The Story That Russians Believe About America
To Reach Lasting Peace, We Need To Better Understand Russia (And Ourselves)
I am crazy.
I actually believe that people can listen.
I actually believe that people want to understand.
Given the rise of the second era of Soviet Russia — we Americans have to begin working now to win a second chance.
A second chance for a healthy relationship between Russians and Americans.
It begins with understanding The Story That Russians Believe About America.
Supporting that story are truths that the vast majority of us, Americans and Russians, agree with.
Truth: Putin is an absolute dictator, a child of his Soviet past.
Putin is Soviet. He is from the pre-1991 Soviet era. And he has re-made Russia in a Soviet form without the pretense of communism.
In Russian eyes, Putin’s actions make some sense, given their Story About America and their understanding of Russia’s soviet history.
In American eyes, Putin is behaving madly and in surprising ways.
Most Americans have heard in the last few days of Putin’s other (Soviet-like) aggressions. It could be the 2014 seizure of Crimea, the 2014 Ukrainian separatist war, the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the active wars in Syria and the Central African Republic, or the proxy cyber-war being waged globally.
Sorrowfully, the taking of Kyiv may not end up much different than the destruction of Aleppo by Russian and Syrian forces in 2016.
Truth: Putin and his Soviet-era fellows are getting old.
The Covid pandemic has isolated Vladimir Putin more than ever. He hardly engages with any meaningful advisors. When he meets guests, he keeps fifteen feet or more of distance from them. Putin isn’t changing.
Thankfully, Putin is pretty old, 70. Though eligible for another 18 years of leadership, we have reason to hope his rule will not last nearly that long.
Truth: A failed dream
In the 1980’s Russia had reached a terrible place. Family income for one of the world’s two great powers was falling. It was at the level of Mexico and would continue its rapid decline. There was no reason to think that centralized planning would finally start working.
No more battling for world domination.
The average Russian was dreaming of
1. A decent standard of living,
2. A modicum of freedoms, and
3. Respect on the world stage.
Truth: The Soviet Union went quietly into that good night
I remember eating at a professor’s house in 1989 and watching the Berlin Wall fall. The professor studied how German fascism worked, especially the ways it wove itself around the idea of the family.
It was stunning to see real history happening on TV, over dinner!
In 1988, after a few years of restructuring and transparency, Mikhail Gorbachev permitted private ownership of new co-operative businesses. For the first time in 60 years, Russians could experience free market capitalism.
It was too little, too late.
After a failed coup, Russians say that Gorbachev (President of the USSR), Boris Yeltsin (President of Russia), and a very few other senior leaders agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union in December 1991.
- The Communist Party, the Soviet Union, and the Warsaw Pact disappeared immediately.
- The 14 other soviet socialist states, including Ukraine, became independent.
- Russia stood alone with a very prideful Boris Yeltsin as its President.
In the Russian mind, it had made a massive concession. Relinquishing territory was out of character for the Russian empire, no matter the name.
Kazakhstan alone is two-thirds the size of the whole European Union. Ukraine is the second biggest country in all of Europe, smaller than only Russia. Together, they are almost five times the size of Texas.
Russia gave up 14 countries over which it exerted direct control. Despite owning the world’s second most powerful army and the biggest nuclear arsenal, Russia gave up all those lands without a fight.
The Soviet Russian empire could have struck out at Europe to try saving itself.
But it didn’t.
Belief #1: Russia and America would become partners, friends even
There were far more Russians who admired Americans during the Cold War than today. As the war came to an end, many hoped that America would assist Russia. Russia was part of the West, after all.
Many Russians expected America would do the following to help bring Russia into the realm of western, liberal democracies, …
1. Work hard to introduce democracy, capitalism, and free markets in Russia (none of which they understood very much at all but which they thought would bring about a better life) and
2. Offer Russia assurances of safety.
This is what the United States had done for Germany and Japan.
Belief #2: In return…in 1991 the US promised NATO would never encroach on Russia
Gorbachev had sought and received guarantees from the EU and the US that NATO would expand and threaten Russia directly. Like Cuba, 90 miles from Florida, had been a threat to the United States in 1962.
Western sources go to great lengths to deny this promise, but they admit it is, at the very least, “complicated.”
Belief #3: America effectively ignored Russia when it looked for help in the 1990's
In 1996, five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, 72% of Russians had a favorable view of the United States.
Sadly, Russian life did not improve. Over the decade of the nineties, Russia had only two years with slightly positive GDP growth. Crime was significant. Monopolists were taking over economic niches using questionable techniques. And Russia was fighting a losing war in Chechnya.
Vladimir Putin was appointed President in 1999 (an odd story) and then officially elected in 2000. He, a former KGB agent, at least made sense to Russians. He promised order, and he delivered. Or else.
America can certainly show investment in Russia…BUT NOT THAT MUCH.
I remember that what America seemed to care about most after the fall of the Soviet Union, beyond securing Russian nukes, was finding ways to enjoy the peace dividend.
After World War II, the US had invested $135 billion in 2018 dollars in the 5 years of the Marshall Plan. This money went to build factories, teach modern management, and introduce democratic practices to the people of Germany and Japan. In comparable dollars, the US investment in all the 15 former Soviet states was around $35 billion for the 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The US invested much less in Russia than it had in Germany and Japan.
About one-fourth as much money, spread out over three times the years, for a population that — unlike Germany (Weimar Republic) and Japan (Taisho Democracy) — had never experienced any non-monarchic, non-autocratic rule.
Many Russians believe that, despite its rhetoric, the US never really cared enough to give Russia a chance when the Russian people needed it most.
Belief #4: America has become the world’s bully
Once Russia fell, the typical Russian saw America pursue its self-interests across the globe.
- America urged strong NATO intervention at the end of the 1992–95 Balkan War. Russia felt ignored in its own back yard.
- America facilitated the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, the Balkans, against Russia objections. (From 500 to a few thousand civilians died.)
- America invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and left 20 years later. (Conservatively, 47,000 Afghan civilians died.)
- America invaded Iraq in 2003 and left eight years later. (109,000 to 601,000 Iraqis died as a result of the war. 1 million Iraqi migrants fled.)
- Many Americans don’t know that US armed forces are currently engaged in wars in Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. Others have forgotten that since 2000, the US has completed significant wars in Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, and Sudan/Congo/Central African Republic.
Philip Bump observed that a typical American born when the Soviet Union fell, 1991, would have lived 69% of their years during American wars.
In stark contrast, an American born in 1917, the year the Russian Revolution started, would have lived only 38% of their years in war. One-third versus two-thirds.
Even more shocking, the 24% of Americans born after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack have lived EVERY YEAR OF THEIR LIVES in war. That is over 78 million young people (more people than live in Great Britain or France or Ukraine) who now know nothing but war.
Which means, of course, that war is completely normal for them.
This is the story that millions of Russians tell themselves:
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and America could have become partners, friends even.
The US promised that NATO would never encroach on Russia.
America ended up ignoring Russia when it looked for help in the 1990's.
In the absence of Russian power, America has become the world’s bully.
Of course the story can be twisted for propaganda purposes. Academics can argue over whether a promise about NATO expansion was ever made or whether Russia had signed other documents that made the promise moot. All sides can argue whether the US is fighting wars for good reasons.
The exact truth does not matter.
It is true enough.
It is up to us to understand this story and to re-make our relationship with Russia.
Let’s pray we get another chance!
“During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing. The way you’s felt about me and the way I felt about you…What I’m trying to say is that if I can change…and you can change…Everybody can change!” — Rocky Balboa, Rocky IV, November 1985 (six years before the fall of the Soviet Union)
My hopes and prayers go out to the people of Ukraine. And also to the people of Russia, Europe, China, Asia, Africa, America, and all the countries of the world.
We can do better when we search for truth together.
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