‘Russiagate’ is over. But its toxic legacy will endure. And in Russia it has led to disenchantment with the United States.
Red Army Street is a 3km-long thoroughfare in Krasnodar, southern Russian, notable for its many bars and nightclubs, which number in the dozens. Indeed, it’s so raucous it makes snooty Moscow look rather pedestrian.
Last summer, I was in one hostelry, with a South African farmer who was visiting the region. Naturally, we spoke in English. This seemed to upset three drunken locals who (in Russian) were loudly exchanging anti-American slurs.
Eventually, the largest, and scariest, of the trio broke into English to shout “Yankee, go home.” To which I swiftly replied that I was Irish. Suddenly, he ran over, bear-hugged me, and shouted at the top of his voice: “Conor McGregor!”
It wasn’t always like this. When I moved to Russia, nine years ago, Americans were very popular here. And Russians knew little of my homeland, most wrongly seeing it as an extension of the United Kingdom.
If I’d had a dollar, in the early part of the decade, for every Russian who’d expressed a desire to visit the US, I’d easily have had enough to fund return tickets there myself, plus a few weeks in a decent hotel.
However, times have changed. And admiration and curiosity towards the US has been replaced with disappointment, hostility and often anger. We’re a long way from Mikhail Gorbachev advertising “Pizza Hut” now.
And, it’s largely down to the Russiagate hoax which consumed American politics and its mainstream media for almost three years, before Robert Mueller kicked it into touch last weekend. Of course, there are other factors, among them US interference in Ukraine, anti-Russia sanctions and continued NATO expansion, but it’s the xenophobia Russiagate unleashed which has done the most damage.
Russians are not stupid. And their media is not behind a Chinese-style firewall. Instead, Russian news outlets are firmly positioned in the Western information ecosystem and carry unfiltered stories from various international sources, many of them American.
Furthermore, even if most can’t speak English well, a great many of them understand it. Thus, they know what’s been going on and can see online how prominent Americans have smeared them, and their country, during the mass hysteria of the past few years.
And, viewed from here, the delirium, panic and frenzy is greeted with dismay and incredulity. Because, for Russians, the notion of Putin somehow swaying the US election isn’t credible. But the fact so many prominent Americans deluded themselves into believing the trope serves to make the US, once seen as mighty, look very, very weak. Which confuses people who spent close on two decades lamenting how feeble Russia itself had become after the Soviet collapse ended Moscow’s superpower days.
Especially given the Kremlin can’t even control domestic Russian elections. For evidence, witness the failures of Putin’s preferred candidates in various Gubernatorial contests last year, including Khabarovsk, Khakassia and Vladimir. Now, given the latter region’s administrative centre is only 180km from Moscow, United Russia’s defeat there doesn’t say much for the efficiency of Kremlin election manipulation.
Despite this, high-profile fantasists in the US, such as Rachel Maddow, Michael McFaul and Joy-Ann Reid, have spent years whipping up delirium about a “Trump/Putin” conspiracy. And Russians are fully aware. They know James Clapper, the former Intelligence chief, said “the Russians are not our friends”, before he added how Russians are “almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor.” Comments which were xenophobic and bigoted towards an entire ethnicity and far beyond criticism of Putin and his government.
They’ve also seen Morgan Freeman’s nutty video, where the veteran American actor tells viewers “we are at war with Russia”. As a result, the biggest legacy of “Russiagate” here is the transformation of attitudes to the US. And it’s hard to see how goodwill can be restored, in the immediate term.
In simpler times, at the tail end of the Cold War, a series of TV shows named “Space Bridge” tried to help Russians and Americans understand each other, as the hosts, Vladimir Pozner and Phil Donahue, encouraged dialogue between their audiences.
Both are still around. For his part, Pozner hosts a weekly show on Russia’s First Channel. However, Donahue was fired by MSNBC in 2002, due to his opposition to the illegal US-led invasion of Iraq. Perhaps this, in itself, explains a lot about how the two countries have diverged.