Sunday, September 13, 2015

Why Russians Hate America. Again

Does hate ? “@RBTHAsia: What stands behind - in ?
image from

MOSCOW — ON a warm August evening, I found myself sitting with three
educated young Russians at the Beverly Hills Diner, a chain restaurant whose
gaudy décor includes human-­size figures of Porky the Pig and Marilyn

They had invited me to join their table, inside a green convertible car,
after I had asked a few reporter-­type questions about their country. But all talk
of Russia kept leading to America.

“America is trying to encircle us,” said Kristina Donets, 29, swabbing a
slice of dessert waffle in banana compote. “We have finally risen out of chaos
and you don’t like that.”

Reporting in Russia after more than a decade away felt a lot like visiting
an old friend. It is where I owned my first car (and had it stolen), met my
husband and first worked as a journalist.

But the friend had changed.

In some ways, it was for the better. People were wealthier — despite the
recent decline in the ruble and jump in inflation — and better traveled. The
kindhearted woman who hosted me when I first moved to Moscow in 1997
said it best: “We don’t have to wash out our plastic bags anymore.” Her tiny
salary had quadrupled since I’d last seen her. She had taken her first trip
abroad — a package tour to Tunisia.

But there was a darker side. Society had grown more defensive, and self-conscious,
like a teenager constantly looking at herself in the mirror. Oligarchs
had always had exit ramps — a house in London and a second passport — but
now my own friends were looking for escape routes.

Intellectuals pointed me to books on Berlin in the 1920s and the concept
of “ressentiment,’’ a philosophical term that describes a simmering resentment
and sense of victimization arising out of envy of a perceived enemy. It often
has its roots in a culture’s feeling of impotence. In Berlin in the early 20th
century, it helped explain the rise of German fascism. In Russia in August, it
seemed to have many targets: Ukraine, gay people, European dairy products
and above all the United States.

“America stuffs its democracy in our face,” bellowed a cabdriver named
Kostya in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. (His main beef was with the
“propaganda of pederasts,” using a derogatory word used to describe
homosexuals, a few weeks after the Supreme Court’s approval of gay
marriage.) “If you’re saying yes, yes, yes, all the time and nodding your head,
well sometimes you have to say no,” he said, explaining that Russia had finally
stood up to the United States.

There is, of course, a lot of history behind such sentiments. In the 19th
century, Slavophiles and Westernizers clashed over the right path for Russia.
There was obviously the fierce rivalry with the United States in Soviet times.
Since then, there have been low points, often connected with American actions
in the world. (The NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 and the American
invasion of Iraq are examples.) But nothing like the current opinion of
America, which this year sank to its lowest level since the Soviet Union
collapsed nearly 24 years ago, according to polling by the Levada Analytical
Center in Moscow.

Anti­-Americanism is more potent now because it is stirred up and in
many ways sponsored by the state, an effort that Russians, despite their hard-bitten
cynicism, seem surprisingly susceptible to. Independent voices are all
but gone from Russian television, and most channels now march to the same,
slickly produced beat. Virtually any domestic problem, from the ruble’s decline
to pensioners’ losing subsidies on public transport, is cast as a geopolitical
standoff between Russia and America, and political unrest anywhere is
portrayed as having an American State Department official lurking behind it.

“America wants to destroy us, humiliate us, take our natural resources,”
said Lev Gudkov, director of Levada, the polling center, describing the
rhetoric, with which he strongly disagrees. “But why? For what? There is no

DURING my visit, Russians were thinking about America a lot, which was
a kind of compliment, but in the way of a spurned lover who keeps sending
angry texts long after the breakup.

“Tell her how well we all live, how much better than in Europe and how
wonderful Crimea is now,” hissed a woman in a skintight dress to someone I
was interviewing. She was referring to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia
annexed last year. That of course, was the other big change I encountered.

Inside Russia, Mr. Putin’s actions in Crimea have broken friendships and
split families, leaving society as divided as I have ever seen it. Politics, once
everyone’s obsession, now seems like a distant land no one visits. Those who
do, pay a price. Mr. Gudkov said he felt like “a Jew in Hitler’s Germany” when
he opposed the Crimea annexation.

The move also caused the biggest break in relations with the West since
the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“It’s like a divorce,” said Keith Darden, a political­science professor at
American University. “They are saying: ‘the relationship we had is over. We’ve
had enough of your efforts to change us. We’re doing our own thing now.’ ”
He added, “But they don’t know what their own thing is.”

What is the Kremlin’s grand strategy? Many Russian liberals I talked to
believe there isn’t one. Mr. Putin and his inner circle are simply lurching from
crisis to crisis. How else to explain Russia’s sanctions on imported food, which
have driven up inflation at home, or Crimea, which has lost a chunk of its
tourists and saddled Moscow with expensive new social obligations.

Dmitry Volkov, a journalist who took part in the 2011 protests against Mr.
Putin, compared the annexation, and Russia’s subsequent military action in
eastern Ukraine, to a mugging that ends in accidental murder.

“They keep crossing boundaries only to find that once they are across, it’s
only logical to cross the next one,” he said. “That’s not a strategy. That’s a
behavioral pattern.”

Others believe that the government is unraveling, and that the shrillness
of the nationalist narrative is a harbinger. Oil prices have plunged, shrinking
the pie that Mr. Putin’s loyalists had been feasting on.

“It’s like before Pompeii, when all the springs dried up,” said one Russian
friend, a former journalist who is a keen observer of the political system. “The
ground is hot.”

The low opinion of America, Mr. Gudkov said, is not a permanent
condition. The resentment seems to have more to do with Russians themselves
than with any American action, a kind of defensive, free­-floating expression of
current anxieties.

But the biggest question is where it is all leading. Some Russians aren’t
sticking around to find out.

“I don’t like what’s happening now,” said Alexander Yeremeyev, an
Internet entrepreneur, walking with his family in Sokolniki, a park in central
Moscow. “Now we’re all supposed to unite against what — the U.S., Europe,

He said he was considering leaving. “I have friends who say, ‘it’s great to
do business in Russia.’ But you know what they all have in common? Foreign

Sabrina Tavernise is a health reporter and former foreign
correspondent for The New York Times.

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