America Helps Strengthen Russia’s National Identity

The current generation of Russians has a stronger feeling of patriotism. They are proud of being Russians and the citizens of Russia. It was America that raised the question of Russia’s place in the world, which helped make anti-Americanism a part of the new generation’s national identity.

The United States has had an exclusive special place in Russia’s national identity for decades. It is both an ideal enemy and a model to emulate.

Anti-American sentiment has grown considerably in Russia over the past few months. Polls conducted by Levada Center show that Russians’ dislike of America reached a record high in May: 71% compared to less than 10% in the early 1990s.

This is not surprising, though. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a liberal revolution was brewing in the Soviet Union, Russians saw the United States as an ideal model to emulate. The Russian government made sweeping gestures, including disarmament, withdrawal from Europe and declassification of military facilities and technology, and generally demonstrated its love and desire, as they said at the time, “to return to the family of civilized nations.” In other words, Russia wanted to become a part of the Western world dominated by the United States.

But it takes two to tango. Russia's desire was thwarted because the United States preferred boxing to dancing. The US enjoyed the game to which Russia was not prepared. The US took Russia’s place in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world and became the world’s only superpower. Its best minds declared the end of history.

Of course, such game of dancing vs boxing could not last forever. Furthermore, the liberal reforms that were launched to bring Russia closer to the West and to change its political and economic system resulted in an economic and social catastrophe as Russia's GDP almost halved, sustaining more damage than in World War II. Inevitably, public disappointment with liberal reforms that were associated with the United States dispelled the magic of America.

The process of disappointment began at the top and took some time to trickle down. By 1995, when NATO completed the first stage of its eastward expansion and Russia’s GDP fell to a record low, a large part of Russia’s elite had changed its views and regarded the United States as a national security threat.

But elite's sentiment had not yet translated into politics at the time. Russian leaders depended on the ideology that brought them to power, and therefore the media kept buzzing about a return to the family of civilized nations. As a result, the anti-American sentiment of the ordinary people who were preoccupied with their survival and totally depended on the information from the media was considerably weaker than that of the ruling class.

That duality ended in the late 1990s, when two consecutive crises eroded the foundations of the liberal revolution and created conditions for a counterrevolution. The August 1998 financial crisis laid to rest people’s belief in the ability of liberal reforms to increase their prosperity. The Kosovo crisis and the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999 showed clearly that Russia’s international standing had not improved and that its position could be easily dismissed. It was at that time that Russia's conservative shift began. The elite's frustration spilled onto TV screens, changing the message and boosting the anti-American sentiment among the mass publics.

This coincided in time with the formation of a new national identity in Russia. In the Soviet period, the authorities did not encourage a strong national identity among the Russians, unlike many other nationalities that constituted the Soviet Union. Russians were expected to be first and foremost Soviet and glue together the numerous Soviet nations.

As the Soviet Union declined, national ideologies easily replaced the obsolete and unattractive Communist ideology in most former Soviet nations. The ideological shift took much longer in Russia because Russians identified with the Soviet Union so strongly that its collapse led to an identity crisis. It was unclear who belonged to the new Russian nation and where the nation’s borders lay.

Of course, the state of crisis could not last forever. The younger generation of Russians has a stronger sense of Russian patriotism. That during the formative period of the new Russian identity the US was the Significant Other who made Russians seek a new place in the world resulted in anti-American sentiment as an integral part of the Russian identity.
National ideologies are based on opposition of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In the late 1990s, Russia’s leaders were deciding on who the Significant Other should be. Choosing Muslims for that position in a country that included large Muslim regions could be dangerous. The government did not want to lose the territories populated by Muslims, as the Chechen war had clearly showed.

America is an ideal candidate for this position because it is distant and may help rather than undermine Russia’s unity. America is also an ideal rival for many generations of Russians who have not abandoned their imperial ambitions. Those who were born and grew up in the Soviet Union still remember the two superpowers’ rivalry. On the other hand, the generation of the 2000s is affected by a new ideology proposed by Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin urged Russians to be proud of their history, including its Soviet period. It was enough for Russians to start seeing the US as the principal rival.

The current generation of Russians has a stronger feeling of patriotism. They are proud of being Russians and the citizens of Russia. It was America that raised the question of Russia’s place in the world, which helped make anti-Americanism a part of the new generation’s national identity.

When new Russian nationalism spread on the mass level, it became a new factor of Russia's domestic politics. Those political forces that ignored it, such as the Yabloko party, have disappeared from the Russian political scene. Other political forces respond to it with varying degree of sincerity and thus reinforce the public opinion.

The younger generations, who were raised in the relatively prosperous 2000s, initially had a more benevolent attitude towards the United States, especially because they saw immigrants as a Significant Other. However, each new crisis in international relations, including the one in Ukraine, strengthens anti-American sentiment among young Russians. Crises consolidate both ordinary people and the elites against an external threat.

An ideal foe like America suits the Russian authorities’ policies very well. When a nation encounters a problem, the authorities need to provide an explanation that makes sense and consolidate the country. Anti-Americanism is a very convenient tool. If necessary, anti-American hysteria can be blown out of proportion and can involve large segments of the public. This probably explains the high figures for anti-Americanism in recent polls.

This article was originally published in Russian in RBC Daily.

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