According to a recently released Win/Gallup poll, the hottest hotbed of anti-Americanism in the world today is not to be found where you would most expect it. Not in Iran, where decades of mass chanting of “Death to the Great Satan” must by now have imparted a kind of folksy ring to it; nor in Afghanistan, where so many innocent civilians have tasted “collateral damage” in the war on terrorism; nor even in France, where anti-Americanism is a grudge left over from America having saved their country twice from the Germans.
No, the most anti-American of all the 65 countries surveyed turned out to be Russia. Whereas 16 percent of Iranians think the United States is the greatest threat to world peace, some 54 percent of Russians hold this view. The survey found that 24 percent of people worldwide consider the U.S. the biggest menace to peace, making the anti-Americanism now rampant in Russia more than double the norm.
Another survey, conducted by the independent Levada Center, showed that the problem has skyrocketed over the past year, as an unprecedented 80 percent of Russians now hold negative views of the United States, twice what it was a year ago. Russian experts are saying that the hostility surpasses even that which prevailed in the Stalin era.
The assassination last week of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov brought negative sentiments toward America to a new height. On the one hand, the avowedly pro-Western Nemtsov had become a lightning rod for such feelings. Yet, at the same time, his killing triggered a fresh round of U.S.-related conspiracy theories, alleging that the CIA was behind it.
Russia is reportedly awash in anti-American paranoia, which seeks to blame us for everything that goes wrong, and that finds a Yank under every bed, to coin a phrase. Just a sampling of what passes for news analysis in the land of Putin:
The U.S. bankrolls Russian fascist and ultranationalist groups to serve as a future pretext to send troops in to overthrow the fascists and install a pro-U.S. puppet government; U.S. pharmaceutical companies, in cahoots with the CIA, have sent deadly vaccines to cripple and kill Russians.
Moreover, the U.S. is blamed for a long list of setbacks and misfortunes, including the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, the Kursk submarine tragedy in 2000, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 and the current protests in Kiev, the Krymsk flood in 2012, the crash of a SuperJet demonstration flight in Indonesia in 2012, and the meteorite “sent by NASA” that fell near Chelyabinsk last year.
What accounts for such a warped worldview?
Undoubtedly, Vladimir Putin’s government-sponsored propaganda has a lot to do with it. State-controlled media purvey anti-American fare with a determined frequency, including heavily biased news reports and pseudo-documentaries with titles like “Who Rules the World?” and “Who Wants to Carve Up Russia?” (America, of course.)
Putin has exploited a latent xenophobia to drum up popular support for his policies. In a twist on American anti-communists who used to blame “outside agitators” for radical activity on college campuses, Putin himself blamed the U.S. State Department for fomenting the protest movements in his country in late 2011 and 2012. The situation has been sorely aggravated by the crisis in Ukraine. It is said that even Russians who once eagerly hopped on planes to Miami and Los Angeles are now loath to do so.
But the propaganda would not be so effective if the people themselves were not receptive to it. Life in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union has not been the utopia that many had longed for. It has been marked by economic hardship and political uncertainty, along with a fairly steady stream of criticism from the same America whose lifestyle once held so much promise for the average Russian.
It is ironic. Russian enthusiasm for American consumer goods likely had almost as much to do with the fall of the Soviet Union as Reagan’s “star wars” military strategy or his famous demand to the then-head of the U.S.S.R, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” But in today’s Russia, it’s ancient history.
In Putin’s Russia, Americans are considered “pushy,” and the once-adored products of American society are increasingly stigmatized. U.S.-led sanctions have spawned a made-in-Russia trend, and Coke must compete with Russian-made soft drinks.
The phenomenon is a perplexing one — all the more so because it is not reciprocal. Only two percent of Americans in the Gallup poll said they think Russia is a threat to global peace, about the global average.
What to do? The United States cannot remain passive in the face of aggression in Ukraine. Yet, even the measured response of the Obama administration — still only considering providing Kiev with lethal weapons for self-defense against superior Russian hardware — touches off ever more resentment.
If Mr. Putin is bent on bullying even at the price of war, there may be little choice but to oppose him with quiet determination. While avoiding needless provocation, we must not give in.