Discussing the “Dark Double”

Washington Profile has an interesting interview with Professor David Foglesong about his book The American Mission and the ‘Evil Empire’: The Crusade for a ‘Free Russia’ since 1881.  I reviewed Foglesong’s book here a few months ago.  Below are a few excerpts from the interview that I found interesting and pertinent to understanding where America’s “dark double” stands in the present:

Washington Profile: If we talk about the broader hope of the U.S. reshaping Russia, the United States has had a special mission throughout its history to bring democracy or enlightenment to the world, but you seem to suggest that Russia became America’s special project and as you put it, America’s dark twin.  Why is this the case? Why Russia?

David Foglesong: There have been a lot of other countries that have played the role of a foil for American national identity at different moments in time, either as the demonic opposite of the United States or as an object of the American mission. For example, the idea of Christianizing and civilizing China was very important for affirmation of American philanthropic ideals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I would argue that Russia is not unique in that respect, but Russia has more persistently over a longer period of time been seen as both an object of the American mission and the opposite of American ideals and virtues. Why is that? I think that a set of attitudes that we first see in the late 19th century and early 20th century help to explain that. First, the idea that Russia is, despite the differences in the political system and despite the different histories, fundamentally like the United States and is destined to follow in its footsteps. The usual reasons that are pointed to are first, vast size, that Russia occupies a huge continental expanse just as the United States by the end of the 19th century, occupies a huge continental expanse. That supposedly contributes to an expansive personality of the people. Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis comes into circulation after 1893 with the idea that the frontier has been central to the shaping of an American democratic, egalitarian, individualist ethos and the idea comes into circulation that Russia is like the United States in having had a frontier experience. I think ideas like that are important in the presumption that Russia is like America and is destined to become more like America.

Two other factors are race and religion. Russians are explicitly defined as white, even though there are people who have ambivalence about that. I think the dominant understanding, and the dominant view of the crusaders for a free Russia like George Kennan, is that the Russians are white; sometimes they use the term “Aryan” to describe the Russians. That fits into an outlook that the Russians more than Asian peoples are fit to follow an American path to democracy and to a modern economy and to Christianity. There’s a great deal of enthusiasm among missionaries for the conversion of Russians because the idea is that they are nominally Christian. There is contempt for the Russian Orthodox Church as a corrupt, degenerate, backwards, superstitious form of Christianity, but nonetheless the argument goes that the ground has been prepared for the full Christianization of Russia by this background of almost 1,000 years of Christianity in Russia.

If we look at the current situation, you have said the rhetoric from the presidential candidates is unproductive. Has the United States learned anything from these historical experiences?

I think that some within the Bush administration, it seems to me particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have been more realistic, more moderate in their approaches. Not that they have abandoned all hope of encouraging political reform, but  they don’t expect the United States to have extraordinary leverage over developments in Russia. They don’t expect overnight transformations and they also don’t veer to the opposite extreme of saying that Putin is reverting back to being a Stalin-like tyrant.

I do think this is somewhat encouraging. What’s disturbing is that you find in American political circles and in American journalistic circles an almost compulsive tendency to demonize figures in Russia that they hold responsible for Russia not becoming just like the United States. I think journalists assume that it is a good thing for there to be checks and balances in a political system, that you should have opposition parties. They assume on the basis of American experience that Russia should be like that and if it is not then it’s something pathological and terribly wrong.

Russia’s historical experience is quite different from America’s historical experience. Division of power doesn’t necessarily have a positive connotation for many Russians. Experiences of times with a division of power, whether it’s between Yeltsin and the parliament in the early 1990s or between the Provisional Government and the Soviet in 1917 are not necessarily positive in Russian historical memory. I think that some recent developments have been regrettable and unfortunate but there is a sort of impulse among American journalists and politicians in a very simplistic way to judge developments in Russian by American standards which may not be appropriate.

Do you see a difference between whether a Democrat or Republican becomes the next U.S. president in term of foreign policy towards Russia?

What I have read so far in the newspapers is not at all encouraging to me. In a piece I wrote for the History News Network a couple of weeks ago I expressed some worry about the direction already of the rhetoric in the political campaign: with McCain’s remarks about Putin, with Hillary Clinton’s really awful remark about Putin not having a soul, and even with Obama’s recent remarks. There is too much of a tendency to use Russia as a political football, to use Russia as foil, as a whipping boy, as a scapegoat. I think it’s really shortsighted to think that in the political campaign Americans can say all sorts of things about Russia’s leaders and not expect it to have reverberations down the road in American – Russian relations. This reminds me of the way that Vice-President George H. W. Bush told Gorbachev in 1987: I’m going to say lots of terrible things about the Soviet Union during the 1988 political campaign but you should just forget about it because it’s just politics.

Do you see any way to break out of this cycle with a new president coming in?

The way I look at it there doesn’t seem to be a broad mass resonance in American society to this kind of demagogic appeal from political candidates. I think in earlier phases when politicians and non-governmental crusaders for Russian freedom like the first George Kennan went out on the lecture circuit and denounced tsarist tyranny they were able to evoke a wider, more enthusiastic popular response. I don’t sense that degree of popular resonance for the kind of rhetoric we’re seeing nowadays.

If you look at the popular reaction to Time Magazine’s making Putin “Man of the Year,” a number of the remarks put on Time’s website were troubling. Americans were saying Putin is evil, how dare you put Putin on the cover, let’s all get together and burn our copies of Time magazine. However, I don’t sense that this is a very widespread popular demonization of Russia, in part because the United States has so many other problems on its plate.

I also think that there has been some sobering up of the expectations that it is in America’s power to reshape Russia in America’s image. I can’t foresee what might happen five years down the road if there are some unfortunate developments in Russia, and if Americans have the ability to focus more on Russia as opposed to the problems of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the U.S. domestic economy.  The situation could change.  For now, I don’t sense that the demagoguery about Putin not having a soul and about looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing only KGB is evoking a broad popular response.

How do Americans, not politicians, view Russia today? What do they most misunderstand about Russia?

I think there are really varied attitudes towards Russia among different elements of the American population. I think that there are people who are involved in the growing trade with Russia who are aware of some promising developments in the Russian economy beyond just the export of fossil fuels, and I think that many of the people in business are inclined not to veer to the two extremes of either expecting overnight democracy along American lines or feeling that there is a regression to Stalinist tyranny.

I do think that among journalists and among some politicians there are the habits and impulses of the past. The New York Times recently suggested it was necessary to revert back to the style of the 1970s, when Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn were among the dissidents that we supported and we amplified their voices. I think there are people in American journalistic circles, especially editorial writers for the Washington Post, who have an emotional impulse to condemn Russia for backsliding on democracy and to overstate the potential menace to the outside world from Russia.  Although there have been some troubling developments in Putin’s Russia, such American journalists tend to exaggerate them, to lack historical perspective, and to have unrealistic expectations about the extent of American influence on Russia.

Beyond that, it’s hard for me to say what ordinary Americans think about Russia; I think it’s a complicated and varied picture.