Russian attitudes towards America have long been characterized by ambivalence, a mix of admiration and apprehension. Historically, while America “was considered with sympathetic interest as a potential ally . . . the nation was viewed guardedly as a competitor and possible threat. American political ideals, while intriguing to Russian rulers in theory, became intimidating when contemplated in terms of practical application” (Hasty and Fusso 6). This led to a paradoxical view of America, a “suspiciousness and resistance to everything Western . . . miraculously combined with an attraction to and acceptance of its customs, beliefs, symbols, and most elements of the Western way of life” (Shiraev and Makhovskaya 96). After the September 11 attacks, Putin and the majority of Russians expressed sympathy towards America, yet also saw US foreign policy as part of American arrogance and overconfidence. Today, the ambivalence continues; or, as Eric Shiraev and Olga Makhoskaya point out, history is repeating itself: during the Cold War, “Soviet people did not hate Americans; they only disliked America’s social system, its government, and its policies,” while today, “most Russians say they empathize with the American people’s fear of terrorism. But few Russian have any sympathy for the american government, and they categorically reject American international unilateralism” (121).
Stereotypically, Americans are viewed as ignorant, loud-mouthed, and self-interested. CCTV reported in 2014 that anti-American sentiment in Russia was at its highest since the Cold War period, with particular anger directed towards US foreign policies and actions. Mikhail Iossel provides a list of “associations conjured up in the average Russian’s mind at the mentioning of the word America,” including some common visual representations and figures: Indians, Mark Twain and Jack London, cowboys, Coca-Cola, Madonna, Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson, and Shaq (xi). However, of the most interesting things Iossel lists are phrases/thoughts that Russians may use to define Americans:
- arrogant superpower
- flag-waving meatheads
- only respect brute strength and people and nations that can stand up to them
- arrant imperialism
- shameless chauvinism
- how many little American flags one can stick on one’s beat-up car?
- they’re well-off, autonomously well-regulated to the point of being able to have elected as their leader not the sharpest knife in the drawer, not the smartest man among them, to put it charitably
- they like to talk about themselves too much, the self-infatuated creeps
- they smile too much, they show their teeth an awful lot
- they are ludicrously obsessed with their health, such hubris, why are they so bent on prolonging their boring
- whiskey is a much more treacherous drink than vodka, and that sums up the American national character, come to think of it
- single-celled organisms, that’s who they are, with absolutely no psychological depth to them!
- their women are no match for ours, willfully sexless and coldly aggressive, they’re apt to slap you with a lawsuit if you as much as cast a flirtatious glance at them . . .
- they think they’re all that
- they have no shame
- they don’t understand the true meaning of the word friendship
- what do they know about real suffering, they’re rich . . . (xi-xii)
Globally, many countries are still skeptical of American ideas of economic and political freedom. Andrei Tsygankov asserts that, “[w]hile in the West there is growing acceptance of the universal viability of Western market democracy and a human rights-centered world, the non-Western parts of the globe remain wary and skeptical of this view. In various parts of the globe, Western-centered world order projects have often been perceived as unable to promote a just and stable international system because of their exclusively Western orientation and lack of empathetic understanding of other cultures” (Tsygankov 1-2). Some see take a directly aggressive approach, asked what was wrong with Americans and their leadership, why they poke their noses everywhere and impose their will on every country” (Shiraev and Zubok 2).
Today, under the administrations of Putin and Trump, the fate and current status of the Russian-American relationship is unknown. On the one hand, Putin’s position as “a loyal KGB officer without remorse or regret” means that he “grew up in the atmosphere of the ‘old’ Soviet anti-Americanism, which might have left deep imprints in his psyche” (Shiraev and Zubok 140). He too may be skeptical of American intentions, goals, and practices. However, many in the Western world view him as nonconfrontational, with the “Clinton administration and NATO leaders unanimously express[ing] their satisfaction [with his election and] with a robust and young Russian leader who appeared to be capable of making things happen” (139).
Farber, David, editor. What They Think of Us: International Perceptions of the United States since 9/11. Princeton University Press, 2007.
Hasty, Olga Peters, and Susanne Fusso. America Through Russian Eyes: 1874-1926. Yale University Press, 1988.
Iossel, Mikhail, and Jeff Parker, editors. Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States. Dalkey Archive Press, 2004.
Shiraev, Eric, and Vladislav Zubok. Anti-Americanism in Russia: From Stalin to Putin. Palgrave, 2000.
Vishnevetsky, Ignatiy. “The Villain Gap: Why Soviet Movies Rarely Had American Bad Guys.” AV Club, 31 Mar. 2016, https://film.avclub.com/the-villain-gap-why-soviet-movies-rarely-had-american-1798245725.