The Thanksgiving holiday is a special time for Americans to reflect on the various ways that Russia has helped to shape the modern world.


The Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. Photo: Reuters

The Thanksgiving holiday has been marked almost every year since the original Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving nearly 400 years ago, and it should always be the occasion for reflecting on those individuals, groups and institutions which, in the normal course of our daily lives, we often neglect to remember.

While it may strike some Americans and perhaps even more Russians as counter-intuitive, there are at least five reasons why Americans should be grateful to Russians this Thanksgiving.

Contribution to the defeat of fascism in Europe

First, Americans have reason to be grateful to the Russians and the other former Soviet peoples for their stellar contribution to the defeat of fascism in Europe three generations ago.  Had it not been for the enormous sacrifice of the Russians during World War II, that conflict would not have ended as soon as it did, and the post-war world would not have taken the shape it now has.

As Russians themselves now recognize, Stalin’s occupation of Eastern Europe was a mistake, adding to Russia’s burdens rather than to its power. Now, thanks to the events of 1991, Europe is expanding, and Russia will be able to take part in that process as well.

Literature and art

Second, Americans have reason to be grateful to Russians for their signal contributions to literature and art. Few countries have produced more brilliant contributions to so many realms of culture.

Americans would have been impoverished had they not benefited from the works of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, from dancers like Baryshnikov, and from composers like Tchaikovsky.

And they would have been further impoverished had they not benefited from the remarkable procession of scholars and scientists who have come to the U.S. in waves over the last century.

 Russia: Counterbalance of the U.S.

Third, Americans have reason to be grateful for the way in which Russia, both in the form of the USSR and now in the form of the Russian Federation, has played a balancing and disciplining role for the United States.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to Washington almost 30 years ago, his leading Americanist Gyorgy Arbatov suggested that the Soviet leader was going to do something far more terrible to the U.S. than any of his predecessors – Gorbachev was going to take away America’s enemy. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union represented a counterweight to American power abroad and prompted the U.S. to adopt many social welfare programs at home.

After Gorbachev, the U.S. lost its way for a decade for precisely the reasons that Arbatov suggested. Now, once again, Russia is a counterweight but this time around, not simply an opponent but also as a player on the international scene that can sometimes oppose and sometimes cooperate.

Freedom for Soviet republics

Fourth, Americans have reason to be grateful that, contrary to expectations, the Russians did not fight to prevent the former Soviet republics from gaining their freedom. Many in the U.S. feared that the Russians would fight to preserve the USSR much as the Serbs did in Yugoslavia.

People talked about “a Yugoslavia with nukes.” But instead, the Russian people allowed what was almost “a velvet divorce,” and while many Russians remain uncomfortable with the consequences, they, the former Soviet republics, and the United States are all better off as a result of the way Moscow approached this situation.

Commitment  to the values of democracy

And fifth and finally, Americans have especial reason to be grateful that, despite all the difficulties and backtracking since 1991, Russians remain committed to the values of democracy and freedom that the Americans pioneered with their revolution two centuries ago.

It is possible to find polls that show Russians less committed to these values than they were. And such evidence is disturbing. But despite those results and backtracking in some areas, Russia today is on the road to a more open future than it has had in the past. Not surprisingly, that shift frightens many who have little experience with freedom, but the signs are unmistakable.

All of these things flow from a uniquely American perspective that was formed not only by the Pilgrims in 1620 but also by the adoption of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. As some Americans forget and some Russians may not know, that document is almost unique in proclaiming rights that it said should be available to all. The actions of the Russian people are a confirmation of the rightness of that position, and they thus represent one of the reasons Americans have to be grateful today.

Read about 5 reasons why Russia should be thankful to the U.S. here.