Why Are We Always Wrong about Russia?

Suzanne Massie is a 40 year phenomenon in the field of US-Russia relations. A brilliant and passionate writer, she is author of some of the greatest classics about Russia. She became a close friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in the course of advising them about Russian culture and psychology. Her life story, and how it became intertwined with Russia reads like an adventure novel. See RI’s profile here. A resident of Maine, she keeps an apartment in St. Petersburg. Raised Episcopalian she converted to Russian Orthodoxy. She is an outspoken critic of how dishonest the media are about Russia and is brilliant in explaining to Americans why Russian culture is one of the most exciting phenomenona ever. Archive of Massie's articles on RI.

This brilliant speech was given in Washington in 2001, when everyone thought Russia was a hopeless basket case. But Massie was on the ground watching and listening and she clearly saw even then that Russia was on a rise, evidence of which she lists in detail here. Remarkable.


I have been studying, working and going to Russia for 34 years. From the beginning I was lucky enough to meet and get to know a wide variety of Russians. During these many years whenever I went, it was always apparent that what I saw and heard was often diametrically different from both the official and the journalistic perception in the United States. I came to call it my worm’s eye view. The more I studied Russian history and culture the more I saw that the picture was always far more nuanced and complex than the judgments often characteristic of the American approach to affairs Russian. Today I can offer some glimpses -- but the most important thing is the question itself.

A Russian proverb says: Ignore history you lose an eye. Forget history you lose two eyes.

It is perhaps not too far out to suggest that historians may one day look back and write that in the 20th century there was once a Soviet regime in Russia that would not have lasted very long if the Western world had not helped to keep it there.

For 85 years, close to a century, successive American administrations have been dominated by basic premises about Russia based on selective and often narrowly focused views of an establishment that have led to a succession of wrong assessments and wrong policies. This has been true whether these policies came from left or the right. Strangely, despite increased communication and contact this process has been most particularly marked during the 20th century -- a time when one can say that we have often been almost as mistaken about the state of affairs in Russia as Europeans were in the 16th century when it was confidently believed that Russia had plants that grew lambs and that Russians worshipped an image of a giant Golden Goddess.

To make sense of these errors we must look at cultural representations that began to grow at the beginning of the 20th century and have continued unchanged to this day. The simplistic bottom line being that Russian history was dominated by Bad Tsars (especially Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great), a dark and backward national church subserviently allied to them, and that on the whole the Russian people were irrelevant; an apathetic people with a “ slave mentality” who “loved the whip”. When the revolution came it was seen to be on the whole good, but was eventually corrupted and failed not because of the basic idea but because of defects intrinsic in the Russian people and their flawed history.

This kind of talk applied to other peoples might be called a racist view. What is remarkable is the fact that even when in the 50’s the official line switched from they are “good” to they are “bad” the major elements of this culture have persisted, along with a completely secular approach that has emphasized virtually to the exclusion of anything else, a materialistic and statist view with no room for any other significant component and no sense of the importance of national identity or the search for meaning in life.

Obviously through the years there have been other voices and many who have objected to this approach--including our first Soviet specialists in the State Department -- but taken over time opposing views have been treated as aberrations and even sometimes suppressed entirely.

This was not always true. From the earliest beginnings of our young republic and during the entire 19th century the United States enjoyed warm relations with Russia -- indeed mutual admiration, and much trade. A fleet of clipper ships sailed regularly from what is still known in Boston as Russia Wharf (the ropes on our sailing ships and the quill pens that wrote our great pronouncements came from Russia). The high point came during the reign of Alexander II, the Tsar Liberator, who was hugely admired in US for his reforms, especially the ending of serfdom three years before Lincoln emancipated our slaves, for his timely support of Lincoln and the Union during the Civil War, and for the sale of Alaska. The letters exchanged between Tsar and President were both signed “your very good friend”. The good will visit in 1872 of Alexander’s third son the young Grand Duke Alexis-- our very first royal visitor-- captivated the entire nation. The young prince hunted buffalo on our great plains with Buffalo Bill, George Custer and the Sioux Chief Spotted Tail and went on to New Orleans where his visit permanently changed the celebration of the Mardi Gras.

After the assassination of Alexander II by terrorists in 1881, his son Alexander III instituted a series of repressive measures. One very visible result of these was a huge wave of Jewish emigration mainly from Ukraine and Byelorussia (then part of the Russian Empire.) From 1898-1914 one and a quarter million people infused with bitter memories of repressive and discriminatory policies of the Imperial Government landed on our shores, mainly on the East Coast and were quickly integrated into the main stream of American society. Among them were political activists and vocal supporters of revolution. This was to have its effect on the development of the culture of the left in the United States.

In 1918 every message which the US government transmitted to the Bolshevik authorities took at face value the Bolshevik professions of peaceful and democratic intentions and ignored the calls for world revolution. Woodrow Wilson seems to have believed that the Bolsheviks” truly spoke for the Russian people” on March 11, 1918, addressing a note to the Congress of Soviets, (presumably on the assumption that this body was equivalent of the US legislature) “ The whole heart of the people of the United States is with the people of Russia in their attempt to free themselves forever from autocratic government and become masters of their own fate”. (Lenin drafted an insulting reply addressed not to the President but to “the laboring and exploited classes of the United States.”) Despite the fact that in 1918 the National Geographic published a lengthy article detailing the methodical destruction of church and wholesale massacre of priests, William Bullitt, (who was married to the widow of John Reed and was to be named our first ambassador to the Soviet Union) sent by the president on a whirlwind mission in 1919 returned to inform congress that “ tales of terror were greatly exaggerated.” In 1925-26 the testimony of floods of refugees and many articles detailing tactics of terror were equally ignored. The collapse of the American economy in 1929 was to strengthen the Marxoid culture and feed the chorus of support for the great social experiment in Russia.

The years 1932-33 were to see close to six million peasants in Russia and Ukraine exterminated for their resistance to the new regime. Yet in 1932 Will Duranty of the New York Times won a Pulitzer prize for his reports that there were no famines in Russia.

In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt, overriding the objections of three previous Republican administrations, recognized the Soviet Government, giving it legitimacy and helping Stalin to proceed unhindered with the Great Terror which peaked in 1937 and resulted in the elimination of all his opponents, political and military. In 1936, as our second Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Roosevelt appointed a wealthy political supporter, Joseph Davies who spoke no Russian, and came to Moscow with his wife the heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, who spent time in the Kremlin basement buying treasures of Russian art which now form the collection at Hillwood Museum. Davies reported to Roosevelt during the mock trials that “ there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt to justify verdict of treason”. Davies served until 1939. During his watch a carefully collected Russian and Soviet library in the State Department was ordered to be dismantled, special documents destroyed and the Division of Eastern European Affairs (commonly known as the Russian Division) created in 1924 and staffed by our best Russian specialists who had taken sharply critical view of Soviet policies and methods abolished (purged is the word Kennan uses).

All during the 30’s despite the fact that there were hundreds of articles, books and reports (from Trotsky to the Dewey Commission) about the brutal nature of the regime, all went unheard among large sections of well informed people. Western capitals were full of artists and writers, (among them Aragon, Sartre and Gide, Picasso, Theodore Dreiser, Lillian Hellman, Corliss Lamont, Harold Lasky ) doctors, lawyers and debutantes chanting praises and apologias of the Soviet regime. Appeals and manifestos attacked any who spoke otherwise.

With the coming of the war Stalin became the friendly “Uncle Joe”. The Russians were to pay with millions of lives (20 million is the figure often cited) for which Uncle Joe was rewarded at Yalta by being ceded large tracts of the world allowing the Soviet Union to profit from whatever was left of industrial riches in Eastern Europe. And, in one of the most disgraceful chapters of this dismal history, because “Uncle Joe insisted”, the United States and Britain, contrary to all International Covenants agreed to the forced repatriation of millions of Russian prisoners and slave laborers held by Germany who were sent to death in the camps of the Gulag or simply shot. (In 1944 Vice President Wallace visited Magadan and pronounced it a “model camp”.) Today with archives opened it is estimated that some 60 million Russian citizens were exterminated in the purges, repressions and camps of Stalin. One may well ask how could this have happened without a single objection from any Western leader.

In the 1950’s the picture is reversed. Policies that had helped to elevate the Soviet Union to the status of superpower had created a Frankenstein that had turned against us. Because of increasingly hostile and aggressive acts the Soviet Union now became The Enemy. Yet the same underlying cultural representations continued as before just as unnuanced and even strengthened. Previously the commissars were Good because they overthrew the Bad Tsars --now they have become like the Bad Tsars. From now on Tsars and Commissars are said to be identical. The image of the church remains-- only now it is subservient to the new Bad Tsars. The Soviet Union becomes All Bad, monolithic, all-powerful, whose people, it is reasoned, must be content “ or they would do something about it.” There is nothing for us to do but to “contain” or “ accommodate” the monster. The Cold War begins, leading us to the doctrine of MAD and arms control agreements which remain the dominating policy of the US for 40 years.

The Soviet Union was always remarkably successful at forming opinions, relentlessly working over decades to shape the image of the Revolution, targeting intellectuals and opinion makers, limiting and controlling all contacts. Our embassies, obsessed with security were limited to official contacts -- none with ordinary Russians. Knowing full well that academics in the field needed access in order “ to publish or perish”, the Soviet authorities carefully controlled visas as well as access to archives, materials and sources limiting not only how topics were treated but what was to be treated. By discouraging all other aspects of study they encouraged self-censorship and so spawned a whole school of Kremlinologists and Sovietologists (note: no Russologists) who were increasingly called on as ”experts” by politicians.

Thus wrong thinking begat more wrong thinking. The proof of how effective this process was is that after the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991 entire university departments have disappeared. During these years the non- Communist Russian population, always a majority, vanished from sight in the melding of the words Soviet and Russian which were used as synonyms. (A Russian sadly asked me once, “Why is it always Soviet sputniks and Russian tanks?”)

The one-sided monolithic view of the Soviet Union was to turn out to be just as mistaken as the earlier one-sided euphoric view of the 30’s. Accepting the Soviet Union as immutable and the Communist regime as a permanent part of the world scene was to blind us to the growing inner tensions of the society and within the regime itself– all of which were eroding the legitimacy of Communism (if indeed it had ever had any) among the people.

In 1956 Khrushchev in his revelation of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Party Congress opened a Pandora’s box that was never to be closed. In the 60’s and with accelerating force throughout the 70’s there was an increasingly visible and vocal voicing of dissatisfaction with the regime. This took many forms: the ever bolder outspokenness and “unofficial” artistic expression, the massive popularity of poets, the human rights and emigration movements, the steady and visible growth of the church. Increasingly emboldened, more and more people began to take risks.

Yet the conventional wisdom in the United States held that any idea of basic change in the system was impossible. It was too strongly entrenched and the people by and large content. The policy of “detente” and building stabilizing “ webs of trade” with the stagnating Brezhnev regime discounted all these signs of change in the USSR as being too small and insignificant to matter and even often viewed the more and more vocal expressions of dissatisfaction in the Soviet Union as potentially detrimental and destabilizing to the grand plan.

(When in 1972 Senator Henry Jackson introduced a congressional amendment that would tie most favored nation status to emigration and human rights he was widely attacked and his amendment criticized as “counter productive”)

Perhaps nothing better illustrates this spirit of non-response than the shabby treatment afforded to Solzhenitsyn in the United States. The publication of The Gulag Archpelago in 1974 silenced all apologias and arguments about the “model camps” for good. Yet after Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union there were concentrated journalistic attempts to discredit him in the United States. This Nobel prize winner whose courage and pen had changed history was not received at White House by President Ford because “ it might anger the Soviets “. And when he came to our country in 1980 it was no university, no congressional committee but the union bosses of the AFOL-CIO who invited him to make his first speech on our shores – a speech which New York Times neglected to cover.

It would take Reagan in 1980 to break the mold with his declaration that the Communist system was evil, for which he was roundly criticized by both the bureaucracy and liberals for being so untactful. (The reaction in Soviet Union was different—several Russians I know said “right on”.) How much Reagan’s actions affected the subsequent collapse of the USSR will no doubt be discussed by historians for years to come. My own belief is that Reagan’s determined stance profoundly affected the evolution of the end, and perhaps may even have helped to exacerbate the inner tensions of the regime and lead to the choice of Gorbachev. Whatever the case, by ignoring all models Reagan was able to forge a relationship and a break through in relations.

But in 1988 after Reagan, bureaucratic caution and status quo quickly set in again. Thinking was so wedded to the immutability of Communism that three weeks before the fall of Gorbachev, President Bush gave a speech in Kiev still assuming the permanence and supporting the legitimacy of the Soviet Union (Not surprisingly this speech seems not to be included among the many speeches on his web site.) When a few months later in 1991 the regime collapsed as suddenly as a bad soufflé our government was taken by complete surprise with no policies or preparations in place to deal with the change.

For Clinton it was the economy, stupid – coupled with a secular approach that failed entirely to understand the depths of the wound in the society left by 75 years of Communism; this despite the fact that the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and thoughtful Russian politicians such as Anatoly Sobchak warned us that morality-- not economics was the biggest problem in Russia. Again in the familiar pattern of embracing the ideas of a very small elite group to the exclusion of all other voices, we charged ahead with the firm conviction that business and economics would be the panacea for all Russia’s ills coupled with a very American impatience for quick results which helped to permit some of the worst elements of the old regime to seize great chunks of the economy.

If the Clinton administration perhaps too uncritically supported the Yeltsin government, the new Bush administration now seems ready to criticize everything – and often sound as if they were stuck in a time warp and taking their cues from old books on Sovietology.

The French say, Plus ca change plus ca reste la meme chose. (The more things change the more they remain the same.)

The old cultural premises survived the change from Good Revolution to Evil Empire intact. Now that the bad commissars have been overthrown they have been replaced by the bad oligarchs and a new Bad Tsar, Putin. Still in place are the same tendencies to deal only with an elite who comprise a tiny percentage of the population, same lack of differentiating between government and people, same lack of understanding of church, same reliance on old models and stereotypes without any deep reexamination of their validity, same lazy and often tendentious journalism., same lack of understanding of the context in which a contemporary Russian leader is forced to operate. There is no longer any excuse for this-- the country is open, the archives can be freely consulted. Yet today if the American public hears anything about Russia it is bad: Mafia, corruption crime, brutality in Chechnya and the latest flavor of the month, the problems of NTV.

I travel to Russia four or five times a year and have recently returned from two months there. I am not about to argue that any of these things are untrue. All are serious issues along with many other even more serious things-- among them the declining population and horrendous health situation, the dire poverty that engulfs large numbers the of Russian population. The short term news looks bad… but the long term news much less so and there are other relevant perspectives far more positive which we hear nothing about. I could name many but I will just present to you today a few areas that have struck me and that don’t get much attention. Call them “glacier forces” – for they are like the inexorable movement of a glacier --slow but steady.

  1. The most striking fact is that like the coming of spring one can now visibly see the change of generations. Increasingly, Russia is a young country. There is a growing middle class, and large group of 25-35 year olds who know nothing of Communism, have more cash and far different expectations for themselves and their children than their parents did.

  2. The growth of civic sense and private philanthropy. We hear about the billions sent abroad and uncivic attitudes of the few “new” super rich. Even though conditions of some of the Russian population is sometimes desperately bad – there is an impressively growing trend that some of the new resources are going to help the needy. Between 1988 and 1998 the number of charities grew from 0 to 60,000. This year an American study of 2000 small entrepreneurs in 18 widely dispersed Russia cities reported that 68% are directly involved in helping others (and no tax write-offs).

    In Moscow there is a growing group calling themselves “ The repats”—children of old Russian first emigration families raised abroad, who have come back to make careers and raise their children in Russia. They have their own organization and celebrate old Russian holidays together. One of these, a young man who has over the past eight years successfully built up a chain of 37 restaurants has, among many other philanthropies, put the Russian Boy Scout Organization back on its feet. There are now 250 brigades in 50 cities – teaching civic responsibility and moral behavior. Another “repat” group has a program of rebuilding village churches. There is also a group formed two years ago calling itself 2015 comprised of concerned young and successful business people oriented toward developing Russia’s emerging civil society which works independently on problems confronting Russia in the economic sector.

  3. The business picture is by no means all bad. Last year the growth of Russia’s GDP by 7.7% was attributed to oil and devaluation. But oil revenues accounted for only one third of this growth, the rest came from light industry, goods and services and the agricultural sector. Remember the grain deals? Instead of chronic shortages of grain that forced the Soviet Union to import large quantities of grain in the Communist years, in 1998 Russia exported millions of tons of grain. There are now 890,000 small businesses in Russia. There are more multi- national companies operating in Russia now than before 1998. This has had a large effect on normalization. Private businesses are more predictable, stable and transparent. This trend has been supported by steps taken by Putin’s administration; four key chapters of tax reform have been implemented by Putin and the Duma. Two key chapters which concern business profits and deductibility for business expenses and land reform are coming up soon.

  4. We hear a lot about NTV but nothing at all about the very significant growth of independent publishing houses. There are now 281 independent publishers in Russia who print anything they like. In the last years of the Soviet Union an average of 1,500 new titles were published (most of which no one wanted to read.) By the end of the 1990’s the number had increased to 12,000, representing the widest possible choice and covering everything from Solzhenitsyn to Bill Gates, the latest work of Tom Clancy and the Michelin Guides to Europe. Computer technology is growing: 32% of new middle class use computers and Internet at home. In the spring of 2000 there were 30,000 websites and 380 internet service providers. If you would like to judge the freedom of the Russian press for yourself, just tune in on the Internet to read both Russian and English language newspapers.

  5. Travel. Today anyone can travel who can afford, if not a plane, a bus. In 1997 twenty million Russians traveled abroad for business or pleasure. Not only the ostentatious “new “ Russians but ordinary Russian tourists fulfilling life long dreams are a common sight in capitols of Europe.

  6. The Arts. I will give you a very small example of the vigor of the arts. In March when I was in Russia, a single weekly guide to Moscow arts listed performances at 79 permanent theaters, 12 “musical”- ballet, opera and operetta, 24 drama houses, 33 modern, experimental studios and 10 children’s--plus 33 concert halls for lovers of classical music.

  7. It is impossible not to notice that repair, remodeling and building are in full swing, with new houses going up along the Volga and along highways leading to cities. There are now two huge MaxiDoms (exactly like Home Depots) in St. Petersburg. Furniture, curtain and construction supply stores seem to be blooming on every street in St. Petersburg where one can buy anything from parquet to roofing materials, bathtubs, kitchen appliances and dry walls.

  8. Last, and I believe most important .The enormous growth of the spiritual, the search for moral values and return to the church, a process that I have been following for 20 years.History teaches us that religion is one of the most potent forces in the world. Yet throughout the Soviet period nothing was more dramatic than the systematic official dismissal and denigration of religion by policy makers, academics and journalists in the United States. There has been no serious attention to or consideration of the essential role played by the Orthodox Church in the Russian psyche, culture and history. Nor has there been any evaluation of the important role it is playing today as the only unbroken link to a history which stretches over a thousand years in the search of Russian people for identity and spiritual guidance. Instead, echoing the Soviet line, among policy makers in the US, the church was regularly dismissed as “irrelevant” and “ attended by only old ladies”. (Among the important points missed were that these were always new old ladies and that they were busy having their grandchildren baptized – among them Gorbachev.) Today the Orthodox Church claims 80 to 100 million adherents. President Putin has declared himself to be Orthodox and regularly consults both the Patriarch and monks. There is also the extraordinary achievement of rebuilding the Church of the Savior in Moscow. Blown up by the Communists in 1931, in the last six years the Russians have rebuilt the largest cathedral to be erected in the 20th century. Dominating the horizon of Moscow, its booming bells heard all over the city, it is 30 stories high, and holds up to 12,000 people. Perhaps most extraordinary, 360 artists selected by competition and coming from all over Russia worked together for two years with little material remuneration to recreate its astonishing interiors and monumental religious paintings. I attended its official consecration and the following day the canonization service for religious martyrs of the church (which included the assassinated Imperial family.) Both days over 11,000 people attended.

It is a little known fact that today the church has thousands of acres of farmland and is raising crops and cattle. Yes, there is no doubt there are xenophobic types, extreme rightists and fundamentalists in the church no less than in the rest of Russian society But there are also scores of humble priests working to feed and support their flocks and helping to rebuild village life. The growth of monasteries and convents has been astonishing – from three at the time of Gorbachev, there are now over 400. All Russian schools are now teaching religion. Orthodox church leaders have requested help from our Episcopal Church to help develop a chaplaincy in the Russian army.

Given the fact that all these things are no less true than the bad news – we need to understand that we are not dealing with one Russia today – but many.

In our country we are lucky enough to take stability for granted and are shocked by outbursts like Cincinnati riots or Oklahoma bombing. Russians have been through more than 75 years of non-stop upheaval – revolution, civil war, two World Wars, a devastating invasion, a population scattered all over the world, the greatest tyrant the world has ever known and a relentless Communist attempt to destroy all moral and ethical values. As Solzhenitsyn observed, “How to explain suffering to a people who have not”. How indeed?

The Russian people today above all long for stability, security, order and protection. In their words, “to be a normal country”. Their many hard won achievements over the past ten years, deserve more than the chorus of ignorant criticism they are for the most part getting from our side.

Today the Russians are in the process of reinventing themselves, searching through the rubble for their lost souls. Where is it more natural for them to look than in their own past and their own traditions –a past which we unceasingly denigrate. In our country those who love and honor their country and its past are called “ patriots” when we speak of Russians they are called “nationalists.”

How long do we expect deep social change to take? Ten years is a breathtakingly short time in this process To take ourselves as an example it is now 139 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and we are still sorting out problems of race relations. Yet we expect quick results from Russians – forgetting that everything in Russia is long: long roads, long names, long novels, long church services, long history.

Russians also know how to take a long view – something we have almost totally forgotten in the US in our search for quick profits, immediate answers and gratification. We might learn something from them. They are survivors and they are strong. Patience is their most potent weapon. Champions of endurance they outlast, outwait and finally swallow every conqueror. That is what they are gradually doing today. Instead of always judging their progress by how much they look like us we might better try to help them find what is best in themselves. The Russians are different from us – they will always be different and their answers may not be ours. If we look for mirror images we will always be disappointed. In any case psychologists say that only narcissists want mirror images.

To use modern parlance --we seem to have an arrogance problem.

It is impossible to go abroad without being intensely aware of the impression the United States is giving these days. Let’s face it, we are seen by the rest of the world as arrogant, self absorbed, (America is the only indispensable country in the world—really?) insensitive to the opinions, needs and concerns of others. What is more concerning, this perception is manifested across all generational lines and in every nation I have visited this year. Everyone recognizes the fact that for the moment we are very very rich – and overwhelmingly militarily powerful, but we have lost our most precious asset-- our moral authority--leaving a vacuum of leadership. For any thoughtful American citizen this is a profoundly disturbing turn of events.

Perhaps what is needed is a little more of that old fashioned virtue, humility, which seems to be in short supply in official circles these days.

By ignoring history we lost an eye. Let us try not to lose two. We could start by recognizing that for one reason or another we have been wrong so often about events in Russia in the past that it is at least possible that we might be just a little bit wrong now. The current administration says they are adopting a more “ realistic” policy toward Russia. The important question is what is reality?

I began this talk with a Russian proverb and would like to end with some words of wisdom from two homespun American philosophers which express some old fashioned American principles of common sense and fairness that might serve us well today.

In 1927 Will Rogers visited the new Soviet Union. He wrote a book full of keen observations and trenchant humor. At the end of his book he predicted that any regime that did not value religion and tried to destroy it was bound to fail in the long run. He also advised:

“You got to sorta give and take in this old world. We can get mighty rich, but if we haven’t got any friends, we will find we are poorer than anybody. Nations are just like individuals. …Their feelings are hurt even quicker”

And it was Mark Twain, who observed “ It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in the most trouble. It’s what you know wrong.”

Considering our less than brilliant record of the past I think we need to think hard and long about not only what it is we don’t know about Russia today – but most importantly as Yogi Berra said “ what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Our commenting rules: You can say pretty much anything except the F word. If you are abusive, obscene, or a paid troll, we will ban you. Full statement from the Editor, Charles Bausman.