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Ressentiment and the Evolution of Anti-Americanism in Post-Soviet Russia

The majority of Russians today have a negative attitude to the United States. While they may not see America as an enemy, they think Russia must be very cautious in its dealing with the global hegemon. Moreover, some experts believe that in recent years anti-Americanism has emerged as an important element in the Kremlin’s official propaganda.

The majority of Russians today have a negative attitude to the United States. While they may not see America as an enemy, they think Russia must be very cautious in its dealing with the global hegemon. Moreover, some experts believe that in recent years anti-Americanism has emerged as an important element in the Kremlin’s official propaganda.

The situation was completely different just twenty years ago. At the turn of the 1990s, many people in Russia - both politicians and ordinary citizens - regarded perestroika as the end of the Cold War and saw in the US a future ally and partner rather than an enemy. Why then is America again perceived as a potential foe?

Researchers traditionally interpret anti-Americanism in Russia as situational, arising from periodic frictions between the two countries, which, in turn, influence public opinion. The Levada Center website features a detailed graph showing how Russian attitudes to the USA evolved from 1997 to 2008 [1]. Anti-American sentiment peaked after the events in Kosovo and South Ossetia as well as following the US invasion of Iraq and the Winter Olympic Games in 2002 (memorable for numerous scandals targeting Russian athletes). This trend is confirmed by other studies. Extensive polling conducted as part of the New Russian Barometer project ( represented by the purple line on Graph ) also shows that anti-Americanism in the Russian Federation peaked after Kosovo and South Ossetia. The same trend is in evidence among elite groups in Russia ( red line ).

This interpretation, however, has a number of flaws. For example, no spikes in anti-Americanism were observed in the 1990s, when international tensions surged time and again following controversial actions by the United States (suffice it to recall events in the Balkans or Operation Desert Storm). In response, some political scientists have developed an “instrumental” theory of anti-Americanism in Russia, which postulates that widespread anti-Americanism is fomented by certain elite groups that use nationalist rhetoric for electoral gains, as was the case throughout the 1990s, or exploit the so-called besieged fortress ideology to justify the political status quo, as was observed in the 2000s.

There is some data that indirectly supports this theory. The Levada Center graph shows that anti-American sentiment became widespread among the elite earlier (1993-95) than in the rest of the Russian population (1999), while the elite is more anti-American in general. It is quite possible, therefore, that negative attitudes to the US were encouraged from above.

But what caused attitudes to change among the elites themselves? We believe that, in addition to the abovementioned situational reactions to foreign policy events and elite groups’ efforts to foment anti-American sentiment, another important driver of anti-Americanism in modern Russia is ressentiment , a concept developed by the prominent Russian-American historian Liah Greenfeld to describe the proliferation of nationalist ideologies in the 18th and 19th centuries [2].

Ressentiment , according to Greenfeld, is a process in which national elites and later the general public form negative attitudes toward a country that was formerly seen as a paragon. The process works as follows. At first one country regards the reforms implemented in another country as a model for its own efforts, but if the borrowed reforms fail to deliver, the population develops a kind of inferiority complex that escalates into aggressive nationalism and hostility toward the former standard of excellence. Elite groups (the intellectual elite first and foremost) play a special role in the process: they are responsible for initially holding up another society as an ideal to be emulated (England for the French intellectuals in the first half of the 18th century; France for the Germans in the period of Napoleonic wars, etc.), but subsequent disillusionment with these “idols” turns to opposition.

Russia experienced a similar phenomenon in the 1990s. At the time, the majority was well-disposed toward America; moreover, people expected that adopting the US political and economic model would help improve living standards in the country. But the reality did not meet expectations. The reforms implemented in the early 1990s led to a massive social crisis, and the American dream espoused by many Russians remained just a dream. Those who pinned their hopes on an American-style societal transformation became disenchanted and discarded their former beliefs.

This theory is supported by a number of examples of prominent liberals who changed their views in the aftermath of the reforms of the 1990s.[3] Our analysis of the New Russian Barometer data for 1993-2009 shows that people with negative views of post- perestroika changes in Russia tend to hold stronger anti-American views. Anti-Americanism is also more pronounced among people with higher education. Moreover, among the educated class, disillusionment correlates more strongly with anti-American sentiment. Of course, disillusionment with the reforms of the 1990s is not necessarily the root cause of anti-Americanism. After all, a person could have disliked the United States even before the perestroika. But the fact that disenchantment is a strong indicator of anti-American views among educated Russians dovetails with the ressentiment hypothesis.

Thus, we can conclude that ressentiment is one of the causes of the spread of anti-Americanism in Russia, though it is important to understand that negative attitudes to the US in modern Russia are not exclusively the product of disillusionment with the idea of building an American-style democracy. Both public opinion manipulation by elites and Washington’s controversial foreign policy moves have also contributed to America’s negative image in Russia. It would be more accurate to say that ressentiment formed the foundation for the rise in anti-Americanism among the Russian elite, which then spread to the general public. It is also important to note that the ressentiment effect persists to this day, though it is waning. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that the United States’ image in Russia will deteriorate further, which could harm bilateral relations in the future.

The authors are laureates of the Valdai Club Foundation Grant Program. 

[1] The graph can be accessed at http://www.levada.ru/press/2008092501.html (access date 15.07.2013). See: Figure 1. The graph is also featured in R. Andreyev, “Anti-Americanism in Modern Russia: General Trends and Specific Features,” Vestnik Permskogo Universiteta , Political Science Series, No.3, 2011 (in Russian).
[2] It should be noted that the term ressentiment was introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche and later adapted in a sociological context by Max Scheler, but Greenfeld has significantly reinterpreted this concept to apply to nationalism.
[3] Concrete examples can be found in V. Shlapentokh, “‘Old,’ ‘New,’ and ‘Post’ Liberal Attitudes toward the West: From Love to Hate,” Communist and Post Communist Studies , 31 (3) (1998), pp. 201-202.
[4]The graph represents data from five waves of a poll of Russian elites conducted by William Zimmerman from 1993 to 2008 (the red line) and data from the 1993-2009 polls (the purple line) taken by R. Rose and the Levada Center (formerly VTsIOM) as part of the New Russian Barometer project. The red and the purple lines show changes in the number of people in each poll who believe that the USA represents a threat to Russia’s security.
Zimmerman polled representatives of executive and legislative bodies, leading businessmen, scientists and artists, as well as high-ranking members of the military. The New Russian Barometer is a series of irregularly conducted, representative opinion polls that began in Russia in 1992 and continue to this day.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.