the two countries about events – respectively, in Kosovo, Iraq, Georgia, and Ukraine. The word “sudden” here indicates that the relationship is reversed for one to two months, and every time (except for the current situation) as quickly returns to its original “benevolent” state. These bursts are easy to explain as the work of propaganda on Russian television, as when it shifts into gear, hostility immediately increases. Conversely, as soon as the switch is released, everything returns to normal. But understanding why that propaganda is so effective requires a more in-depth analysis of changes in Russian public opinion toward the United States.




Today it seems hard to believe, but in the early 1990s, for most Russians the United States represented not just the sole superpower, but also the undisputed role model, the main reference point in foreign policy. According to surveys of 1990-1991, the United States aroused the greatest interest of all countries of the world: 39 percent, versus 27 percent for Japan and 17 percent for Germany. When respondents were asked to choose which Western country Russia should cooperate with primarily, most (74 percent) voiced an unconditional preference for America. Germany, for example, was mentioned almost half as often. The United States was seen as the richest and most developed country in the West.


A 1952 Soviet cartoon shows a U.S. Army general planting American flags at NATO bases while a radio announcer utters such dovish phrases as peace, defense, and disarmament. Photo by Garrett Ziegler/flickr.


In this short period America not only served as a guide, but was also considered the most reliable partner, whose support could be expected. If Russia needed help, most (37 percent) said the United States would be the first to provide it. By comparison, only 9 percent expected Germany to help. Most (44 percent) were confident that the United States would help (18 percent did not think so, while the remainder found it difficult to answer or said Russia should not seek such assistance). In the United States Russians saw a friendly country (51 percent) or an ally (16 percent). No more than 1-2 percent saw hostility to Russia.


In 1992, more Russians (38 percent) placed a higher priority on cooperation with the United States than even on cooperation with the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (25 percent). In light of these figures, the U.S.-centric foreign policy of Boris Yeltsin and his first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, looks logical. However, in 1993, attitudes shifted somewhat: 35 percent thought cooperation with the United States was of primary importance, compared with 45 percent for the CIS. The deepening economic crisis made people feel that Russia would not reach America’s level of development in the near future. Rapture with the United States was replaced by disappointment, followed by the dismissal of unrealizable desires on the principle that if the grapes are out of reach, they are likely sour anyway.


Today it seems obvious how unrealistic were hopes that Russia, which had just lost the Cold War and did not meet accepted Western economic and political standards, would be welcomed with open arms by the international community. Some processes, such as long-term negotiations on accession to the World Trade Organization, the reluctance of the United States to abolish the Jackson-Vanik amendment [which restricts trade with controlled economies], etc., must have seemed especially frustrating (but rather for the elite, not for the general population). The process of establishing a trusting relationship would be long and painful. But no one wanted to wait, so expectations were fairly quickly replaced by disappointment and resentment. The origins of anti-Americanism are also rooted in the feeling of offense and injury at a fast slide from the status of superpower to junior partner who constantly needs to learn and catch up to be finally treated equally.




In the next few years, polls showed a shift in the public’s image of the United States. One of the first hits to the positive attitude toward America was the 1993 bombing of Iraq. Public opinion was divided: one-third was ready to support the U.S. actions, but half was against (with 26 percent calling for “strong condemnation” of the bombing). It is difficult to say whether the negative reaction was due to opposition to the war or to the fact that such decisions were taken without consulting Russia.


However, in 1995-1996 America's actions were still generally assessed as friendly by a majority of Russians. No more than 7 percent saw the United States as an enemy, compared with 62 percent today. America was sixth on a list of perceived enemies, after the mafia, corrupt bureaucrats, Chechens, etc., but it was not an ally. In 1997, half the population already considered Russia an opponent of the West, while 30 percent did not. And while only a third of the population was ready to accept the idea that the United States posed a threat to global security, these numbers would soon change dramatically.


A series of events in 1998-1999 had a huge effect on how the United States was perceived in Russia. Those two years saw the U.S military action in Iraq; the intervention of NATO forces in Yugoslavia; the second Chechen war, for which Russia received sharp criticism from the West; the United States amending the ABM Treaty; and NATO’s first post-Soviet eastward expansion.


It was during this time that we see the apparent debut of the notion that the United States is involved in all international conflicts. One-half (or more) of the respondents said America wanted only to establish control over territory rather than to enforce international norms and punish their violators. … This pattern can still be found in how the NATO intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the events in Libya and Syria are perceived in Russia.


The Russian military action in Kosovo, which, according to journalists who observed these events, made no practical difference for Serbs, had important consequences and was warmly welcomed by both the general public and the elite.  It caused an explosion of optimism at home, and stoking patriotism with the use of foreign policy to maintain the legitimacy of power would become the favorite method of the next president.


In 1999 the announcement that the United States would amend the ABM Treaty and NATO would enlarge only confirmed for Russians American perfidy. In surveys, 55 percent said the U.S. position on missile defense “was contrary to the interests of Russia.” Approximately the same number (50 percent) said Russia should strengthen security and defense in response to NATO expansion (23 percent still insisted on the development of cooperation, and 13 percent believed Russia did not need to respond). At the same time the United States for the first time topped the list of countries that “threaten the security of Russia” (in 1998, 23 percent thought so; by 1999 it was at 35 percent). Seventy-five percent agreed with the statement that “the United States uses Russia’s difficulties to transform it into a secondary country.” Another 60 percent were confident that the United States would like to see our country divided into several parts, although only 8-9 percent could seriously imagine a military conflict between the two countries. By the time Vladimir Putin came to the presidency in early 2000, the image of the United States had taken a familiar shape, without the help of the daily TV propaganda to which we usually attribute it.


Another event in 1999, which received a response from the Russian authorities, was criticism from the West of the Russian military action in Chechnya. It was the first time Russia openly accused the West of supporting terrorists. Around the same time, the tendency to Russian hardships on the machinations of the West returned to the repertoire of domestic propaganda.




Such explanations worked. In 2008, half of the population considered the main cause of the Russia-Georgia war the desire “of the United States to extend its influence in a country neighboring Russia”; 32 percent blamed Georgia, and 5 percent blamed Russia. This demonstrates another feature of having experienced the USSR’s collapse – the refusal to confer subjectivity on former Soviet republics, the reluctance to admit that for them the Western project could be more attractive than the Russian. This pattern can be observed in relations with Georgia, new countries joining NATO, and Ukraine today.


Before finally moving on to the present day, it’s worth saying a few words about the failed “reset” in relations between Russia and America. The attacks of 11 September 2001 provided a chance to change the situation. Russians saw cooperation between Putin and George W. Bush as a sign of the revival of their country’s role in foreign affairs, and the “joint fight against international terrorism” was seen as the main thing uniting the two countries (51 percent in 2002). However, by that time the population of Russia more firmly saw the United States as a global hegemon. In the same survey, 38 percent blamed “the arrogant attitude of Americans toward other nations” as the main reason the countries were moving away from each other. Thirty-six percent blamed “the desire of the U.S. authorities to extend their power,” and 32 percent U.S. officials’ “unwillingness to reckon with the interests of other countries.”


The point of the final break can be considered the period 2003-2004: the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a series of “color revolutions” that the Russian elite clearly saw as a conspiracy against Russia (it is interesting that at the time, only a fifth of the population shared that view), and the second wave of NATO enlargement to the east. Since then, polls have shown a growing alienation of Russia from the United States and NATO, based on a doctrine of Russia’s “special path.” So if in 2002 half of the population was in favor of cooperation with NATO, and a quarter was against it, in the next 10 years, the situation was reversed. In the mid-2000s, the United States and NATO took a leading position among the “enemies of Russia,” and the United States was among the states “most unfriendly toward Russia.”




As for the current record levels of anti-Americanism (in January the proportion who had a negative view of the United States reached 81 percent), there are several reasons. First of all, from the beginning of Euromaidan, Russian TV channels successfully worked out a formula to describe it as an American plot against Russia: for half the population, the main force that brought protesters to the streets of Kyiv was the “influence of the West, seeking to draw Ukraine into the orbit of their political interests.” Over time, this conviction only strengthened (41 percent in December 2013 to 54 percent in December 2014). Most (56 percent) say the conflict in southeastern Ukraine continues because it “benefits the United States and the leadership of the West” and not because of Russian participation (6 percent).


Rather, it is the Russian authorities who “exposed” the Euromaidan as an American project, recalling the Orange Revolution and compelled to quickly discredit the popular uprising, which in its origins strongly resembled the 2011-2012 protest movement in Russia. A successful version of civil protest in the adjacent Russian territory must not happen. Then, as events unfolded, the Russian media underlined this interpretation.


But to explain existing views only as the work of propaganda would be simplistic. Across the country, about 30 percent have access to alternative sources of information. In Moscow and other large cities, the figure is more than double that, but satisfaction with Russian policy in Ukraine is only slightly lower than in the general population. Alternate information is available, but the majority refuses to take it into account. With all frankness, these sentiments are expressed in the responses to the question of whether there are Russian troops in Ukraine: 37 percent are certain there are not. Another 38 percent say that “even if the troops are there, under the current international situation it is the right policy for Russia to deny these facts.”


The annexation of Crimea, about which the West and the United States could do nothing, then the sanctions and the war, have for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union made most Russians feel that Russia is once again becoming a “great power” (70 percent versus 47 percent in 2011). It is a kind of revenge for the lost Cold War and compensation for the inability to catch up with American living standards. Focus group participants say, “We’re being noticed again,” “We bared our teeth,” and “They’ll have to take us into account.” And that brings great satisfaction and a new sense of power. According to one respondent, “If before Putin we only spoke of Russia's greatness, now he has proved it in practice” and proved it not only to us, but also to the United States.


Thus, Russian anti-Americanism has its roots in the collapse of unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of the early 1990s – hopes that the new Russia, which did not meet accepted political and economic standards in the West, would immediately and unconditionally be welcomed into the circle of leading world powers. The realization that the American standard of living would not be achieved quickly played a role as well, as did U.S. military action in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and so on, which was perceived as unfriendly toward Russia.


However, throughout the 1990s, anti-Americanism remained largely situational; U.S. policy was perceived as aggressive but not directed against Russia. The defining event proved to 1998-1999 and 2003-2004, when the majority of people in Russia first saw America’s actions as a threat to Russian security, reinforced by Russia’s isolationist streak.


Since it became clear in the late 1990s that a confrontation with the United States could boost the popularity of Russian authorities, rising anti-Americanism has been a key theme of propaganda. And in recent years opposition to U.S. leadership has been one of the main instruments for maintaining Russian officials’ own legitimacy in the economic crisis.

Denis Volkov is a sociologist with the Levada Center in Moscow. This article originally appeared on the website of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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