A renowned expert in Russian-American relations explains how longstanding myths about Russia in the United States can help in understanding the national identity of Americans.

Looking in the mirror? Photo: AP

In an exclusive interview with Russia Direct, Victoria I. Zhuravleva, Russian historian, prominent expert in American studies and author of the book “Understanding Russia in the United States: Images and Myths 1881-1914,” discusses longstanding myths that Americans have about Russia and their role in the identity process in the U.S.

In addition, she talks about American political cartoons, their influence on U.S.-Russia relations and the role of historical research in rooting out the causes of the Cold War mentality.

Russia Direct: When and why did you decide to write the book on the perception of Russia in the U.S.?

Victoria Zhuravleva: I decided to write this book many years ago as a postgraduate student when I began to study Russian-American relations.  Why had American myths about Russia and the stereotypes of how Americans perceived Russia proved to be so enduring? Why would some images come to the fore and others – remain in the background? When and why had the images of Russia created within American society begun to make inroads into American foreign policy, shaping the content of that policy as well as creating the ideological justification for its approach to Russia?

All these questions preoccupied me, so I started a 10-year process of writing my book, “Understanding Russia in the United States: Images and Myths 1881-1914.”

I preferred to study Russian-American relations as a multi-level phenomenon, to analyze different facets of perception, and to reconstruct the main American textual discourses about Russia in their full complexity. 

In order to achieve this purpose, I used the interdisciplinary methodology that came to be known as the imagology of international relations (study of international relations using the conceptual pair “Self/Other”) and a comprehensive set of sources (diplomatic and private correspondence, memoirs, diaries, travelogues, tourist guidebooks, pamphlets, American textbooks on world and European history, fiction, and of course, verbal and graphic materials of the American press, first of all, cartoons).  This is one of the main peculiarities of this book – using cartoons not as illustrations, but as primary sources for study the perceptions of Russia in the U.S.

RD: Why do you focus on this period of U.S.-Russia relations (late 19th to early 20th centuries)?

V.Z.: This period of time is very important in the history of U.S.-Russia relations because, for the first time, we could see their real evolution from “the equation of Russian-American friendship” through the first crises of 1903-1905 and the first “war of images” in the American press to the period of rapprochement between the two countries during the First World War and to the new American cycle of hopes and disappointments regarding the prospects of the modernization process in Russia in 1917.

During this time, the image of Russia as a hostile “Other” threatening American interests made its first appearance.  It is also the time of crystallizing the longstanding myths about Russia by oscillations between the “romantic” image of the Russian people ready to create the “United States of Russia” and the ideas about the “Immutable Rus” and between the demonization of Russian government and the construction of the image of a strong ruler, capable of facilitating the process of the gradual renewal of a country that remained alien and incomprehensible to the West.

It must be noted that real Russian events did feed these myths in the past and do feed them in the present.  But the hierarchy of these images depends, first of all, on the American context (American social and cultural traditions and U.S. development agenda), giving some of them central roles and delegating others to the periphery. The analysis on the central images allows me to detect longstanding trends in perception that emerged in the 19th century and have remained important up to the beginning of the 21st century.

RD: You discuss the image of Russia in the U.S. from the historical point of view. In what way is the image of modern Russia different from the time of the late 19th to early 20th century and how has it evolved in the American press since that time? 

V.Z.: The black-and-white vision is one of the trends in U.S. mass media that defines the evolution of Russia’s image through the dichotomous models, such as the West – Asia/the Orient, Civilization-Barbarism, Freedom-Slavery, the ethical dichotomy of Good and Evil and the Manichean duality of Light and Darkness.

One of the favorite topics among U.S. journalists and cartoonists is the notion of the imperialistic ambitions of Russia. From the first crises in Russian-American relations, the “David versus Goliath” metaphor has held a special place in the rhetorical devices of the U.S. against Russia. In this view, Russia is ever ready to attack smaller, but more progressive states (in 1904-1905 “small progressive Japan” played the role of David, this “Yankee of the East”).

In August 2008, this metaphor appeared in the American press and Internet again in reference to the war in South Ossetia. At that time, the role of David fell to the “small democratic Georgia” that suffered the aggression of the “Russian Goliath – the authoritarian post-Soviet Russia.” You see the parallels!

The video contains materials from Boulder Camera (cartoon by J. Sherffius /Creators News Service), Library of Congress (cartoon by J. Costello), St. Louis Post-Dispatch (cartoon by R.J. Matson). By Pavel Gazdyuk.

Remarkably, American cartoonists themselves criticized the U.S. for its policy of double standards.  The image of Russia, on one hand, has been a kind of dark twin (the demonic Russian “Other”). On the other hand, it has been a reminder of the U.S. own domestic problems, a way to emphasize them.

I would like to attract your attention to the cartoons that show historic parallels: One picture describes Joseph Stalin as the Statue of Tyranny, while the other depicts Putin as the Statue of Non-Liberty, which is pretty remarkable. This is a long-term trend to “personify” the processes that were under way in Russia and to attribute all negative and positive changes to the actions of its rulers. Both Putin and Stalin are dark twins of their U.S. counterparts (in the same way, Nicholas II was a dark twin of T. Roosevelt).  Another idea of these cartoons is a need to emphasize the role of America in the crusade for Russian freedom.  Thus, the evolution of Russia’s image has been defined by the U.S. messianic idea.

Statue of Non-Liberty and Statue of Tyranny (L-R). The collage contains materials from Boulder Camera (cartoon by Jeff Sherffius/Creators News Service) and Library of Congress (cartoon by Jerry Costello)

RD: What defines the U.S. perception of Russia today? How is it related to U.S. foreign policy?

V.Z.:  I would like to underline three moments, first of all: a simplified, dichotomous vision of events in Russia; the correlation between the U.S. internal agenda and the approach to Russia in their foreign policy; and the intention to evaluate Russian foreign policy as a continuation of its domestic politics.

Let me give one example: a recent political decision by Barack Obama [to cancel the Moscow meeting with Vladimir Putin]. There are two main reasons. The first one is a lack of a real crucial agenda for an Obama-Putin meeting outside the G20 meeting. The second one is the domestic political situation and pressure: Obama needs support for promotion of his domestic agenda and health care reform is a key element of it. And currently, he is criticized from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times.

Republicans criticize him for a too-soft policy toward Russia when controversies like the Edward Snowden case, opposition activity in Russia, or Syria appear on the common agenda, while the radical wing of the Democratic Party criticizes him taking into account Russia’s LGBT policies.  Obama just chooses the lesser evil. And this example demonstrates the correlation between domestic and foreign agendas.

RD: History repeats itself. In what way does the history of U.S.-Russia relations repeat itself today? What are the "hopes and disappointments" of today's U.S.-Russia bilateral agenda?

V.Z.: Today we are experiencing a period of disappointments in Russian-American relations, judging by the results of the “reset” approach.  It reflects the cyclic nature of bilateral relations.  Thus, we have hopes. I mean hopes for future realism in our state-to-state contacts: Taking into account the historical experience, we need to find new opportunities for future cooperation within a common global agenda, as well as better understanding of each other as a consequence of the negotiation process. 

The main problem is the credibility gap. What Russia and the U. S. both lack are realistic approaches in their foreign policy.  They look at the same international problems in a drastically different way (take the Syrian crisis, American ABM, non-proliferation, the Iranian nuclear program). We need to find new formats of dialogue and new explanatory schemes.

RD: What role does scientific research (like your book) play in overcoming the Cold War mentality and looking for new formats of dialogue?      

V.Z.: The study of each other, and scientific (like that between MIT and the new Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, for example) and educational collaboration is crucial.

In 2009 my colleague from Volgograd State University, Professor Ivan Kurilla, and I initiated a project that deals with Russian Studies in the United States and American Studies in Russia. We decided to analyze the role of academic study in the construction of national identity.  The first bilingual collection of articles of Russian and American scholars has been published under the financial support of the Kennan Institute (“Russia and the United States: Mutual Representations in the Textbooks, 2009”) and the second volume is in progress.

As a result of this project, the Russian State University for the Humanities and the Kennan Institute created the database “Russian-American Studies,” which includes information about Amerikanistika in Russia and Russian Studies in the United States from the 19th century until our current period. This is one of the possibilities for the deconstruction of stereotypes. Actually, this perception of each other is based on epistemological and historical levels. Better understanding of our past could help to reach more realism in present bilateral relations.

Seeing eye-to-eye is a challenge. Photo: Reuters

RD: To what extent can journalists help reach this realism?

V.Z.: At the beginning of the 20th century, an observation from the Director of the Associated Press, Melville Stone, during his audience with Nicholas II, remains germane today: Americans cannot become the advocates of Russian political discourse, but they can tell the truth about it in a friendly tone and describe its different faces.  And the problem is that American journalists as well as politicians are telling only part of the truth. They are trying to emphasize the negative characteristics of Russia and put the curtain of the positive sides of the Russian reality.   

RD:  As you write in your book, the U.S. tried to find its national identity and later to overcome its national identity crisis by opposing itself to the “Other” (Russia) and coming up with simplistic stereotypes. What is going on with the U.S. now in this respect? Can the Sochi boycott and the Magnitsky List be explained by the same identity crisis?

V.Z.: I don’t think that it is an identity crisis; it’s rather a long-term trend in Russian-American relations and the American perception of Russia. It fits with the U.S. concept of its messianic role in the world and to the ancient liberal-universalist myth about Russia. Among ideas of this myth are two: that Americans are responsible for the process of reforming Russia and that the Russian people are waiting for help from overseas (the romantic Russian “Other”).

It gives rise to two relevant issues: the right of humanitarian intervention and the expediency of imposing American ideals regardless of the wishes of those to whom the Americans wanted to bring “the blessings of freedom.” And the Sochi Boycott or the Magnitsky List is a very important component of this myth because we are talking about human rights in this context.

RD: How can we explain the anti-Americanism that has been so widespread in Russia nowadays? Is Russia trying to find its identity or cope with identity crisis by opposing itself to America?

V.Z.: Yes, anti-Americanism is very useful for the authorities to overcome the identity crisis in Russia: the image of the United States as an unfriendly country that supports the opposition is a very suitable tool for domestic political games and for the consolidation of the national idea. Meanwhile, if we are talking about anti-Americanism in society, it didn’t reach epidemic proportions in Russia.

According to a Levada center poll published in January 2013, there were 53 percent approval ratings of the United States in Russian society, with 34 percent expressing disapproval. So, first of all, anti-Americanism is one of the key elements among officials and politicians, not ordinary people.  But sometimes ordinary people can be easily manipulated and join this anti-American political discourse proposed by the authorities.    

Victoria I. Zhuravleva is a Professor of American History and International Relations in the Department of World Politics and International Relations, Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow. In 2006, she was a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She is currently a Member of the Russian Association for Historians of U.S. History Council, a Member of the Editorial Board of the American Yearbook (Moscow), and a Director of the American Studies Program at RSUH. Her recently published book is “Understanding Russia in the United States: Images and Myths. 1881-1914."

Watch the video interview with Viktoria Zhuravleva about Russia’s image in U.S. political cartoons. This exclusive interview with Russia Direct will feature some visual examples of how American political cartoonists have characterized Russia throughout history.