Anti-Americanism seems to have reached a record-high in Russia after a period in which many Russians had favorable views of America. From a historical perspective, such ebbs and flows in Russian perceptions of America have been the norm, not the exception.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov try to find a way to begin reversing a yearlong spike in U.S.-Russia tensions stemming from the crisis in Ukraine. Photo: AP

A man in a white kimono knocking down his opponent with a firm kick is a typical illustration for a number of t-shirts sold in central Moscow or elsewhere in Russian souvenir stores. The former judo wrestler resembles Russian President Vladimir Putin, the second one looks like his American counterpart Barack Obama. Another t-shirt sold in the hall of the Kapitoliy mall in southeast Moscow portrays a formidable bear furiously tearing apart the U.S. flag.

Several years ago, before the Ukrainian crisis and, particularly, the accession of Crimea to Russia, such cartoons on t-shirts were hardly likely to be commonplace in Moscow. In April 2011, only 8 percent of Russians viewed Obama negatively, according to a poll on U.S.-Russia relations conducted by Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation (FOM). Today, with the increasing intensity of the U.S.-Russia confrontation – a confrontation that some experts are calling “Cold War II” – nearly 40 percent of Russians have a negative opinion on Obama, and such t-shirts are trendy in Moscow.

A marked shift in Russian public opinion

At first glance, this anti-American sentiment seems to be everywhere in Russia. One cannot resist the temptation to make such conclusions, given the Nov. 16  FOM poll. Its figures look indeed very persuasive (at least as presented by some Russian and foreign media): 37 percent of the poll’s respondents view the U.S. in a very negative way against 18 percent in February last year, before the start of the Ukrainian crisis.

As Russia’s influential daily Kommersant highlights, Russian sociologists haven’t seen so many Russians having such negative sentiments about the U.S. since 2001. Seventy-eight percent of respondents are sure that the U.S. plays a rather negative role in the world in comparison with 53 percent in February in 2013, while only 7 percent believe that the U.S. role is “rather positive.”

However, although these polls reflect real trends in Russia’s public opinion, they seem to oversimplify the situation without taking into account historical aspects in the ups and downs of U.S.-Russia relations. Media usually relegate positive aspects of the poll to the end of their reports while presenting it in headlines rather in a dangerously sensationalistic way for bilateral relations.

For example, a great deal of attention is focused on those 37 percent of respondents who have an unfavorable attitude to the U.S. and those 78 percent that believe that Washington plays a negative role, not to those 62 percent who says that both U.S. and Russia need to improve their bilateral relations. Likewise, media don’t pay due attention to the 50 percent of respondents who believe that the Kremlin should “aim at improving its relations with the U.S.”

Other polls conducted by Russian agencies appear to support the general trend of the FOM survey findings. For instance, Russia’s Levada Center poll, published after Crimea’s accession to Russia, said the number of Russians who viewed the U.S. unfavorably jumped from 44 to 61 percent during the period January to March. Moreover, in November 2014, these unfavorability figures reached 74 percent. These figures significantly exceed the 37 percent offered by the FOM poll.

The results of the FOM poll are not surprising for Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Political Science of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University.

“Despite the seriously negative attitudes of most Russians toward the U.S., at the same time they cannot believe that it is in their country's interest to have tensions and conflict with the United States,” he told Russia Direct. “Therefore it makes sense that they would support an improvement in the situation.”

“In times of seriously deteriorated relations it is easy for the media to fall back on the old stereotypes, particularly when this is encouraged by the way national leaders, major politicians, and significant public figures frame the relationship,” he adds. 

David Foglesong, a professor of History at Rutgers and expert in U.S.-Russia relations, argues that journalists “have hyped the recent deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, particularly by comparing it to the Cold War.” According to him, such comparisons are reckless and “inappropriate,” primarily because the Kremlin doesn’t claim “to offer the world a model of political and economic development that rivals American liberal capitalism.”

Andrei Tsygankov, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University, agrees that “media on both sides follow the state line with vigor” and are “hyping up the U.S.-Russia disagreements.” While the American media spreads stereotypes of a “revisionist” Russia, their Russian counterparts describe the U.S. “as the epitome of all geopolitical and cultural problems in the world,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ivan Kurilla, a former Kennan Institute fellow and professor at Volgograd State University, argues that, “The media just reflect upon the poll figures they see.”

“I cannot say this is a dramatization because the anti-Americanism in Russia is high indeed,” he said.

Gregory Feifer, a former NPR correspondent in Moscow and the author of the book Russians: People behind The Power, argues this indicates that Russians still have a love-hate relationship with the U.S., which is partly determined by domestic goings-on. Although the Russian authorities exploit popular feelings such as envy toward the West, Russians also tend to take their cue from the Kremlin in a mutually reinforcing cycle, Feifer believes.

“When Putin calls Washington a threat to global stability, many profess to agree whether they really believe it or not,” he said. "The Public Opinion Foundation poll, if accurate, appears to reinforce that view.”

Young Russians holding an action against dollar purchase operations in 2006. Photo: RIA Novosti

The cyclical nature of U.S.-Russia relations

The rise of anti-Americanism in Russia (as well as anti-Russian sentiment in the U.S.) is a cyclical trend that had been commonplace throughout the history of U.S.-Russia relations in the late twentieth century. For example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, most Russians saw the U.S. as friendly, with the share of those who had a negative attitude miniscule.

Until April 1993, the number of Russians viewing the U.S. unfavorably ranged from 6 to 8 percent, according to a Levada Center poll. However, after two Chechen wars and the U.S.-NATO military campaign in Yugoslavia, the U.S.-Russia relations saw another slight decline, which was reflected in the polls. In May, 1999 the number of Russians having negative opinions about the U.S. reached 54 percent.

In the 2000s, when Vladimir Putin first came to presidential office, Moscow-Washington relations were comparably in good shape. Thus started a new cycle in bilateral relations, which went through ups and downs. In particular, it saw Russians’ affinity to the U.S. increase as a result of the “reset” policy (60 percent of Russians saw the U.S. favorably in May 2010) and ended with the highest spike of anti-Americanism after the Ukraine crisis in 2014.

Foglesong clarifies that Russia’s current increasing anti-Americanism “does not merely reflect a cyclical decline in American-Russian relations.” According to him, “It stems in large part from a series of actions by the U.S.” such as NATO’s expansion, the bombing of Serbia, the Iraqi invasion, and the support for Georgia in the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict as well as encouragement of the ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev.

“I believe that series of actions has made a deep and lasting impression on many Russians,” he said.

Kurilla argues that, from a historical point of view, anti-American sentiment in Russia is “just one of the recurrent periods of hostility that were always replaced by periods of rapprochement, and from this point of view, the situation is not as catastrophic as some journalists paint it.”

Legvold argues that even though, historically, there have been shifting views of the U.S. over many years, “the depth of animosity toward the U. S. both in the media and among the public is deeper than any time I remember in years.”

Likewise, Ivan Tsvetkov, an associate professor at the School of International Relations of St. Petersburg State University, believes that Russians become quickly tired with negative emotions as time passes. He points out that their attitude to the U.S. ranges between neutral and favorable in normal times, so the current spike in anti-Americanism in Russia is an obvious anomaly. But it may continue to exist “until the factors that caused it are eliminated.”

“The current anti-Americanism resulted rather from purposeful state propaganda than the spontaneous reaction of people to the events,” Tsvetkov said. “Anti-Americanism is beneficial and necessary to the Kremlin to justify its foreign and domestic policy, its ideological justification.”

Feifer points to his professional experience in Moscow to explain the cyclical character of U.S.-Russia relations.

“When I spoke to Muscovites during Barack Obama’s first trip to Russia as president in 2009, I was surprised to hear a great majority say they admired him and believed his presidency would help restore relations with the United States,” he said. “That wasn’t very long after the war with Georgia, when many were saying very nasty things about America and its leaders.”

The roots of anti-Americanism in Russia

Experts agree that the major reasons of anti-Americanism in Russia are state propaganda and Putin’s drive and tenacity to mobilize people as the result of an inferiority complex and the feeling of wounded pride. Some pundits, including Kurilla and Tsygankov, mention the political competition and lobbying pressure on the U.S. President from his Republican opponents as well as exaggerated expectations about the U.S.-Russia relationship that didn’t come true.

Kurilla, in particular, points to the failure of the U.S. to suggest a comprehensive strategy of Russia’s integration into the Western system and to Russia’s policy toward Ukraine that resembles “the standards of the 19th, not the 21st century.”

Other experts point to indirect reasons. A value-based approach used by the U.S. media to lambast Russia’s leaders for their growing authoritarianism and policy toward Ukraine might have a backlash and could result in the rise of negative attitudes to America, according to Victoria Zhuravleva, Professor of American History and International Relations, Director of the American Studies Program at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH).

American cartoonists, journalists, and politicians often represent a value-based approach to the image of Russia,” she said. “Russia, in turn, uses this American approach to foster anti-American sentiments through the state-controlled mass media in order to shape the image of a hostile American “Other” and to maintain the ‘besieged fortress’ mentality.”