How Far Back Can We Trace the Current Russian Anti-Americanism?
June 20, 2023
  • Ivan Kurilla

    Professor of History and International Relations at European University, St. Petersburg.
Ivan Kurilla writes on the evolution of Russian-American relations in the 1990s. At that time, there was still no large-scale anti-American propaganda in Russia, but anti-American sentiment was already fomenting.
The original text in Russian and German was published in Dekoder and published here with their permission.

The Russian attitude towards the US was ambivalent all the way up to the collapse of the USSR. There were three ways to think about America. Revolutionaries and radical reformers saw it as a utopian country where all dreams come true. During periods of uncertainty in their position, conservatives and statesmen experienced fear, which was especially exacerbated by the Cold War. They saw the US not only as a “corrupting example” (which, by contrast, attracted the revolutionaries), but also as an economic rival and a likely adversary on the battlefield. Finally, government reformers since the era of Nicholas I have looked to the US as a source of technology and methods to increase economic efficiency.

Over the course of perestroika, the reformers who heeded “Gorbachev’s call” were gradually crowded out (and in 1991 were completely expelled from the country’s leadership) by the revolutionaries of the “Yeltsin team.” At the same time, both belonged to a tradition that had positive views of the American example. And the conservatives, who feared the United States, suffered a complete fiasco along with the State of Emergency Committee.
Perestroika aroused hopes among the elites that Russia would return to European civilization in alliance with the United States. These hopes were supported by the rapid political rapprochement between the leadership of the two countries.
In 1990, Moscow supported Washington in its armed response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait — something that would have been completely out of the question in the worldview that had dominated just five years prior.

Throughout the 1990s, criticism of reformers only occasionally used anti-American slogans or accusations because anti-Americanism was not yet a popular opinion. One can assume that, to a lesser extent, the Russian people were contemplating the difference in socio-political models, but the mass culture of that time demonstrated the clearly positive connotations towards America.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky was the first to sense the change in attitude. In 1993, he changed the name of the party’s newspaper Liberal to Zhirinovsky’s Truth (Правда Жириновского) and in the very first issue said: “The Americans cheated: why spend trillions on war? If bombs fall on Moscow, they will fall on New York. It's better to blow us up from the inside." A little earlier in the same year, “Boris Yeltsin’s overseas bosses” were mentioned frequently in publications made by supporters of the Supreme Soviet. However, these accusations were overshadowed by other ways to discredit the reformers: anti-Americanism was not popular at that time.
Andrei Kozyrev, Russia's foreign minister from 1990-1996, was commonly criticized for being not assertive enough in defending Russian interests in the face of NATO and the United States.
Source: Wiki Commons
Formulating our interests

Meanwhile, politicians who viewed the United States as friends and partners rose to prominence in the state apparatus. Or perhaps many people in the state apparatus during these years drifted towards a more positive view of America. Vadim Bakatin is often cited as an example — he became chairman of the USSR KGB in the fall of 1991, and handed the United States a schematic for wiretapping devices in the new American embassy building.

The allied (and republican Russian) leadership counted on the United States to take reciprocal steps, but the US did not follow through. Before Bakatin's resignation in January 1992, Yeltsin offered him the post of ambassador to the United States, but he refused. An even more striking example of what was seen as pro-American policy was Andrei Kozyrev, Russia's foreign minister from 1990-1996, whom critics called "Mr. Yes" (as the antipode of the Soviet diplomat Andrei Gromyko, who had the nickname "Mr. No"). There is even evidence that Kozyrev asked US Secretary of State James Baker for advice on how to formulate the national interests of the new Russia.

The pro-American presence and influence in the upper echelons of power can be attributed to two interrelated factors. On one hand, the Russian leadership was interested in a rapprochement with yesterday’s enemy, who had seen outrageous benefits from the Soviet system’s self-destruction, and Russia was counting on reciprocity from the American elite. On the other hand,
“А significant part of the population now experiencing an identity crisis (We’re no longer Soviets, so who are we?) tried on the role of American ally for size.
The attitude shift occurred gradually. Several factors began to interfere with Russian attitudes towards the United States. The severity of the reforms and the economic collapse led to disappointment in what was widely believed to be inadequate assistance from the United States.

Indeed, the Russians (and all inhabitants of the USSR) had voluntarily rejected communism and ceased to be America’s number one enemy. This step deserved significant support to help overcome a difficult period of reform. But the US saw it as an opportunity for triumphalism: instead of establishing that the USSR and the USA had ended the Cold War together, the events of recent past were reduced to the line: “The US defeated the USSR.” In turn, the notion began to spread around Russian society that Washington did not expect Russia to become a new member of the Western community, but rather was using Russia’s weakness to advance its own interests.

The cost of “democratic solidarity”

Russian international relations scholar Alexei Bogaturov writes that in the first half of the 1990s, the Russian Federation supported American foreign policy that was not aligned with its own interests. The Russian elites adhered to the theory of “democratic solidarity,” by which all democratic countries (including Russia) would act in solidarity, with consideration to one another, as is befitting of states that share common interests. Moreover, Moscow even welcomed the concept of "expanding democracy" declared by the White House in September 1993. As it later turned out, this was aimed at the former Warsaw Pact countries — with the exception of Russia — and "contributed to the complete destruction of their economic, cultural and other ties with Moscow.”

Petr Aven, member of the first post-communist government in Russia, later explained: “When we came into power, we were very much hoping for Western assistance. And we were surprised and disappointed to receive very little. In 1992, we received one billion dollars from the IMF. Nothing from Western governments. When the crisis hit Mexico in the late 1990s, they received forty billion from the United States within days. Forty-one. Moreover, we believed that Russia was a more important country than Mexico, a nuclear nation that cost the US alone hundreds of billions of dollars in military deterrence costs. At first, we couldn’t even reach an agreement with the Paris club on normal terms — similar, say, to those that Poland received...For Gaidar, Kozyrev, for me and my colleagues, it was a real shock at first to see the complete unwillingness of the absolute majority of Western leaders...to see us not as rivals, but as partners.”

The Clinton administration’s special adviser on Russian affairs, Strobe Talbott, published a memoir immediately after his resignation, which details how the US administration consistently pushed for US interests in negotiations with the Russian leadership without showing respect for Russian interests or appreciation of concessions made. Incidentally, in this regard,
“The US government acted in striking contrast with the German government, which made clear efforts to help Russia integrate into the Western world and soon became Russia’s main partner in the West.
While demonstrating friendliness and support toward Russia, the Clinton administration, in fact, consistently pushed for US interests in negotiations with the Russian leadership. Source: Wiki Commons
With no little pleasure, Talbott is quick to list the ways the US government’s pressure led to success, whether it was economic concessions, the expansion of missile defense systems, the advancement of NATO, or the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The latest case involved Presidents George W. Bush and Putin: “The Russian leader who had risen to power in part by quietly, obliquely, politely standing up to the U.S. had now, like his predecessor Yeltsin, given in.”

But this attitude did not escape the attention of Clinton and Talbott’s Moscow partners — and it certainly didn’t encourage cooperation.

“Lousy joiners”

Another component contributing to public disillusionment with the US is the American advisers to Russian reformers who later faced corruption charges for their activities in Russia. Take, for example, the 1997 lawsuit against Harvard professor Andrei Shleifer, who managed grants from the US Agency for International Development in Moscow, helped the Russian authorities develop privatization plans, and trained Russian investors and officials in Western standards of governance and regulation. Russian critics of American aid considered this “evidence that the US is trying to use Russian aid for its own interests.”

Finally, in the second half of the 1990s, the Russian elites’ frustration with the efforts to bridge the gap and become part of the West with US help was superimposed by the strategic conflicts associated with the wars in Yugoslavia, and especially the shock of the bombing of Serbia in 1999.

Professor Angela Stent, a scholar and active voice on Russian-American relations during this period, writes that the main problem with integrating Russia into Western security or economic structures, such as NATO or the EU, was that, as one Clinton official put it, were “lousy joiners” — when Russians joined institutions, they hoped to be able to influence them and didn’t resign themselves to the established rules. In turn, the Russian elite grew dissatisfied with the Clinton administration's desire to build a monopolar world led by the United States, and with the fact that the only dispute among the American body politic was whether it was “leadership” or “hegemony.”

Disillusionment of the elites

American researcher Paul Hollander writes about the two main sources of anti-Americanism globally. The first is the rejection of rapid modernization and the associated loss of traditional values, as the US is often implicated as the leader of this movement. The second is the growth of nationalism due to the feeling of hostility and envy towards a powerful world power, its global presence, as well as its economic, political and cultural influence.

In the preface to the 2000 Russian edition of his book, Hollander points out that Russian anti-Americanism in the 1990s stemmed from a second set of causes, as Russia entered a period of serious trouble and its political, economic, and military strength were in decline. One may entertain this opinion, and even see it as a predecessor to the “first type” of anti-Americanism that spread across Russia in the second decade of the 21st century.

But it lacks an indication of the role played by the US and its policies, including engagement with Russia's initially pro-American elites.

The most extensive analysis of Russian anti-Americanism in the 1990s comes from an article by sociologists Boris Sokolov, Ronald Inglehart, Eduard Ponarin, Irina Vartanova, and William Zimmerman. The authors show that initially, anti-Americanism was caused not by tensions in personal relations between the two countries, but by “emotional and ideological dissatisfaction” in the outcome of the pro-Western reforms that began among the liberal elite of the country.

The first to turn towards anti-Americanism were the more educated members of Russian society — those who relied more on the success of the reforms and had idealized the United States in previous years, and then became disillusioned with the reality. In addition, the authors argue that until the late 1990s, there was no mass anti-Americanism in the country, but the elites began to use it for their own instrumental purposes — to transfer responsibility for the failure of reforms to an external force. Again, we reiterate that
“US foreign policy alone provided enough grounds for the increasingly negative attitude towards the United States.
We can expand upon this point.

In the 1990s, opportunities for direct interaction with the US expanded dramatically for the educated classes, who were previously a stronghold of pro-American sentiment. Trips to America became much more accessible and frequent, as did the possibility of studying at American universities, meeting with American businessmen, missionaries, tourists, students, and finally, the head-on collision with American business and culture (as McDonald's and Hollywood came to Russia). One unexpected consequence was the emergence of “anti-Americanism by acquaintance,” when a better understanding of the US led to disillusionment among those who had previously held utopian views of the United States.

Large-scale anti-American sentiment was still not a thing of the 1990s, but the emotional foundations were formed during this decade. Finally, Vladimir Putin's 2007 “Munich speech” expressed the disappointment of the Russian elites in the failure of the “Americanization of Russia.”
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy