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History

A Genealogy of American Russophobia

Sean Guillory examines the tempestuous relationship between two superpowers.

American-Soviet Peace Walk (1987). Photo by Jeff Share via Our Move Archives/Flickr

We asked one Russian historian and one U.S. historian for an account of their homeland’s grappling with foreign influence, be it political, moral, cultural or imaginary. U.S. writer and journalist Sean Guillory hosts Sean’s Russia Blog Podcast, a weekly podcast on Eurasian politics and culture. Here, he gives a historical rundown of Russophobia in the United States.

Russophobia emerged quite late in the United States compared to other European powers. The so-called “Testament of Peter the Great,” a spurious text that spelled out a blueprint for Russian imperial domination, undergirded Russophobia in France and Britain throughout the 19th century. Its contents were so potent Napoleon I ordered the French press to pen articles showing that “Europe is in the process of becoming booty for Russia.” The “Testament” enjoyed repeated resurrection in every European war with Russia until World War I. 

Though the U.S. magazine Niles’ National Register published the “Testament” in 1843, the claims of Russia’s imperialist impulses fell flat. The Register even stressed that U.S.-Russian relations “have been and will long necessarily be of the most amicable nature.” Nor was there an American version of Britain’s preeminent Russophobe David Urquhart, who, in the words of one contemporary, was “successful in his design to diffuse a feeling of terror and a spirit of hatred toward Russia in the public mind.” Indeed, the trope of Russia as a giant octopus threatening to ensnare Europe had little currency in the United States until the Cold War.

The wave of Russophobia around Donald Trump is mostly a product of a profound shift in American discourse about Russia in the 20th century. In fact, to reduce Russia’s place in the American imagination to merely the absence or presence of Russophobia is itself an act of injurious reductionism. Historically, Russia has had a much more ambiguous and contradictory place in the American mind. Historically, Americans relate to Russia with indifference and amicability, as an object of fascination and mystery, and even as an analogous and kindred nation. 

At the same time, Russia has served as a symbol of ignobility, a prototype of despotism, a barometer of backwardness and even evil itself. Where Russia stood on this spectrum had less to do with Russia as it did the United States. For Russia, as David Foglesong has argued, served as a “dark double” or “imaginary twin.” In American eyes, Russia has appeared as a distortion of the American self, reflected through a carnival mirror. It’s a distorted, disfigured, inchoate, even horrifying image, but still an enigmatic source for American self-juxtaposition and psychological displacement.

Participants in the 1987 American-Soviet Peace Walk enter a summer camp with the Pioneers. Photo by Jeff Share via Our Move Archives/Flickr

Although contacts with Russia were few in the 18th and early 19th century, they nevertheless included some prominent figures in U.S. historical folklore. William Penn, founder of the Pennsylvania colony, had an audience with Peter I in 1698 during the latter’s European tour. Some key figures in the American republic had friendly, even intimate relations with Russia. John Quincy Adams served as a secretary in St. Petersburg when he was 14 and become the United States’ first minister to the Russian empire in 1809. Thomas Jefferson had an active correspondence with Alexander I and even sent the tsar drafts of the U.S. Constitution to inspire reform in Russia. 

But much of the early American discourse on Russia, though replete with denunciations of Russian despotism, viewed it as a fascinating yet far-off land of little consequence. In “Common Sense,” for example, Founding Father Thomas Paine viewed Russia with indifference. It was a nation “almost shut out from the sea,” its presence on the world stage was merely represented as “articles of commerce,” and “excluded from the possibility of rivaling” the United States.

Russia was the only great power to support the North during the U.S. Civil War, an act born of a mutual history in human bondage and its abolition: Russia in 1861, the United States in 1865.

Indifference, however, did not wholly mean disinterest. Though Russia wouldn’t emerge as a “dark double” until the late 19th century, it nevertheless was imagined as a kind of a long lost twin. Russia’s similitude to the United States captured some Americans’ imagination. Its vast steppe, its multilingual and multicultural landscape, its continental manifest destiny to settle right up to the sea, the experience of serfdom, its identity as a unique civilization, and sense of historical mission all found parallels in the United States. These imaginings also resulted in concrete relations. Russia was the only great power to support the North during the U.S. Civil War, an act born of a mutual history in human bondage and its abolition: Russia in 1861, the United States in 1865. It was these perceived qualities that inspired Walt Whitman, in a letter to his Russian translator of “Leaves of Grassin 1881, to write that while both nations were “so distant, so unlike at first glance,” nevertheless “so [resemble] each other” in their “historic and divine mission.” The United States and Russia were not quite the same, but almost.

American-Soviet Peace Walk (1987). Photo by Al Podgorski via Our Move Archives/Flickr

This discourse of brotherhood changed in the 1880s as American visions of Russia took on a more narcissistic edge. Alexander III’s counter-reforms, anti-Semitic pogroms, and the repression against Russia’s revolutionary movement proved that the United States and Russia’s historical paths diverged. Many American Russophiles became Russophobes as the U.S. discourse on Russia shifted from a recognition of parallelism to a demand for mimicry. Tolerance for Russia’s own path waned as people like George Kennan (1845-1924) and the American socialist William Walling increasingly advocated for the United States to “free Russia,” or, in the words of the latter, to become a “United States of Russia.” Here, American imaginings of Russia aligned with its Western European primogenitors that cast Russia as a malignancy on civilization, but with an added American twist. 

Russia’s more civilized elements simultaneously represented the universal desire and righteousness of U.S. democracy. George Kennan communicated this notion in his lecture tours for his book “Siberia and the Exile System.” Kennan, who served as both the unrivaled U.S. authority on Russia and “free Russia” activist, would often dazzle audiences with a story about how in 1876, the Centennial of American Independence, 300 imprisoned Russian revolutionaries in St. Petersburg covertly sewed small U.S. flags and displayed them on their bars on the Fourth of July to prove their fidelity to freedom. Kennan’s tale was repeatedly recycled in the American media.

It’s perhaps no accident that stories that extolled the universal desire for U.S. democracy occurred precisely when the United States launched its own imperial project abroad and labor unrest and racial violence escalated at home. In a century or so Russia had moved from a subject in America’s Lacanian mirror stage to an object of narcissistic displacement. Now Russians’ desire to “be like us” polished a tarnished U.S. democracy. Such idealism sublimated American reality as it would again and again into the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Soviet Union was quickly framed as even more a cancer on civilization than Russian autocracy. And perhaps for the first time, Russophobia developed in the American mass consciousness in a real clinical sense.

A rundown of Russophobia after 1917 requires little explication. Russia quickly became equated with Soviet communism, so much so that we frequently hear the “Soviet Union” used for “Russia” by politicians and pundits 25 years after the USSR dissolved. The spread of communism pushed the U.S. campaign to “free Russia” to the center of U.S. policy. The Soviet Union was quickly framed as even more a cancer on civilization than Russian autocracy. And perhaps for the first time, Russophobia developed in the American mass consciousness in a real clinical sense. It wasn’t just that the Soviet Union was something to fear; it was also given infectious powers “to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids,” said General Jack D. Ripper in the 1964 Cold War satirical film “Dr. Strangelove.”

The Red Scares of the 1920s and late 1940s and 1950s would tattoo the Russian threat onto the American psyche. Russia became like an airborne pathogen: difficult to isolate and contain and highly infectious. The containment policy, the brainchild of George F. Kennan, positioned quarantining the Russian/communist disease as its central purpose.

American-Soviet Peace Walk (1987). Photo by Al Podgorski via Our Move Archives/Flickr

American anti-communist hysteria had a more spectral affect. It conjured Russia and Russians as creatures of the shadows, walking among us, and surreptitiously seeking to corrupt our morals and values. Here, Russophobia would intersect with a whole litany of moral panics of the Cold War era. Many of its elements continue today as terms like useful idiot, Kremlin agent, hybrid war, active measures, reflexive control, “maskirovka” (Russian military deception), “kompromat” (compromising material) – all terms of deception – are used to describe Russia’s goals to corrupt, undermine, infect, delegitimize, and subvert the United States, its institutions and values. Russia’s primary method of subversion is phantasmagoria.

U.S.-Russian relations over the last century has oscillated between Russia as an object of American narcissistic desire to a subject of American neurosis.

Today’s Russophobia is rooted in the idea of Russia as phantom. Current commentary on Russia is imbued with a Russia scheming in the shadows. A recent article by political advisor Molly Mckew, “Russia is Already Winning,” demonstrates this idea well. McKew’s text is filled with Russian phantasmagoria. The reader is treated to terms – shadows, creeping narratives, disinformation, a boogeyman, murkier and kabuki theater – that facilitate Russian “infection,” “compromise,” “corrosion,” “erosion,” “corruption,” and “subversion” of America’s precious bodily fluids. This is Russo-phobia in a clear medical sense.

According to one medical definition of phobia: “Phobias may result from displacing an internal conflict to an external object symbolically related to the conflict.” U.S.-Russian relations over the last century has oscillated between Russia as an object of American narcissistic desire to a subject of American neurosis. In periods of the former, Russia serves as the hopeful reassertion of American universality. In times of the latter, Russia functions as a vessel to dump our fears, vulnerabilities, imperfections and anxieties. We are currently witnessing the latter where American induced self-conflict is de-territorialized from the self and stitched onto the Russian Other. 

The current crisis of U.S. politics, whether that be ignobility of Trump, the disillusion of liberal democratic institutions, the disembowelment of media’s truth claim, or the widening gap between representative and people, has found a more familiar culprit in the Russian phantasm. It is, after all, more comforting to combat the Other than it is to face the self.

Read Ilya Budraitskis' take on Russian anti-Americanism here.