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Opinion: Why Russians stopped loving America The West's squandered opportunities and Moscow's propaganda powerhouse

Source: Vedomosti
Photo: Yuri Smityuk / TASS / Scanpix

In a recent opinion piece for the newspaper Vedomosti, sociologist Denis Volkov argues that today's unfavorable attitudes in Russia about Europe and the United States are the result of a squandered moment following communism's collapse and more than a decade of media manipulation under Vladimir Putin. Meduza translates Vedomosti's text here.

The Levada Center's regular sociological surveys indicate that the peak of anti-Western sentiment in Russia, beginning in early 2015, has passed. Back then, we measured record-high numbers: 81 percent of Russians reported unfavorable attitudes about the United States, and another 71 percent felt the same way about the European Union. These indicators have gradually declined to where they are today: 64 percent and 60 percent, respectively. The number of Russians with favorable attitudes about the West is also growing slowly, especially among the young, educated, and affluent residents of large cities. 

General statistics on favorable and unfavorable attitudes toward the West are some of the most fluid figures in Russia. In times of open conflict between Moscow and Western countries (such as in 1999 over Yugoslavia, in 2003 over Iraq, and in 2008 over Georgia), Russian public opinion always shifts dramatically from favorable to unfavorable. And after the acute phase of the conflict is over, opinion quickly returns to its stable favorable values. You could say that Russians' public mood fluctuates with the tone of the news reported on the national TV networks.

More detailed studies, however, show that Russians over the years have formed a stable prejudice against the West, even in periods when national public opinion was generally favorable about the US and EU. These sentiments, moreover, evolved slowly over the course of the 1990s, taking shape well before Vladimir Putin came to power.

Europe's missed opportunity

In order to understand the logic of Russians' anti-Western sentiments, you've got to go back a quarter of a century. It seems incredible today, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s Russian society was fascinated by the West—particularly the United States. America appeared to Russians to be the model country—a nation to emulate—and Russia's main ally on the world stage. Rapprochement with the West seemed to be even more important than cooperation with the former Soviet republics.

In other words, the foreign policy in those days laid down by President Yeltsin and former Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev wasn't imposed from abroad (as is often claimed today); it reflected a real, broad public demand for convergence with the West and Russia's entry into the club of leading world powers. If there ever existed a chance to build a common European home, it was in the early 1990s. But these sentiments in Russia lasted only three years, at the most.

As Russia entered a deep economic crisis, most of the population was suddenly confronted by the apparent chasm separating the country from the West, which for Russians was (and still is) a symbol of wealth and the good life. On the other hand, it became clear that nobody in the West was waiting for Russia, which was demanding special treatment. By 1993, foreign policy divides were becoming clear in the views of Russian and Western decisionmakers. While sociological surveys at the time recorded Russians' unfavorable attitudes about the US bombing of Iraq, most of the country still regarded American policy toward Russia to be friendly and even becoming of an ally. 

But the irritation of Russia's elites (who were only yesterday the USSR's elites) about Washington unilaterally deciding to settle its score with Iraq, a former Soviet satellite, was bound to influence public opinion. (Remember that some Russian politicians were close friends of Saddam Hussein right up until he was deposed by NATO forces.) And hopes for new Russia's quick and painless integration into the global community soon proved to be groundless, and they were replaced by a shared annoyance aimed at the West, Russia's former object of desire, like so many sour grapes. 

There was also a sharp increase in unfavorable attitudes about the West in the mid-1990s. For instance, in 1996 only 6 percent of the country was ready to say the US was one of Russia's enemies. Three years later, however, 19 percent of Russians said the United States was one of their top three enemies (eclipsed only by “terrorists” and “Chechens”). Since 2008, America has firmly occupied first place on Russia's list of enemies, as perceived by a steady 35 percent of the country. In 2014 (at the peak of anti-Americanism), this share of the population rose to a record level of 65 percent. Today, the figure has dropped to 46 percent and the United States shares the number-one spot with the Islamic State. 

Already by May 1998, roughly 75 percent of Russians said they believed Washington was trying to weaken Russia and transform it into a Western appendage for raw materials. Today, about 80 percent of the country shares similar views. In 2001, ideas about the United States in Russian public opinion combined contradictory characteristics. Favorable traits dominated: 61 percent of survey respondents thought the US was a rich country, 51 percent said it was a strong military power, and roughly 18 percent described America as a democratic state. But unfavorable perceptions were equally important: 51 percent of Russians said Washington summarily interfered in the internal affairs of other countries, and 40 percent said Americans were trying to seize the world's wealth. Since then, the balance in attitudes has shifted only slightly (in the direction of more negative views about the US). 

It appears that 1999 was a year of special significance, when several events occurred that affected how Russians perceive the West: NATO expanded eastward, the United States announced the possibility that it might withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and NATO carried out military operations in Yugoslavia, circumventing the United Nations and ignoring Moscow's objections, leading to the first open conflict between the West and post-Soviet Russia. The symbols of this conflict became Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov's “u-turn over the Atlantic” (when he canceled a visit to Washington in mid-flight, after learning that NATO had started bombing Yugoslavia), and the incident at Kosovo's Pristina airport, which Russian troops occupied ahead of a NATO deployment. 

These actions had almost no effect on Western policy: the operation in Yugoslavia continued, and the Milosevic regime fell a few years later. But back in Russia the authorities had to feel the mobilizing effect anti-Americanism proved it could generate. In a single month, Primakov's approval rating jumped suddenly from 56 to 64 percent. A surge of optimism and self-worth electrified both the public and the political elite. (This process repeated, now magnitudes stronger, in 2014.)

Propaganda's magic

If the growth of anti-Americanism in the 1990s was relatively spontaneous, Russia's authorities in the 2000s started using it purposefully to interpret world events and justify Moscow's foreign policy ambitions as a necessary response to the aggressive actions of the United States and its NATO allies. This effort was facilitated by concentrating Russia's television networks and the country's biggest media outlets under the control of the state, which began with Vladimir Putin's presidency. (Today, almost 90 percent of Russians regularly watch news programs on state television, while only 30 percent of the country use alternative sources of information.) 

At first, these interpretations and justifications didn't work well. Sociological surveys conducted during the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine showed that only a fifth of Russians were inclined to attribute what was happening in Kiev to Western machinations. But in 2014 the Russian people embraced such explanations of the EuroMaidan movement. Moscow offered a similar interpretation of the events in Georgia and Syria, treating those conflicts as the result of Western meddling (“the West and Saakashvili against the rebel republics,” and “the West and the Syrian opposition against Assad”), completely burying the role played by civil war. This gave Russia's interventions in these conflicts more legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian people.

It's important to stress that Russians' concepts about the West are stereotypical. As noted by German Diligensky, a Russian scholar who worked on the intersections of political science, sociology, and psychology, the further a social phenomenon exists separately from a person's direct experiences, the harder it is to scrutinize. For that reason, concepts received from the mass media are absorbed automatically as finished thoughts. In the future, they can be reproduced throughout a person's life, and even passed on to the next generations.

In other words, the country consumes uncritically much of what is reported on television. And the more one-dimensional and primitive the news reporting is, the better the public will digest it. In the 1990s, the news programs of one TV network could balance out the shows on another channel, but the purge of Russia's information space in the 2000s helped make the media more uniform, which helped the authorities shape public opinion as it suited them. Moreover, today's Russian propaganda can appeal to stereotypes from the Cold War era, which lost their relevance in the early 1990s (thanks to hopes of rapprochement between Russia and the West), but have since regained their social currency. 

Looking to the future

Studying the long-term trends in Russian public opinion leads to several theories about what to expect from the country's attitudes in the years to come. Most likely, more favorable perceptions of the West will return almost immediately after sanctions (over Crimea and eastern Ukraine) are lifted. But suspicions about the West's secret hostility toward Russia, as well as distrust of the US and EU, will remain for a long time. This is due partly to the differences between the interests and views on foreign policy in Moscow, on the one hand, and in Washington and Brussels, on the other. The chance to integrate Russia into Europe's security institutions, which could have prevented or at least mitigated today's disagreements, was lost in the early 1990s. 

Domestically, Russia's current political system (where supreme authority is concentrated in the hands of men from the security forces, whose worldviews were formed while serving in the Soviet military) prevents the convergence of Russia's foreign policy positions with the pursuits of the West. Russia today is led by the same people from the Soviet era who fought and lost the Cold War. It was precisely these men who would have felt most acutely post-Soviet Russia's loss of geopolitical influence and the expansion of NATO. Their defeat back then was apparently so unbearable that they feel the need to seek revenge today, no matter the cost. 

In Russia, groups with alternative understandings of the world and the country's interests are marginalized, stigmatized, and relegated to a subordinate status in the political system. And the state's control of Russia's mass media provides an effective means of instilling the most primitive ideas about the West. Sustaining Russians' unfavorable views of the West, moreover, is a convenient way to justify Moscow's foreign policy in the eyes of the country. All this means that Russians' fundamentally negative views about the West are here to stay, until the country's elites and its mass media become more pluralistic and free.

This text was translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock.

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