Rising Anti-Americanism in Russia

President Vladimir Putin and the government-controlled media encourage public hostility toward the West

Faces of Russian President Vladimir Putin and would be successor, current First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, adorn traditional Matreshka nesting dolls, 15 January 2008, in downtown Moscow.
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MOSCOW— Vladimir Dobrovinsky, 33, a teacher at a design school in Moscow, says he's not interested in politics. But bring up America and the well-traveled, university-educated Dobrovinsky holds forth. He criticizes Washington's "crude interference" in world affairs. He complains that Russia is not treated as an important partner by the Bush administration. "A lot of Russians," he says, "are angry that America deals with us like we're Thailand."

Dobrovinsky is hardly alone in such sentiments. Russia is witnessing a revival of the anti-Americanism that had dissipated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Taking their cues from President Vladimir Putin and the state-controlled media, almost half of Russians now believe America's objective is the complete destruction of Russia, according to a recent survey by the independent Levada Center. And a poll by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center suggests that Russians consider the United States to be Russia's greatest enemy (and China its greatest friend). "In the last six or seven years, anti-Americanism has been getting worse and worse. It's staggering," says Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international relations at the New School in New York and the granddaughter of Cold War-era Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

While there are echoes of old Soviet-style antagonisms in the Putin-era anti-Americanism, there are differences. Earlier, the clash was in large part ideological and seemed to herald a fight to the death—"We will bury you," Khrushchev warned western nations in 1956. Today, Putin is using anti-American rhetoric to boost his own popularity, tapping into widespread resentment of western-backed economic reforms made during the rapacious 1990s as well as of U.S. foreign policy. Borrowing from the same playbook as Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has accused the Bush administration of trying to tilt the outcome of parliamentary elections, and he blames Washington for all manner of misdeeds including "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts."

This attitude has carried over into Russia's foreign policy, and the compliant partner that Washington had hoped for has become a belligerent opponent that fosters ties with Iran and China. The Kremlin's opposition to Washington's proposed European missile defense system and its hosting of Hamas leaders in Moscow early last year may provoke ire in the United States, though they improve Putin's ratings at home. It's a far cry from the warm U.S.-Russia relations that seemed in store in 2001, when Bush met Putin for the first time and said, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy."

As the repressive Soviet regime crumbled in the late 1980s, antipathy to America fell away. "There was a belief that if we opted for western values and civil liberties, life would become better," says Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. After western-backed economic "shock therapy" reforms, however, when Soviet-era price and currency controls were removed, inflation rocketed and people's savings were wiped out. Oligarchs close to Boris Yeltsin later bought up Russia's prime assets at fire-sale prices. The United States, as well as Russia's liberal parties, have consequently lost face.

In its foreign policy, meanwhile, Washington is seen as marginalizing Russia. Russia opposed the war in Iraq and resents the proposed missile system and the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe as an encroachment on its strategic backyard. "The U.S. views these as its zones of interest, but for Russia they're vitally important," argues Mikhail Leontyev, the anchor of a political talk show on one of Russia's most popular television channels.

Putin has cultivated Russians' resentments, making strident nationalism and bitter anti-westernism a regular part of his public addresses. Before the parliamentary elections, he said in a nationally televised speech that his liberal opponents "scavenge like jackals at foreign embassies." Meanwhile, billboards around Moscow proclaimed that "Putin's Plan Is Russia's Victory." His message is reinforced by Russia's state-owned television channels, which dominate the airwaves, and many of Russia's major papers. "The enlargement of NATO, America's actions in Iraq and Georgia—they irritate people, and they want an explanation," explains Andrei Baranov, a political editor at Putin-friendly Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia's largest papers.