What is the Major Cause of Aggressive Xenophobia: A Case of Russian anti-Americanism
Xenophobia directed toward one’s own compatriots or against foreigners, is a wide-spread problem in all societies, past and present. Its origin goes back to the socio-biological nature of human beings and the distinction of “ours “and “others” in the human psyche. However, aggressive xenophobia, with its open declaration of hatred, discrimination, and physical persecution of “others,” is a purely social phenomenon. In my opinion, the origin of aggressive xenophobia is almost always a product of the intentional policies of the ruling elite or major heads of state which are used for the acquisition and preservation of political and economic power. The case of anti-Americanism in contemporary Russia is a perfect illustration of this thesis. The history of xenophobia in Russia, particularly that which involves the intolerant attitudes toward America, show how easily the ruling elite can change the attitudes of the masses from friendly to hostile and back to friendly again.
It is generally believed in contemporary Russia, as well as in the rest of the world, that the anti-Americanism and general animosity aimed at neighbors Ukraine and Georgia, is so pervasive because it is a reflection of deep-seated feelings held by the average Russian citizen. The view on anti-Americanism originating from below, as being embedded in the psychology of the masses, is interrelated with the opinions of many Russian political scientists, sociologists, journalists, and politicians who spread the perception that most Russians dislike and object to democracy.
Those who perceive Putin’s Russia in an unflattering way differ from each other when it comes to defining the culprit for the actual state of the Russian mind; some see it as a result of a thousand years of Russian authoritarianism, while others attribute it to the heritage of Soviet Communism and Stalin. In my opinion, both schools of thought strongly exaggerate the impact that the authoritarian traditions had on the Russian people. While traditions may serve as a foundation to define a society’s character, the crucial role in contributing to public opinion belongs mostly to the current regime and its ruling elite.
Mind control of the masses by the ruling elite is particularly crucial in authoritarian and totalitarian societies. Those who believe that the masses are the driving agent in the formation of anti-Americanism in Russia might also believe that the hostility toward Ukraine and Georgia was also a result of public sentiment. Over the centuries, the life of the Russians, Ukrainians, and Georgians have been strongly entwined with one another, not only politically and economically, but also culturally, since marriage between Russians, Ukrainians, and Georgians has been pervasive.
It took the Kremlin very little effort to successfully manipulate the media into persuading the Russians into believing that these two countries were fierce enemies. Manipulating the Russian psyche by appealing to the public’s nostalgia for the empire, the Kremlin was able to provoke and sustain the hatred for its neighbors. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians had nostalgia for its former empire reminiscent of post-war Britain, France, and Japan. However, the media and ruling elite in those countries did not encourage the nostalgia, but rather combated it. Conversely, the Kremlin and the majority of Russian media in the early and mid-2000s supported this behavior, which logically has resulted in even greater nostalgia for the Russian empire over time
In my opinion, the available data does not support the presence of “the visceral hatred of America” in Russia. Anti-Americanism in Russia, as well as in most other countries, is not coming from below, which refers to the masses and the general Russian population, but rather from above, the elite. It is the elite, through its ability to control and manipulate the media, education, and books, which has the power to either foster or stifle xenophobia.
There is no doubt that Russians, as well as many others, are beset with xenophobic tendencies in addition to other negative, anti-social sentiments. The Russian tsars and the Orthodox Church fostered over centuries rabid xenophobia in their country. However, in the first decade after the October Revolution, the new elite chose total ethnic tolerance as their strategy, and generally succeeded in implementing it. The level of ethnic tolerance during the revolution, and in the first decade after, was extraordinarily high in comparison with the xenophobia which was ostensibly deeply rooted in the Russian psyche.
However, in the early 1930s, Stalin replaced ethnic tolerance — called “internationalism” — with an ideology of Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism. This new turn in the Kremlin’s ethnic policy was again supported by the masses. This ideology, coupled with Russian nationalism as its leading component, outlived Stalin and continued to be a part of the official ideology with sustained support from the masses. With Perestroika, the Kremlin’s ethnic policy shifted once more, this time back to the philosophy of ethnic tolerance, and again, the response of the masses was quite positive.
Since the last years of Yeltsin, and particularly with Putin at the helm of the country, the ethnic policy has returned to xenophobia as a leading element of the official ideology, though with one remarkable difference in comparison with the xenophobia of tsarist and Soviet times. Despite the feelings held by many experts on Russian history that anti-Semitism, which indeed has had a long tradition in Russian history, could not be eradicated from Russian minds, Putin was able to almost completely eliminate it from state policy and media. He has expressed more positive sentiments in all of his publications, meetings, and speeches since 2000 than any other Russian leader, with the exception of Lenin. Despite the highly visible role of the Jewish oligarchs in Russia, and despite the obscene behavior by some of them — their conspicuous consumerism for instance — the degree of anti-Semitism among the masses has declined remarkably. In Russia today, anti-Semitism is lower than it has been in the last seven decades, and as a result, Jews in Russia are much less inclined to hide their ethnic origin or their interest in Jewish culture and religion.
The pervasiveness of anti-Americanism in Russia has a tortuous history, which has been shaped by the Kremlin’s policy toward America. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Stalin called upon the Russians to combine “Russian revolutionary élan with American business-like approach to everything.” It was only in the fall of 1947 that America became a major target of Soviet propaganda.
After 1947, America never lost its status as the foremost enemy in post-Stalin’s Russia. In the early 1980s, just a few years before the radical shift in propaganda turned in favor of America, there was an extreme outburst of the most rabid anti-American publications in Moscow, as well as in the province. Yet, during post-Stalin times there were some in the Kremlin who wanted to turn off, if only temporarily, the flow of anti-American propaganda. Brezhnev wished to bring to a close anti-American propaganda during the Watergate affair of 1974 because he supported Nixon as his partner in Détente. The divulgence of secrete and illegal dealings in American politics during the Watergate scandal provided the Soviet media with the unique opportunity to bolster its argument about the phony nature of American democracy and the venality of the bourgeois politicians. Yet, the Soviet media almost totally ignored the developments around Watergate and only briefly mentioned Nixon’s departure from office.
The drastic transformation from hostility to outward friendliness toward America in the period of Perestroika is even more remarkable. In the 1960s-1970s, the famous Russian sociologist, Boris Grushin, found that the average Soviet individual had a very negative image of America. However, as soon as Perestroika relinquished mind control over the masses, the image of America in Russian public opinion changed radically in a very short period of time.
Now, by ex-officio, simply because of the nature of the position, anti-Americanism should be professed by all members of the presidential administration and the government, nearly all deputies of State Duma and Federal Councils, nearly all frequent speakers on TV, most political experts with the access to the Kremlin, most journalists in pro-Kremlin media, and many writers and cultural figures loyal to the regime.
The disgust of America is fomented by Russia’s leaders primarily for domestic consumption: to sustain and cultivate the image of Russia as a besieged fortress, and Putin as the savior of the country.Russia’s cultivation of hatred for its neighbors, Ukraine and Georgia, as well as Poland and the Baltic republics, is also a part of the same strategy in which the ideology clearly takes precedence over the actual geopolitics.
Depending on the current socio-political climate, the Kremlin chooses a target country for Russian animosity. The objective of the “two minutes hate,” which was a part of everyday life in Orwellian Oceania, was that it served as a device to keep the citizens loyal to the party. The Kremlin simply adopted this tactic, merely replacing the face of imaginary ex-party leader Emmanuel Goldstein, who became the subject of an entire country’s disdain when he fell out of favor with the regime, with President George Bush and the leaders of Georgia and Ukraine.
The roots of anti-Americanism in Russia do not go very deep. Most ordinary Russians are rather receptive to Americans, their lifestyle, and the country’s political and economic system. These feelings would immediately be fully revealed if the Kremlin changed its policy toward the United States.
Many cases of aggressive xenophobia in the contemporary world are of a similar nature to Russian anti-Americanism. The loathing of others is often promoted and sustained by the elite or heads of state that yearn for power. To use Europe as an example, it was the elite which instigated the horrendous ethnic wars in this civilized continent after the collapse of Yugoslavia, in which they encouraged the neighbors, who had an extensive history of peaceful and amicable relations, to kill one another. Granted, the animosity toward the other by ethnic, cultural, and social groups which are persecuted and discriminated against is usually quite spontaneous. Yet, in these cases the activists and major figures of the discriminated groups tend to exploit the hatred of their people for their own advancement and egotistical purposes.
In sharp contrast to the destructive behaviors that the elite can cultivate amongst the masses, are a number of positive changes which were facilitated by the ruling class. For example, the French and German elite, in a short period of time, were able to nearly eliminate the seemingly deep animosity held between their people.