Russia – Again America’s “Dark Twin”?

News Abroad

Mr. Foglesong is an Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University and author, most recently, of The American Mission and the "Evil Empire": The Crusade for a "Free Russia" Since 1881 .

After years of ambivalence about post-Soviet Russia, many Americans appear to be reverting to the historic habit of treating Russia as America’s shadow self and its leader as the prime villain on the world stage. 

In December, indignant at political manipulation of parliamentary elections that gave an overwhelming majority to the party endorsed by President Vladimir Putin, the Washington Post condemned “the backward march to czarism” and urged that Russia be thrown out of the club of Western democracies.  Only a little more temperately, the New York Times declared that “The United States and Europe must let Mr.Putin know that his days of respectability are fast running out.”  In the same vein, Senator John McCain vowed that he “would seriously consider saying the G-8 should not invite [Putin] to its next meeting.”

McCain earlier grabbed the media spotlight by repudiating President Bush’s embrace of Putin, announcing that when he looked into Putin’s eyes he “saw three letters: a K, a G, and a B” (an allusion to Putin’s first career as an intelligence officer).  This month Hillary Clinton gave McCain’s remark a theological twist, proclaiming that since Putin was a KGB agent “by definition he doesn’t have a soul.”  At the same time, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a prominent supporter of Senator Clinton, proclaimed that “a real danger exists that the world will again be split by competing ideologies, not communist versus capitalist but democratic versus autocratic.”  Among the many “top-down” rulers around the world, Albright singled out Putin as the chief potential challenger to America’s championing of democracy.

It is not a novel tactic for American politicians to try to score points by excoriating Russian leaders.  In a 2004 debate with President Bush, for example, John Kerry blasted Putin for putting “his political opposition in jail” (though Kerry stumbled over whether the headquarters of the KGB was in the Lubyanka or “Treblinka”).  What makes such electionering ploys more troubling now is that for the first time in years they may resonate with a wider popular animosity to Russia and its leader.

When Time recently named Putin “Person of the Year” it provoked a minor furor.  Hundreds of outraged readers posted irate comments on the magazine’s web site.  A Massachusetts woman denounced the publication for choosing “to glorify evil.”  A man in Utah declared that Time’s winner was “the devil” and urged others not to buy the issue.  “Dino” in Las Vegas went further: he proposed that likeminded people “go out and buy as many copies of the magazine” as they could afford, then “burn the magazine, tape it and post it on You Tube.”  At a time when American troops were fighting for freedom, many readers demanded, how could Time select a dictator who “scoffs at freedom”?  “Shame on You!” shouted a Bakersfield woman, who added: “THIS IS AMERICA!”

Explaining the selection of Putin, Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel observed that “throughout much of the 20th century, the Soviet Union … was the U.S.’s dark twin.”  The numerous vehement objections to the Person of the Year suggest that for many Americans post-Soviet Russia is again a “dark double,” a foil for the affirmation of American virtues. 

To understand the persistence and resurgence of the American tendency to view Russia as a country that must either emulate the United States or be condemned as its evil opposite, it is important to recognize that this habit developed earlier than Stengel realized and that it does not stem simply from abhorrence of communist ideology or wicked Soviet behavior.  Although some American critics of Putin have compared him to Soviet leaders – even to the arch-villain Joseph Stalin – the closest parallel to the contemporary vilification of Putin is the way that Americans demonized the last Tsar of Russia a century ago.

Until the late nineteenth century most Americans viewed Russian Tsars as distant friends of the United States who were extending Christian civilization to heathen lands and ruling illiterate peasants unfit for democracy.  Then, between the 1880s and 1905 American journalists and politicians increasingly depicted Imperial Russia as a barbarous menace to American commerce in Manchuria, a brutal oppressor of political dissenters, and a savage persecutor of religious minorities who should be thrown out of the club of civilized countries.  In the aftermath of the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, political cartoonists portrayed Nicholas II as a lying culprit in demonic caricatures that foreshadowed the ways cartoonists have depicted “Tsar” Putin.  When Nicholas’s soldiers slaughtered peaceful demonstrators in the Bloody Sunday massacre of January 1905 he was condemned -- even more vehemently than Putin has been -- as a murderous medieval despot who had to be overthrown.

The highly charged demonization of Nicholas II and Imperial Russia served cathartic purposes for Americans who had been divided over a savage war in the Philippines and who were troubled by domestic problems such as the lynching of blacks.  It also contributed to some serious miscalculations.  Although many believed that the ouster of the autocrat would bring to power liberal admirers of the United States, by the end of 1905 revolutionary turmoil seemed to be yielding more widespread pogroms and violent socialist uprisings.  While most Americans ardently sympathized with modern, “civilized” Japan in its war against backward Russia, after Japanese forces thrashed the Russian Army and sank its fleets it became clear that Japan was the greater threat to America’s “Open Door” policy in the Far East.  Although repudiating the U.S. commercial treaty with Russia seemed in 1911 an emotionally satisfying blow to haughty Russian anti-Semitism and an affirmation of American idealism, as New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson declared, two years later President Wilson dispatched a new ambassador to Russia to beseech the Russians for a new commercial agreement.

If the contemporary vilification of Putin is not checked it also may have adverse consequences.  Contrary to Albright’s pronouncement, neither Putin’s anointed successor as President, Dmitry Medvedev, nor Putin himself champions an autocratic ideology as an alternative to a democratic future, but demonizing and ostracizing Russia may fuel the xenophobic ultranationalists who are more popular across the country than the few liberal democrats in the major cities.  Certainly the castigation of Putin as a soulless KGB agent will do nothing to facilitate future interaction between a President McCain or Clinton and a Prime Minister Putin when the United States seeks Russia’s cooperation on real problems such as securing energy supplies and checking nuclear proliferation.

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Lorraine Paul - 2/25/2008

The US elite has always needed an 'other' to distract the 'house slaves' from the fact that they are slaves!

Arnold Shcherban - 2/25/2008