Blog post

The Genealogy of Russian Anti-Americanism - Ilya Budraitskis

Ilya Budraitskis examines the flawed foundations on which Russian Anti-American sentiment was built.

Ilya Budraitskis16 February 2022

The Genealogy of Russian Anti-Americanism - Ilya Budraitskis

In Dissidents Among Dissidents, a collection of essays situating both Russia within a global context and the Left within a Russian one, Ilya Budraitskis explores a wide range of topics from the Soviet legacy on the contemporary Russian Left, to the Russian state’s management of culture and their dedication to ‘anti-revolution.’ Budraitskis challenges the one dimensional caricature of the Russian state as a catch-all anti-Western boogeyman while also illustrating the Kremlin’s self-serving desire to be painted as that very threat.

At the end of 2016, in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, the tone of Russian mainstream media coverage changed dramatically. Having spent several years portraying the US as the main external threat to Russia, and President Barack Obama as a monster and war-monger, they now celebrated Trump’s victory and presented the US as a good friend and responsible partner. For the discourse managers of Russian television, such a switch is, apparently, a simple matter of technique. In a sense, pro-Kremlin outlets were sending a message to the incoming US administration: look how easily and masterfully we can moderate the mood of our population. But in reality, Russian state television is not the only thing behind the success of anti-American propaganda. 

Anti-Americanism in Russia is not a fleeting emotion, but one that has its own history and an established framework of concepts and associations. Dating back to the start of the Cold War, Soviet anti- Americanism gradually developed as a dynamic combination of the political and the moral. If the first was defined by the confrontation of superpowers, the second addressed the fight for every individual Soviet soul. The United States was viewed as a power awakening its dark, instinctive side: greed, unbridled sexuality and a taste for primitive culture stirring up base passions and desires. As the level of political confrontation fell, political anti-Americanism also became more restrained. Meanwhile, the presence of moral anti-Americanism grew, in both literature and journalism. 

It can be seen, for example, in Vsevolod Kochetov’s famous 1969 novel What Do You Want Then? The central plot-line follows a group of CIA agents on their secret mission to corrupt the Soviet youth and recruit agents. Each spy specializes in finding societal weak spots and unstable elements; each spy is an experienced villain. The group’s informal leader is the sexy Slavist Portia Brown. Her primary targets are unrecognized artists and poets, vain ego-ridden denizens of bohemia. Portia’s assistant, the blonde, perpetually smiling Eugene Ross, searches for profiteers and hipsters, stirring up a passion for unthinking and irresponsible consumerism. 

These dangerous Americans do not mention the superiority of democracy or the market economy, because they’re addressing not the mind but the body. Portia takes Communist Youth League (Komsomol) members to stripteases, while Eugene teaches them to drink whiskey and soda – the alcohol working to relax and dull their senses. At a critical moment in the victory of these stimuli over reason, a rock- and-roll record intrudes: ‘Music started playing – the kind of music under whose influence a person gradually starts twitching. First he taps the rhythm with one foot, then his other foot starts, and then his arms, shoulder, head, hips, and back join in. His whole body begins to shake.’ 

According to Kochetov, the United States was a virus, infecting a Soviet society whose immune system had been weakened. The new Soviet generation, which had grown up after the Second World War, was no longer capable of self-control and, under the influence of external stimuli, was subconsciously beginning to copy the behaviour of homo economicus. Only idealistic communist individuals and state law enforcement agencies were capable of opposing this. The growing crisis in Soviet society – including a burgeoning black market and disillusionment with socialism, both accurately depicted in Kochetov’s novel – was put down to an external cause: a secret war, aimed at the moral corruption of the Soviet person, organized by the CIA. 

At the start of the 1980s, when this crisis entered its final phase, a cult document of moral anti-Americanism was circulated – the so-called Dulles Plan for the destruction of the USSR. Like the ‘Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion’, which was a distorted fragment of a pamphlet by the French writer Maurice Joly, the Dulles Plan also had its origins in literature – a monologue by the anti-hero of Anatoly Ivanov’s 1970s novel Eternal Call. In this text, the villain lays out an extensive plan for the moral corruption of the Soviet people through the implementation of ‘false values’. The power of these values lies in their subconscious character, producing a ‘cult of sex, violence, sadism and treachery ... alcoholism and drug addiction, animal fear of each other’. The novel laid bare the horrific results of the victory of body over soul, of private interests over communal ones. 

Debates over the Dulles Plan’s authenticity, which broke out in the 1990s between nationalistic conspiracy theorists and pro-Western liberals, soon ran aground. The main evidence in favour of the plan’s existence was not rational argument, but the fact that it had effectively been realized. Who actually wrote the text – Allen Dulles or Anatoly Ivanov – did not matter. The Soviet Union really had collapsed, and the chaos of primitive accumulation was accompanied by unbridled violence and the degradation of society. 

The moral anti-Americanism of the late Soviet era not only failed to discern the internal contradictions that led to the demise of Soviet society – it was also a manifestation of them, a sign of the Soviet state’s deep mistrust of its own ideological foundation. The pathos of moral anti-Americanism was really directed against the invasion of the free market, but from a conservative – not socialist – position. The essence of humanity was seen as sinful and egoistic. It was necessary to constantly hold back this evil, which was trying to break out, with the help of state discipline and repression. 

The post-Soviet regime – very much including its transformation under Vladimir Putin – was a triumph of commercial logic, and a complete victory of private interests over communal ones. More than that, cynicism and moral relativism are important motifs of the modern Russian ideology, of the common sense uniting the elites with the masses: everyone simply wants to satisfy their own needs. People enter public office to become rich; they go to opposition protests because they are paid to do so (by the Americans, of course). It is natural, that is how people are. And when people try to persuade you otherwise, talking about civic duty or democratic values, they are probably hypocrites or liars. The same explanation is given for foreign policy: countries, like people, are simply looking to benefit themselves. Western rhetoric about universal values is a ploy aimed at simpletons. 

The ideological paradox, however, lies in the fact that this cynicism is entirely in keeping with elements of the moral anti-Americanism inherited from the later years of the USSR. The combination of these two elements was first on display in one of the flagship films of the early Putin era, Alexei Balabanov’s 2000 film Brat 2 [Brother 2]. Danila, the New Russian hero, uses unfettered violence to defeat a criminal US tycoon and restore justice for the downtrodden. Danila teaches the Americans the moral lesson that ‘strength isn’t in money but in truth’. A Russian can aspire to wealth, sexual satisfaction and success (after all, he is a person too), but he must nonetheless remain true to himself – i.e., to his national identity and the historical fate of Russia. 

In Putin’s new rendition of anti-Americanism, it is not consumerism that weakens the unity of the nation – quite the reverse: it supports and consolidates the national economy. Nowadays it is unlikely that someone would detect an American plot in the Russian elite’s excessive desire for luxury or the population’s menacingly high dependence on credit. Today, the danger comes from elsewhere – from homosexuality and feminism, which are allegedly destroying the traditional family. Thus, for example, in a major policy article from June 2020 titled ‘Does Russia Need “Universal” Values?’, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the country’s Security Council (and former longstanding head of the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB) directly accused the West of seeking to ‘strike yet another blow at the system of traditional Russian spiritual and moral values’. According to Patrushev, the principal Russian values include ‘the primacy of the spiritual over the material’ and the protection of the family, whereas ‘in the West, such basic concepts as family, mother and father, man and woman are being deliberately diluted’. In practical terms, this confrontation with ‘Western values’ took the form of an amendment to the Russian Constitution, which enshrined the concept of the family as ‘a union between a man and a woman’.

The longstanding structure of moral anti-Americanism has been preserved, then, but its content has changed dramatically. This change reflects one of the main contradictions in the official state ideology: between the formal continuation of the USSR and the conceptual rejection of it.

Filed under: russia