America Rediscovers Its Favorite Enemy

Just like the good old days, conflict with Russia gives American leaders a sense of purpose. This time around, it is far more dangerous

Sat, Feb 28, 2015
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Every 'city on a hill' needs its opposite

Joseph Kellner is a PhD candidate in Russian and Soviet history at University of California, Berkeley, currently researching in Moscow

I am an American historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, currently living in Moscow on research.  Not unlike Gary Shteyngart in his recent seven-day Russian television marathon, I have been absorbing Russian television daily since August, and no honest commentator could pretend it is anything but propaganda.  The Russian media have indeed stoked the flames of conflict in Ukraine, and reporting critically on their activity is fair game.  But Shteyngart’s gleeful mockery of the Russian news serves another purpose, whether or not this is the explicit intent – by “exposing” how Russian media have played a role in the conflict, the editors at the New York Times (among many others) are implying that they have not, that Russian propaganda necessarily contrasts with our own objectivity and honest self-reflection.  The ideological contest, however, has long been mutual, and further, it did not begin in the Russia.  The offending ideology was initially our own - a longstanding and contradictory American attitude to the outside world, a familiar messianic delusion, but one that has grown more untenable since we lost our purpose in 1989.  In its newest and ugliest iteration, without the familiar reference points of the Cold War, this ideology has transformed into a reflexive and ugly contempt for Russia.  So long as revulsion towards Russia remains the starting point of analysis, the press will remain part and parcel of this complex, and complicit in the violence that inevitably follows from it.

For one example of ideologically blind reporting, let us consider events surrounding the recent ceasefire.  On February 13th, IBT ran the following headline:

«After Ukraine Ceasefire Agreement, EU Warns Russia With New Sanctions If Deal Fails To End War»

Not known for satire, the magazine’s editors were evidently just reporting the EU’s official line, one that tacked close to the American.  The absurdity buried in this headline is not buried very deeply, but because the press has stopped digging at all, I will unearth it here.  Immediately after the ceasefire was agreed, the EU and the United States announced that, when the deal unravels, Russia will be sanctioned and, most importantly, Ukraine might receive American weapons.  Be good now, Petro. 

As it turned out, that announcement was just politics – new European sanctions were enacted regardless, the very day the ceasefire began, before either side claimed the deal had failed.  This same sequence, with minor variations, happened after the first ceasefire deal in September, also without interrogation from our press.  As of this writing, the sanctions remain in place, as does the ceasefire, and there has been no quieting of calls to arm Kiev. These logical absurdities demands explanation, but none can be expected, just as no press outlet can be found to question the motives of NATO or Ukraine’s defense ministry when parroting their conflict reports.  These are basic responsibilities being shirked, not political positions the press might adopt.  

It would appear – in fact does appear, to many millions of Russians – that Russia itself is the problem, rather than its actions; that harming Russia is the goal, and Ukraine the excuse.  Certainly, from this premise, none of the instances above remain puzzling.  And although we are failing to influence events, we are indeed causing harm, and not to Vladimir Putin. Europe continues to deliberate how best to choke Russia with sanctions, hard enough to make it disoriented and weak, but not so hard that it can’t spit up oil.  And they’re the good cop.  The real threat is the United States, where the conversation has already shifted to the profoundly reckless idea of arming Ukraine, effectively declaring all the fundamental questions – about Ukraine’s strategic importance, not to mention about Ukraine’s government – to be answered. These are the questions our press should be discussing, instead reveling in self-congratulatory criticism of Russian television (or more often, the Hitlerization of Vladimir Putin).

To understand this state of affairs, we must look into history, and not with the utilitarian aims of propagandists. This conflict has been a long time coming, and it is our fault.  Changing course requires that we shed our contempt for Russia, which itself is the product of a long American tradition. 


America, of course, has not always been oriented against Russia, but anti-Russian sentiment follows from our understanding of the outside world.  This understanding has always been contradictory.  I am far from the first to suggest that America’s two deepest assumptions are at odds with one another – we believe that America is exceptional and blessed, and that Americanism is universally applicable and should be emulated everywhere.  Traditionally, when the world failed to follow our lead, the former assumption trumped the latter - the Old World’s ills were expressions of evil, from which we God-fearing Americans had been delivered. We have always presumed to be “as a city on a hill,” but have always denied that the hill itself might explain the city’s success.  That is, instead of accepting that our ideals may be impractical in other conditions, we have simply attributed our successes to God.  Importantly, it was only in the 20th century that the spread of Americanism became the explicit aim of our policy; that’s when the contradiction became truly uncomfortable. 

Fortunately, this discomfort was relieved almost entirely by the Cold War, and true, with no small help from the Soviet side.  If the failure of Americanism abroad could be ascribed to evil, evil was easily ascribed to a country that, in the recent past, indiscriminately slaughtered its clergy and blew up its churches, among other explicit assaults on our values.  This served us quite well – anticommunism was a Christian ideology for the twentieth century, a modern vocabulary to describe the Old World’s ills without recourse to understanding history, and where Americanism didn't thrive, it told us who to blame.  Unfortunately, with the rising stakes and shrinking world of that century, anticommunism became a political addiction, providing comfort as we ran afoul of our ideals in plain view and, with the Soviets, drove the world towards nuclear holocaust.  We needed a damn good excuse, and in Christian-tinged anticommunism, we had one.  

This ideological addiction kept us high through most of the twentieth century.  Sure there were some red scares and some blacklists, and then, that one rough night in 1962 when we nearly hit rock-bottom, and Kennedy flushed his stash down the toilet to save us all.  On the whole though, the ideology held strong, and the Cold War was a great time; we never had to doubt that our self-interest aligned with that of the whole world, even when it was plainly not the case.  This all threatened to come apart in 1989, when the Soviets had worn themselves out, and we knew on some level that more was expected of us.  In a brief moment of naïve hope we thought we’d get sober, and finally live in accordance with our values – sure we’ll provide a stabilization fund for Russia’s restructuring!  Of course we won’t expand NATO!  But we weren’t really ready to quit.  We still had cash, we still had our health – the relapse was inevitable.

Throughout the 1990s, both sides of America’s political divide accused the other of “lacking vision,” of being unsure what our purpose was in the world.  It makes sense, then, that as soon as the new Russia struggled to its feet, it provided us relief. A resurgent Russia has saved us from looking at ourselves in the mirror.  Islam had always been a poor substitute anyway – every hysterical call-to-arms had to be qualified with deference to the good Muslims, a demand Russia never made on us.  So over the last fifteen years, we’ve fallen back into the drug we love best - righteous ignorance and contempt for Russia.  Its side-effects are many – it can make John McCain stand in front of congress in 2008 and boldly declare that “we are all Georgians” with a straight face.   It made our scholar-President babble about the tsars in order to explain Russia’s actions in Crimea.  It’s why Politico feels comfortable running an “expert” opinion piece on Russia that relies exclusively on the CliffsNotes from 1984.  IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, etc. etc.

But freedom is not slavery, no matter how much that disturbs our renewed sense of purpose.  The drug doesn’t work quite like it used to.  Russia today is not the Soviet Union, but some unheralded experiment in state-managed capitalism, now abandoning the vocabulary of “managed democracy” and, increasingly, playing with nationalism in the pursuit of order and identity.  Freedom of speech and conscience exist for most intents and purposes; the government strongly prefers to drown out criticism rather than actively destroy it, though it has no great qualms with the latter.  Opinions are expressed on the street; I am writing from Moscow and don’t need a pseudonym to say that the Russian news is a joke.  In short, no matter how hard our leaders want to conflate the Russian Federation with the Soviet Union, it doesn’t stick, because the Russians aren’t playing along.  Sure there is some Soviet nostalgia, but it’s just not the same as before – Russia is just a country with interests, dare I say, not unlike our own.  This is what troubles us most of all. 


Free of any coherent ideology, Putin’s Russia has undercut our self-understanding (read: self-justification) in a deeper way than the USSR ever could; it is an enormous showcase of our ideological delusion.  That old contradiction, in the Russian case, can be stated rather simply – no election in Russia could be so free and so fair that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t win.  To explain this, our ideologues have two options – either the Russian people are being tricked, or they are submissive “by nature,” desiring of a strong ruler to keep them in order.  Either way, the American understanding of the world cannot resolve the Putin paradox, it always leads in a loop.  We cannot assume that Russians are being deceived, because all peoples can choose their own government, the wisdom of the people is the most vaunted principle of all.  So then, maybe the Russians are predisposed to oppressive government?  Surely not, the masses yearn for American-style freedom and democracy, unless they’ve been tricked.  The real solution to the paradox, of course, is in historical conditions – let’s say, arbitrarily, the last 100 years, as long as the oldest citizens have been alive.  A “free and fair” election in Russia today, as the term is understood in the United States, is a thought experiment, the realm of political theory as distinct from political reality.  The history is complex (as it turns out), but ultimately what matters is that their hill isn’t as nice as ours.  As ever, we don’t see the hill, we just see faulty elections in the city.  So our two explanations fall woefully short.  Fortunately, there’s always a third available – there must be evil afoot.

I have tried here to explain how a successful but tenuous ceasefire in Ukraine could be answered with a new round of sanctions and threats of escalation, and how our press could fail to take notice.  The conclusion we reach is quite simple – our approach to the crisis proceeds from the premise that Russia is evil.  Because Russians do not share this premise, we have not been speaking the same language from the start.  But what began as bafflement from the Russian side has now become anger and self-righteousness, fueled by the state-run news media that, like ours, is feeling the unmatched rush of ideological certainty.  Although the Russian Federation does not have a clear sense of purpose, it is rapidly gaining one, and this should be cause for great alarm.  We’ve stoked this conflict, but if the result is Russian news broadcasts that conflate this conflict with World War Two, we should not deceive ourselves that we can win it.  If the Russian cause comes to look like the the fight against fascism, the well Russia draws from is deeper than anything we as Americans can imagine.

Perhaps later, America can abandon its search for evil and settle into a multipolar world system, but right now the task is more urgent.  We must abandon our contempt for Russia and treat it like a real country with interests that can be understood; a country within history, rather than a malevolent force that stands outside of it.  We must admit, for instance, that Russia is capable of brokering peace.  It is time to do as Khrushchev and Kennedy did, and throw out our stash for the good of humanity.  Otherwise we risk an overdose, writhing in the ecstasy of our rediscovered purpose, needle dangling from our arm, while NATO troops pool like blood along the Russian border. 

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