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A Genealogy of Russian Anti-Americanism

Ilya Budraitskis examines the two superpowers’ contentious relationship.

American-Soviet Peace Walk (1987). Photo by Al Podgorski 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. Moscow-based activist Ilya Budraitskis has written for major Russian and international publications. He is a co-founder of the political platforms LeftEast and OpenLeft. Here, he gives a rundown of anti-Americanism in the Soviet Union and Russia.

At the moment – as the Russian mainstream media continues to celebrate Donald Trump’s presidential victory – it is rather difficult to talk about anti-Americanism as a deep and persistent element of public consciousness. On the contrary, it’s far easier to acknowledge it as temporary and dictated from above.

Basically, the pro-Kremlin media is sending a message to the new U.S. administration: look how easily and masterfully we can moderate the mood of our population. Just as quickly as your country was depicted as the main external threat and President Barack Obama was portrayed as a monster and warmonger, we’ll be able to present Trump as a good friend and responsible partner. For the “discourse managers” of Russian television, such a switch is, apparently, a simple matter of technique.

However, in reality, Russian television is not the only thing behind the success of current anti-American propaganda.

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

Anti-Americanism in Russia is not a fleeting emotion, but has its own history and a developed framework of concepts and associations. Dating back to the start of the Cold War, Soviet anti-Americanism gradually developed as a dynamic combination of the political and the moral. If the first was defined by the confrontation of superpowers, the second addressed the fight for the soul of every individual Soviet person. The United States was viewed as a power awakening its dark, instinctive sides: greed, unbridled sexuality, a taste for primitive culture stirring up base passions and desires. As the level of political confrontation fell, political anti-Americanism also became more restrained. Meanwhile, the presence of moral anti-Americanism grew in literature and journalism.

Dating back to the start of the Cold War, Soviet anti-Americanism gradually developed as a dynamic combination of the political and the moral. If the first was defined by the confrontation of superpowers, the second addressed the fight for the soul of every individual Soviet person.

It can be seen, for example, in Vsevolod Kochetov’s famous 1969 novel “What Do You Want Then?” The central plot-line follows a group of CIA agents on their secret mission to corrupt the Soviet youth and recruit agents. Each spy specializes in finding societal weak spots and unstable elements; each spy is an experienced villain. The informal leader of the group is the sexy-Slavist Portia Brown. Her primary targets are unrecognized artists and poets, bohemian life, ridden with vanity and egoism. Portia’s assistant, the perpetually smiling blonde Eugene Ross, searches for profiteers and hipsters, stirring up a passion for unthinking and irresponsible consumerism.

These dangerous Americans don’t mention the superiority of democracy or a market economy, because they’re not addressing the mind but the body. Portia shows Komsomol members strip teases, while Eugene teaches them to drink whiskey and soda – the alcohol working to relax and dull their senses. At a critical moment in the victory of these stimuli over reason, a rock-and-roll record intrudes: “Music started playing – the kind of music under whose influence a person gradually starts twitching. First he taps the rhythm with one foot, then his other foot starts, and then his arms, shoulder, head, hips, and back join in. His whole body begins to shake.”

According to Kochetov, the United States was a virus, infecting a Soviet society whose immune system had been weakened. The new generation of Soviet people, which had grown up after World War II, was no longer capable of self-control and, under the influence of external stimuli, was subconsciously beginning to copy the behavior of the homo economicus. Only individual, idealistic communists and state law enforcement agencies were capable of opposing this.

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

The growing crisis in Soviet society – including black market growth and disillusionment with socialism, which were both accurately depicted in Kochetov’s novel – was explained by an external cause: a secret war, aimed at the moral corruption of the Soviet person, organized by the CIA.

At the start of the 1980s, when this crisis entered its final phase, a cult document of moral anti-Americanism was circulated – the so-called “Dulles Plan” about the destruction of the USSR. Like the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” which constituted a distorted fragment of a pamphlet by the French writer Maurice Joly, the Dulles Plan also had its origins in literature – a monologue by the anti-hero of Anatoly Ivanov’s novel “Eternal Call.” In this text, the villain lays out an extensive plan for the moral corruption of the Soviet people through the implementation of “false values.” The power of these values lies in their subconscious character. It is a “cult of sex, violence, sadism and treachery […] alcoholism and drug addiction, animal fear of each other.” It laid bare the horrific results of the victory of body over soul, of private interests over communal ones.

The pathos of late-Soviet moral anti-Americanism was really directed against the invasion of a free market, but from a conservative – not socialist – position.

Discussion over the Dulles Plan’s authenticity, which broke out in the 1990s between nationalistic conspiracy theorists and pro-Western liberals, soon ran into a dead end. The main evidence in favor of the plan’s existence wasn’t rational argument, but the fact that it had effectively been realized. Who wrote the text – Allen Dulles or Anatoly Ivanov – didn’t matter. The Soviet Union really had collapsed, and the chaos of primary accumulation was accompanied by unbridled violence and the degradation of society.

Late-Soviet moral anti-Americanism not only didn’t explain the nature of the internal contradictions of Soviet society which led to its end – it was a manifestation of it. It was a sign of the Soviet state’s deep mistrust of its own ideological foundation. The pathos of moral anti-Americanism was really directed against the invasion of a free market, but from a conservative – not socialist – position. The essence of a person was seen as sinful and egoistic. It was necessary to constantly hold back this evil, which was trying to break out, with the help of state discipline and repressions.

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

The post-Soviet regime, including its transformation under Vladimir Putin, became the triumph of commercial logic and a complete victory of private interests over communal ones. More than that, cynicism and moral relativism are important motifs of the modern Russian ideology, of the “common sense” uniting the elites with the masses: everyone simply wants to satisfy their own needs. People enter public office to become rich, or go to opposition protests because they receive money (from the Americans, of course) to do so. It’s natural, that’s how people are. And when someone tries to persuade you otherwise, speaking about civic duty or democratic values, they are probably a hypocrite or a liar. The same explanation is given for foreign policy: countries, like people, are simply looking to benefit themselves. Western rhetoric about universal values is a ploy aimed at simpletons.

The ideological paradox, however, lies in the fact that this cynicism is entirely in keeping with elements of the moral anti-Americanism inherited from the later years of the USSR.

The combination of these two elements was first shown in one of the flagship films of the Putin era, Alexei Balabanov’s 2000 film “Brat 2” (Brother 2). Danila, the New Russian hero, uses unrestrained violence to defeat a criminal U.S. tycoon and restore downtrodden justice. Danila gives the Americans the moral lesson that “strength isn’t in money but in truth.” A Russian can aspire to wealth, sexual satisfaction and success (after all, he’s a person too), but he must nonetheless remain true to himself – i.e. to his national identity and the historical fate of Russia.

The structure of moral anti-Americanism is preserved, but its content has changed dramatically.

In Putin’s new era of anti-Americanism, the main problem is not consumerist desire, but unbridled sexuality. Now, not only does consumerism not weaken the unity of the nation, but quite the reverse; it supports and consolidates the national economy. Nowadays it’s unlikely that someone would detect an American plot in the Russian elite’s excessive desire for luxury or the population’s menacingly high dependence on credit. Today, the danger comes from elsewhere – from homosexuality and feminism, which are allegedly destroying the traditional family concept.

In this way, the structure of moral anti-Americanism is preserved, but its content has changed dramatically. This change, if considered seriously, reflects one of the main contradictions in the official state ideology – between the formal continuation of the USSR and the conceptual rejection of it. Not only does contemporary Russia not proclaim universal values of social equality as an alternative to American values, but it insists on their impossibility.

Read Sean Guillory’s take on American Russophobia here.