Russia’s Attitude Toward the U.S.: Ally or Adversary?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives at Ekho Moskvy radio station

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives at Ekho Moskvy radio station in April. (Photo: Alexander Nemenov / AFP-Getty Images)

After visiting Moscow for the first time as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice told reporters she was bothered by the low regard many Russians have for the United States. Most likely, Rice experienced this shock when being interviewed by the Ekho Moskvy radio station. The host of this Moscow-based radio station program asked listeners to call in and share their perceptions of the United States. Out of 6,000 respondents, as reported by the radio station’s polling center, 46 percent said they considered the United States to be Russia’s adversary, while 54 percent said the United States was Russia’s ally.

This is the way the United States is perceived in Russia — Russian society is split on its attitude toward the United States, and extremely negative viewpoints live alongside very positive perceptions. Obviously, the United States is a hot topic for debating among Russian people, and most Russians have something to say about the United States and Americans.

Russians have an idea of the United States as an economic paradise (according to a detailed public opinion poll conducted by VTSIOM polling center in 2003, on the eve of the first visit of President Valdimir V. Putin to the USA).

Russian people speak with admiration about the United States’ wealth. “Americans know how to live,” said one of the respondents, expressing the opinion popular among Russian people.

These are some replies of Russian people to the poll questions:

“Who is an average American? He is almost like Russian oligarch — two vehicles, luxury house, perspective job.”

“The unemployed in the U.S.A. live better than working people in Russia” (the average monthly salary in Russia was 6,590 rubles, which is equivalent to $235, in the end of 2004, the Izvestia newspaper wrote).

“An American is a person who lives well, with no problem.”

For Russians, an American is a wealthy person with the talent of an entrepreneur, who lives in harmony with the state.

The most well-known Americans are President Bush (37 percent of the respondents mentioned his name), Bill Clinton (26 percent), Arnold Schwarzenegger (6 percent), Madonna (3 percent) and Michael Jackson (2 percent).

Over 60 percent of Russians would like to visit the United States.

Russian people name such positive traits of character in Americans as “patriotism,” “law-obedience,” and call Americans “cultural and educated people”.

Meanwhile, Russians produce much criticism when speaking about the negative traits of Americans. Russian people attach to Americans such negative traits as “self-confidence, boasting, stupidity, impertinence”.

Remarkably, many Russians believe that Americans have in mind a not attractive image of Russian people. Ten percent of Russian people believe that Americans perceive “a typical Russian person” as a drunkard. Meanwhile, this Russian people’s perception is wrong: Only 4 percent of Americans have attitude of this kind, as demonstrated in the public opinion poll conducted by Clark, Martire, Bartolomeo and Shulman company in 2003, shortly before the visit of President Putin to the United States (simultaneously with the VTSIOM poll).

Eight percent of Russians are sure that Americans consider them “stupid”. But in fact, Americans do not consider stupidity a trait of Russian people. On the contrary, 4 percent of Americans believe that the typical Russian is a well educated person.

The pollsters asked Russians what kind of idea they have in mind when they hear the words “the United States of America.”

Fifteen percent of the respondents said they start thinking about American foreign policy, 14 percent of respondents said they think about wealth.

Speaking of American foreign policy, Russians use many negative epithets such as “aggression” and “imposing will by force”.

Too few Russians (about 2 percent of the respondents) are of a very good opinion on the political system calling the United States “the country where laws work.” Three percent of Russians named the USA “an independent country,” “the country pursuing its own way of development.”

As the poll results demonstrate, despite the fact that 15 years have passed since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the iron curtain,” Russian people today still lack objective information about the United States and its policies. Russians admit this fact — 23 percent of the Russian people who participated in the poll said they lack information on United States culture, another 25 percent said they needed more information on the United States’ achievements in science and technology.

The shortage of information causes misunderstanding and negative attitudes toward the United States among Russians, upsetting American politicians and creating obstacles to productive cooperation between the two countries.

“I just can’t tolerate them, I dislike this country”, said one of the participants in the poll. Probably, for him it was impossible to name the exact reasons of his negative attitude to the United States as this attitude is based mainly on emotions, not on facts.

There is another trend among Russian people — they have too high requirements to the USA, thinking that everything in the US should resemble paradise. After such expectations are defeated and Russians see some drawbacks in the American society, Russians move to extreme forms of criticism towards the US.

There are some United States-funded mass media operating in Russia — two radio stations, Radio Liberty and Voice of America, but they have proven to be unable to fill the gap and educate Russian people on the United States and its policies. In addition, the majority of the listeners of these two radio stations are well-educated people in the major Russian cities, while the bulk of Russian society prefers television as the main source of information.

Similarly, the majority of Russian participants of the United States’ educational exchange programs reside in Moscow, and the Russian public can participate in the United States-sponsored cultural events only in several major cities that have United States embassies and consulates.

Under the conditions of the lack of mass media interpreting United States policy to the Russian people, high-ranked American officials such as Condoleezza Rice have to spend much their time during visits to Russia attempting to persuade the Russian public that “the relations between the U.S.A. and Russia are warm” and “the U.S.A. is not an adversary for Russia.” American officials on their trips to Russia have to substitute the mass media function, instead of spending their time and energy in a more productive way — working on the projects of mutual interest and thus ensuring the cooperation between the two countries.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Andrei Nesterov.